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THE CONVERSATION, A Mirror to an Era

            The year 1974 found a country in the midst of a political tempest. Coming off the decade of change that had been the 1960s, the US was now instead at the tail end of the Watergate scandal. President Nixon would soon resign and a general hopelessness in institutions was taking over a crowd that could be easily swayed under a populist anti-establishment banner. Not only had several key political figures been murdered in recent years (The Kennedys, Dr. King, Malcolm X, John Lennon) but any optimism and hope of immediate improvement was quickly evaporating. As a mirror to the times, films painted a picture in which protagonists caught glimpses of complex conspiracies brewing at levels they couldn’t quite comprehend, and did their best at stopping these, yet failed; the paranoid conspiracy-theorist stereotype and the assassination complex becoming staples of the decade.

            Even though The Conversation (1974) is a passion project that Francis Ford Coppola had been planning for a while before making it, its release date that year made it surprisingly timely. Both the point at which it hit theatres and its thematic, adjoined it in history to a number of other films in the same vein as reacting to a stormy political climate. Coppola’s film is especially interested in surveillance. Throughout its near 2-hour runtime it follows Harry Caul, an expert in that very field, played by Gene Hackman in a potential career best role, who while snooping into strangers’ lives for a living, leads a particularly closed off and private one himself. That is, until stumbling upon a possible murder conspiracy that forces him to reframe his stance on events to which he’s become unavoidably interlocked.

            Caul is a character with complex emotional makeup and a convoluted past that occasionally bleeds into the narrative and yet, through a mix of performance and script he manages to transcend his role as an individual and become a representation of what surveillance means for the public, and its role in the era as a larger theme. “I wanted to have every type of surveillance in this movie” mentions Coppola in an interview when addressing his character’s confession to a priest, and true to his word, the film contains every tool in the playbook, from wiretapping, to security cameras, to actual information theft a la Mata-Hari. There’s no denying the existence of some kind of attractive irony in the idea of the bugger getting bugged, but not even him being able to keep his privacy under lock, hints at the prevailing feeling of the times.

            A theme that becomes even more relevant when contrasting it against a moment in history at which the president himself was accused of listening in on people’s conversations. As Alexander Huls points out in reviewing the film for The Atlantic “the film is about the perils of surveillance. But more crucially, it’s about the perils of the mindset that enables surveillance.” A comment that might be even more prescient when looking at our current day context. After all we live in an era in which the Internet and the security of our privacy both off and online have become major discussion topics. The question thus becomes not one of how people may be snooped in on, but rather what this entails morally for us as a society. In line with that, Caul’s moral Christian struggle clashing with his questionable choice of profession becomes a rich complicating factor.

            Having set an overpowering atmosphere of suspicion into play, the film is complicated further when the actual concept of an assassination starts gaining form. Just as Caul slowly etches out phrases from the muddle of a crowd, the risk slowly comes together. “He would kill us if he got the chance.” The phrase is a masterstroke of sound design, but not only does it fit nicely into the soundboard, it also slots right in at a point in history where too many figures have suffered that fate and the statement doesn’t seem as far-fetched. In that sense it makes the viewer analyze every scene with a different eye from there on, attempting to pick out clues on who this “he” is and why the murder would take place. It’s only when the actual murder comes, that things begin to appear clearer, even if as viewers we can’t completely trust what we see.

            Perhaps the scene that best reveals the film’s workings is the murder one itself. Having treated us to snippets of the scene beforehand, with quick cuts that are impossible to place when out of context, Coppola is making a case for a subjective reading of Harry Caul’s role as a witness. Not only does he not have the resources to face off against a potent corporation, as the one in this case represented by a young Harrison Ford, but his jumbled reconstruction of events also puts him at a disadvantage and mirrors the public confusion surrounding these type of events. On a visual level, shots through glasses and foggy or tinted screens by then have become a motif in the film: a representation of the distance between Caul and both his subjects and the world, and there is some of that in the sequence. The quick glimpse of a bloody hand seen through the glass falls into this category. However, the real effect of the scene can’t be accounted for until looking at the films’ sound design.

            It’s through sound and score that the paranoia, the subjective nature of the scene, is brought in. The whole sequence starts off in relative silence as Caul sets himself in position to bug the adjoining room, with only snippets and electronic warbles reminding us of the prying nature of his method. Later, when the character stands up and heads towards the main room, the camera stays on the room’s wallpaper and the sound does most of the heavy lifting, with the blurred audio of a discussion coming through the wall until it suddenly halts. When Caul finally heads outside onto the balcony, curious to see why the noise stopped, the bloody hand segment takes place and the score comes in, adjoined to, and mirroring, the sound of a scream from the other side of the glass barrier. It’s exactly the score’s sudden dissonant note that submerges us into the character’s panic attack, well aware that he once again was unable to stop a murder he could’ve avoided.

            The Conversation’s murder takes place in a hotel room, one of the most private environments one could think of, and yet, everything else surrounding the act is reminiscent of some of the larger political assassinations that marked the era. For one, the institution behind the assassination is a corporation that remains nameless and that speaks to the times’ prevailing struggle of the little man up against larger faceless entities. Added to this is the representation of the whole event as something blurry, where details are unclear and Caul instead comes up with his own reading of what happened, which mirrors how the American people had to process murders, like JFK’s for example. As Catherine Shoard writes for The Guardian, “The Conversation is a commentary on cinema, but also on the way curiosity leads us to plug gaps with the wrong colour.”

            The Conversation is about surveillance but also about the fear that murder causes, and going further, it’s about how these two ideas interweave to leave individuals powerless before machinations beyond their control. As mentioned earlier, it’s about the mindset that excuses surveillance, and this very mindset can’t be detached from misinformation, from the idea that those that do have the information are not trustworthy, and that maybe they’re not interested in the public’s greater good. It’s a concept that’s become alarmingly relevant once again in recent times. In that sense by the end of the film, when all we’re left with is Caul alone playing the saxophone in his dismantled apartment, the image feeds right in into the ideal that there’s nothing he could have ever really done, and that whatever his actions, he’d still always remain a pawn in a larger game. Coppola feels no need to give an answer on where the actual bug is, or if there even is one, even though he gives a slight nod at the saxophone with the instrument crossing the screen for a second earlier in the surveillance convention. What matters instead is that Caul’s privacy has been compromised, and that, like the country, even if he tears everything down, there’s no certainty that it’ll have been worth it or that there’s a real, clear, solution. It’s instead a state he’ll have to get over and learn to live with going forward.

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