For many people, privacy is a matter of being able to speak one’s mind or exchange ideas without the fear of consequences. However, our actions always have consequences. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stunning motion picture, The Conversation. This seemingly quiet ode to secrets and security, from 1974, was written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The plot centers on a surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) and the moral dilemma he faces when the recordings he makes reveal a potential murder. In discussing the film, Coppola often cited Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up as a key influence. However, since the film was released to theaters just a few months before the resignation of Richard Nixon as president, many observers saw The Conversation as a reaction to the Watergate scandal, and even a cautionary tale on the limits of what we can know.
Winner of the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. The Conversation was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1974 and lost Best Picture honors to The Godfather, Part II, another Francis Ford Coppola feature.
Playing the role of a surveillance expert obsessed with his own privacy, Gene Hackman turns in a stellar and marginally creepy performance as a purveyor of dark arts who himself shuns the light. His character, Harry Caul, lives in a bare bones apartment behind a triple-locked door and an extremely loud burglar alarm. He makes all his calls from a pay phone and works from an office (if you can call it that) enclosed in wire mesh which has been set up in a corner of a much larger warehouse. As we are introduced to Harry and his clients, we get the impression that trust is not really an integral part of his business plan. It’s almost as if he wants to hear, but he doesn’t want to have to holler.
Hackman’s character is also interesting in that he insists on a professional code that frees him from any responsibility for the actual content of the conversations he records or the use to which his clients put his surveillance activities. One gets the sense that he wants to sell us a hammer, but he really doesn’t care one way of the other what we build (or destroy). His demeanor almost comes off as a rationalization for his actions. Despite the cool distance he keeps from the objects he monitors, Harry is racked by guilt over a past wiretap job. His schpilkis is the result of three people who were murdered as a direct result of information he uncovered.
Caul’s moral dilemma and the scrims he uses to shield himself from the truth become our learning opportunity. We see him obsess over and over about the meaning of one particular conversation. He has filtered and equalized and processed the bits until it becomes obvious, to the audience at least, that the words themselves become clear, but their actual meaning remains ambiguous.
It’s a subtle point, but it comes across like gangbusters. Taken as a metaphor, we must ask ourselves, which do we value more: technical detail and clarity or the intent or reason behind that which we perceive. Unfortunately, Harry Caul is constitutionally incapable of making that distinction. He loves his work, but he doesn’t want to be bound by its implications. It’s almost like the three guys who, when blindfolded, are asked to identify an animal (for our purposes, an elephant), only having touched it. The first guy, who has felt the hard shimmering tusk, responds: “Oh..this is certainly a turtle.” The second guy is brought into contact with the pachyderm’s leg. He intuits that, “This must be a mighty rhinoceros!” And the third guy touches only the wiry tail. After a moment, he feels sure that the animal is, “a very dangerous snake!’. So it is with our civilized world. How we identify and react to phenomena is pretty much dependent on what part or parts of it we see or experience.
The key take away in this masterful tale is really that things are rarely what they seem. We think we know what we’re doing and what each bit of information might mean, but really we’re kidding ourselves.
Even Gene Hackman’s tormented Henry Caul comes to accept this. In the closing scene, we see him retreating into the solace of his saxophone amidst the destruction and debris that his own paranoia has wrought. He may not see sharp, but the reeds provide something of a refuge, however transitory that might be.