"It had nothing to do with me": Francis Ford Coppola’s "The Conversation"

For Francis Ford Coppola, "The Conversation" would form a quartet of exceptional work from a decade of crowning excellence.
Jeremy Carr

None of this is what Harry Caul wanted. While it was by no means a technically effortless endeavor, it should, still, have been another routine assignment. He and his freelance team of surveillance experts were to record the conversation between two subjects as they traversed the lunchtime crowd mingling around Union Square. Harry was to then assemble the recordings and deliver the tapes to his employer. That’s it. Then he’d move on. But this isn’t what happens in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Instead, as Coppola’s chief protagonists had done in the other films that distinguished the director’s extraordinary run of the 1970s,Harry finds himself reluctantly, though perhaps inevitably, enveloped in a world of intrigue and violence, and he endures the existential despair fundamentally resulting from his occupational options.

Under The Conversation’s opening credits, an overhead shot of San Francisco’s social hub slowly zooms closer, eventually scanning a cluster of undistinguished bodies and faces. Played by Gene Hackman, in what is surely one of his more nuanced, complex performances, Harry is briefly observed, but only incidentally so. His aim is to remain as unobtrusive as possible, and between his bland physical disposition and his omnipresent gray raincoat, blending in with the shade of the sidewalk, it’s a relatively successful practice. Coppola’s camera skims the area, probing for the targets—Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest)—occasionally picking up a passing glimpse of Harry and the members of his crew who are also stationed on the ground. Harry, in this introductory sequence, is not the point of focus, nor should he be. As it pertains to his working accomplishment and his life generally, Harry craves anonymity. He is unsociable with his neighbors and shelters himself within a solitary existence, seeking sanctuary in an apartment seemingly secured by multiple locks on the door and an alarm system. He finds solace in his privacy and in his music, playing along on his saxophone to a jazz recording. Harry knows what he wants in life, because in his line of work, he knows what’s possible.

But there are breaches in his systematic régime, the first indication of which is when Harry returns home and finds a birthday gift, a bottle of wine, waiting for him on the floor. How did it get there? And who knew it was his birthday? He phones his landlord and, to his surprise, discovers he isn’t actually the only one with a key. How could he not know this? The sequence is more than an early establishment of Harry’s character, though in an understated and yet entirely revelatory way it is most certainly that; it’s also a subtle indication of the potential lapses in Harry’s meticulous planning, lapses that will prove philosophically shattering and emotionally catastrophic as The Conversation continues. Harry’s futile attempts at sweeping control—over his life, his work, and others—are spoiled by the incrementally devastating breakdown of that emphatic façade.

And what does one make of Amy, Harry’s holed-up mistress played by Teri Garr? Her curious appearance seems so outwardly against his nature, but their relationship, as evinced in the one scene they share together, is entirely emblematic. Whatever the condition of their physical connection, Harry keeps Amy at a respective emotional distance. She doesn’t know where he lives, what he does for a living, or even that it’s his birthday. He denies that he keeps secrets but refuses to tell her anything about himself. She can’t know anything personal (for her safety, or his?) and there is no semblance of reciprocal trust. Harry bristles at her questions and watches her apartment door from atop the staircase, waiting on … what exactly? Maybe there is something to his suspicion after all, though—why does Amy suddenly sing “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along),” the very song Ann also hummed? In any case, their ambiguous affiliation is par for the course, as Harry is a walking mass of contradictions. The flashbacks Coppola inserts to the day in the square, recalling the development of the patchy conversation between Mark and Ann, also perhaps suggest that their very relationship informs part of Harry’s anxiety. As unstable as their situation seems, at least they’re genuinely in love.

A further fissure in Harry’s confidential wall comes when he is told he is one of the “notables” attending a surveillance convention. Despite his best efforts, he is, in fact, well known, but only—crucially—through his work, the defining trait of his being. Earlier he had reproached his assistant, Stan (John Cazale), deflecting his own unease to accuse his partner of sloppy work. So, when Stan switches sides, as it were, and begins working for rival Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield), Harry questions his former associate’s loyalty, demanding he say nothing about their work together; a personal or professional betrayal, for Harry, it’s all the same. Given his penchant for isolation, it’s again surprising, and certainly a portent of calamity, when he brings a group of convention attendees back to his warehouse workshop. Prodded by Bernie, another investigative specialist with a contrasting gusto concerning his work, the sociable congregation is tainted by industrial boasts, competition, and conspiracy, and yet, Harry opens himself up and lets down his guard. Although his established anonymity is something of a joke between his colleagues, he allows himself a hesitant moment of intimacy and candor with Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), a convention groupie who proves more than she seems.

The crux of The Conversation’s unsettling mystery revolves around a key phrase uttered between Mark and Ann, somewhat obscured at first and steadily interpreted in a particular context: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” But where’s the emphasis in the comment, and what’s the intention? And why should Harry care? Aside from serving a duplicitous purpose in the grand scheme of The Conversation’s narrative, Meredith echos Harry’s own troubling sentiments concerning his job, which, in the case of the Mark/Ann assignment, have been weighing heavily on his conscience. “You’re not supposed to feel anything about it,” she says, “you’re just supposed to do it.” Such occupational detachment has regularly secured Harry from the sometimes-dubious methodology of his work and its occasionally tragic outcomes. Believing the results are beyond him, Harry adopts the rationalization of anyone involved in a controversial professional engagement: he’s just doing his job, just following orders. It’s a comforting, if not an absolutely necessary form of self-deception, but this current operation nevertheless prickles an inner, long-buried sense of moral mindfulness. Rejecting the notion that people could conceivably get hurt because of his work—this despite, or because of, a prior incident in New York, which resulted in the deaths of three individuals—Harry refuses to accept or even recognize any responsibility. Why is it so jarring, then, when he encounters Mark and Ann at the office building of his current employer, a disconcerting incident emphasized in an intensely penetrating aural overlay? Out of the context of his disconnected undertakings, the suddenly personal connotations feed his concern and engender an overriding curiosity, whether he acknowledges it or not.

For Coppola, who was just in the thirties when the film was released, The Conversation would form a quartet of exceptional work from a decade of crowning excellence. Couched between The Godfather and its sequel (1972 and 1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979), The Conversation was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (losing to Coppola’s own The Godfather: Part II) and won the Grand Prix at Cannes; he would also be victorious at Cannes five years later, when Apocalypse Now received the Palme d’Or. While singular in many ways, these four acclaimed films promote a similar strand of individual development. The primary characters in each—Michael and a younger Vito Corleone (Al Pacino and Robert De Niro) and Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen)—live lives of self-induced estrangement, to varying degrees and in varying capacities, and each find themselves moved, generally against their will, to accept reluctant responsibilities. They assume careers and livelihoods of relative normalcy, or at least predictability, yet each are compelled to enter realms of unanticipated ferocity and even madness, forgoing certain relationships along the way. Harry is no exception. He strives for the requisite objectivity of his work but allows himself to become emotionally involved, to have his safe space invaded, his routine upended. Alerted to the place of Mark and Ann’s potentially fatal rendezvous, while remaining oblivious to its significance, Harry pries on their hotel room from an adjacent bathroom. But he does so with a peculiar tension and urgency, the absorption being far more than that of a typical job. The evident hysteria only intensifies when Harry searches for the bug in his own apartment, frantically destroying its structure and its contents. Previously composed and occupied by control, Harry is reduced to a shell of devastation, humiliation, and sheer horror, compromised and agonizingly helpless.

The Conversation is an obsessive character study with an ostensible “hero” who is so removed and remote and yet conveys an engaging depth because of that exact, deliberate solitude. The scene of Harry’s confessional—confession being, according to Coppola, “one of the earliest forms of the invasion of privacy … of surveillance”—implants a discreet religious element in Harry’s personality (he had also scolded Stan before for taking the Lord’s name in vain). And he is indeed consumed by the entwined guilt and paranoia of what his work can produce, even if this flies in the face of his desperately stated rule when it comes to his business: “I don’t know anything about human nature. I don’t know anything about curiosity. That’s not part of what I do. This is my business. It had nothing to do with me. I mean, I just turned in the tapes. What they do with the tapes is their own business.” Informed by real-life surveillance technology expert Martin Kaiser, who also served as a technical consultant on The Conversation, Harry regularly dons a translucent raincoat, completing an often-cited formal pattern evident throughout the film, as Coppola frequently shoots Hackman through clear surfaces and obstructions. Even his surname, Caul, the result of a misheard transcription (Coppola said “Call”), is defined as “the amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus,” making the mistake wholly fitting as far as the film’s conflicting stress on encased vulnerability. 

Regardless of its ethical implications, though, Harry’s work is an obvious source of pride. He insists he must personally deliver the recordings to his furtive employer (an uncredited Robert Duvall), even though he is thwarted by assistant Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), who contends the tapes “are dangerous,” that Harry knows what they mean, and that “someone may get hurt” (the unnerving proposal is made all the more dire when Martin happens to show up at the convention). Harry also handles his equipment with great care and concentration, accentuated by Coppola’s corresponding devotion to the sophisticated process itself, focusing on the technique, the devices, the knobs and spools and gadgetry, a distillation of the exercise in close-up as an extension of Harry’s professionalism and expertise. It’s hardly the case, as Roger Ebert argued, that Harry is “bad at his job,” for Harry is shown to be a master craftsman, his technical proficiency mirroring that of The Conversation’s own making.

Beginning with the vérité canvasing of the opening grounds—rapid glances, faces in focus one minute, concealed the next—the film’s original cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, constructs a mosaic of compelling confusion and abstraction (Wexler was removed from the production after some creative contention with Coppola and was replaced by Bill Butler, who re-shot all but this foundational sequence). Further underscored by the intricate sound design by Walter Murch and with piano accompaniment by Coppola’s brother-in-law, David Shire, the film’s subsequent pace is a languid progression of mounting anxiety. Aural shards are assembled into an utterly absorbing chronicle, the incremental revelation of the sound recordings matching the equally articulated formation of images seen in Michelangelo Antonioni Blow-Up (1966), an acknowledged influence on The Conversation. “The scenes of revelation through technology are very similar,” notes Coppola, “but if you look at Blow-Up again, you realize that the best scene—that scene [where David Hemming’s photographer enlarges and inspects pictures depicting a murder and its aftermath]—is, in a sense, the movie. There really isn’t a hell of a lot more.” Nevertheless, the rigorous layering of images and sounds form a proportionally dense tapestry of sensory elements that, notwithstanding their eventual collusion, only serve to produce further uncertainty for their beleaguered architects.

In the end, Coppola said he hadn’t made a film “about privacy,” which was his initial aim, but rather a film “about responsibility.” He also had no intention of making a political film but rather something deeply personal. Although the first draft of The Conversation’s screenplay was completed in 1969, years prior to the scandal, the film has since accrued distinction for its apparent allusions to Watergate (the notorious break-in occurred during shooting, though Coppola insisted the event even then had no bearing on the film). Despite this contemporary parallel, as well as The Conversation’s alignment with other paranoid thrillers prevalent throughout the 1970s, often prodding the principles of corporate corruption and underhanded politics with an incisive, riveting, and exacting measure, as A.A. Dowd points out, “Coppola’s understanding of alienation isn’t tethered to any one era.” Certainly, in light of developments in CCTV technology, mobile tracking, and NSA surveillance, the repercussions of what The Conversation illustrated have only been heightened and magnified in the years and decades that followed—“I never meant it to be so relevant,” stated Coppola. Either way, though, that has nothing to do with Harry Caul.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is showing in a new 35mm print January 14 – 27, 2022 at Film Forum in New York.

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