“I don’t know anything about human nature. I don’t know anything about curiosity.” says Harry Caul, the man at the heart of The Conversation, to his colleague Stan. This is a bit odd because they are security experts who make their living from bugging people. Only someone utterly lacking in self-knowledge, or deadly dull, could try to maintain they are not interested in the lives of others. Harry is just such a complex man.
Francis Ford Coppola had just won a mantlepiece full of Oscars in 1972 for The Godfather and managed to squeeze in The Conversation before moving on to The Godfather II which was also released in 1974. Although it has a lower profile than his two art-Gangster movies, he created a film that combines an ingenious story with a fascinatingly inscrutable main character and builds an atmosphere of clammy paranoia.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) runs his own surveillance company in San Francisco and is renowned as a master in his field. At an industry conference, rivals acknowledge him as top dog. (Actually, Roger Ebert points out in his review of The Conversation that although Harry is meant to be unsurpassed, his skills are actually somewhat wanting. Even his landlady manages to leave a birthday bottle of wine behind the door of his triple locked flat.)
Whatever his professional skills, Harry’s personal life is definitely missing something. Gene Hackman apparently considers the role his best, although he found it hard work playing against his naturally outgoing personality. Hackman does a very good job; he creates a man whose professional sensitivity to detail and Roman Catholic upbringing create a potent mixture of obsession and melancholy stewing away inside an impassive exterior.
The film opens with Harry and his crew recording the conversation of two young people as they walk around Union Square in San Francisco. They are recorded using super-sensitive microphones that can pick up what is being said from a great distance. The conversation seems to indicate that their lives will be in danger if they are rumbled by woman’s husband, a powerful businessman.
People have already died as a result of Harry Caul’s work and he doesn’t want to be responsible for more bloodshed. He also has trouble handing in the tapes to the suspicious husband who hired him. The man’s PA, played by a creepy Harrison Ford, says he will pass them on but Harry’s not so sure. Despite Harry’s insistence that he is not a curious person, he starts to think about the job, and thinking soon turns to obsessing.
There is hardly a single scene in The Conversation that does not build tension or add to the feeling of Harry’s mounting paranoia. Coppola litters the narrative with small incidents that could be red herrings or signs of a conspiracy. Walter Murch’s sound design is crucial to this feverish atmosphere. The electronic sounds of Harry’s microphones crackle and burble away in the background. This is a spooky soundtrack, but also gives the impression of constant surveillance and a mind unreeling. It is remarkable that David Shire’s jazz soundtrack was written before the film was shot, so fittingly does it bring emotion to the action on screen.
Although the film came out in April 1974, shortly before Richard Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal, it was actually conceived some time before. According to Michael Schumacher’s book on Coppola, the director had been researching the idea and working on the script for six years. The original idea came from a chat he’d had with Irvin Kershner, who later went on to direct The Empire Strikes Back, who’d told him about directional microphones that look like guns.
Research involved his production designer talking to people at the Department of Justice who used a van very much like Harry’s. Possibly more crucial was meeting Bernard Spindel who Life Magazine called ‘the Ace of the Bugging Business’ who’s professional life looks very much like Harry Caul’s. All this research contributes to a story rich in intriguing detail.
Michangelo Antonioni’s Swinging London classic Blowup was a key influence on The Conversation. Made in 1966, Blowup follows a London photographer who takes a photograph of two lovers in a park only to realise he has also snapped a dead body lying under the bushes. In both films a piece of media (a photograph and a sound recording respectively) don’t quite reveal more when scrutinised in greater detail. Harry’s burning sense of guilt, compassion for the young people, and fragile state of mind also bring to mind Graham Greene too.
So, as Harry moves closer to discovering the meaning of the conversation, his sad and lonely life reels ever more out of control. The truth is revealed with a very clever twist in the tale and then satisfyingly muddied again as Harry loses the plot. The Conversation may have chimed perfectly with early Seventies politics, but still stands up as a psychological horror and portrait of an extremely alienated individual.
Although The Conversation lost out on the Best Picture Oscar to Godfather II, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
This reissue contains a collectible booklet “The Conversation on The Conversation” – including first reviews of the movie after its release in 1974. Plus, over 5.5 hours of bonus material:
- Never-Before-Seen Archival Audio of Director Francis Ford Coppola Dictating the Original Script
- Audio Commentary with Francis Ford Coppola
- Audio Commentary with Supervising Editor Walter Murch
- Never-Before-Seen Interview with Francis Ford Coppola and Composer David Shire
- Never-Before-Seen Archival Screen Tests
- Archival On-set Interview with Gene Hackman