I was unsure about Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation for probably the first thirty minutes or so. It’s obvious from the very beginning that the film is beautiful to watch, composed of sweeping, delicate, shots. But Harry Caul, played magnificently by Gene Hackman, is a hard man to know, and I was worried that I would be held at an arm’s length by both him and the convoluted plot. However, it eventually becomes clear that Coppola intends to plop the knotted story and complicated hero in our laps, allowing us to spy on Harry as he too unravels its mysteries. We watch the story unfold through Harry’s eyes in the style of a classic noir thriller that takes us around dark, quiet, corners, — all while listening to stark, evocative, jazz. Every clue he discovers brings with it an additional deluge of questions. What really elevates The Conversation though, is that the thriller is done in tandem with a vivid character study of Mr. Caul himself, revealed through a round of interactions between both friends and foes. Harry doesn’t let us in, but we’re able to form an understanding picture of him through our own surveillance of his actions and relationships.
I saw this movie as part of the Science on Screen series at the Coolidge Theater, which meant it included a very intriguing introduction from an expert in the field of surveillance, Susan Landau. I was totally invested in her presentation, and it has inspired me to look more into the science and legality of electronic monitoring. Much of her talk focused on modern data collection, and how it can be used to paint a picture of individuals using the seemingly mundane details of their digital lives. It’s difficult to discuss surveillance in 2021 without referencing Edward Snowden and the NSA, and that additional contemporary framework added another compelling view of Harry.
The heart of the film is a question of ethical access to information, and what moral accountability the collector of that information has to his subjects — a challenge that was confronted by both Snowden and Harry to varying degrees. Both men understood that spying comes with responsibility. The weight of that responsibility weighs heavily on Harry throughout the film. We know he’s haunted by something, and long before we find out the details of his past, we see signs of him questioning if his talent is being used for good or evil. He’s a man who is gifted in the art of detecting while remaining unseen, but the pressure to maintain that identity appears to have taken a toll on the observer as well as the observed.
The clearest manifestation of this pressure is in the idiosyncratic demeanor of Harry Caul himself. We see from the very beginning that he is a paranoid man, beginning with his suspicion around his landlord’s knowledge of his birthday and the spare set of keys he has in his possession. I was surprised to see that Harry was capable of maintaining a romantic relationship with a woman at all, but even that part of his life is fraught with distrust. When he throws open her apartment door, expecting to see his girlfriend in the arms of another, it becomes evident how pervasive Harry’s issues with trust extend within his personal and professional life. His obsession with privacy is a thinly veiled, ineffective, defensive mechanism he employs to shelter the fragile man he’s scared to let out. The obvious result is that he fails to connect to people on a deeper level, something he craves deeply, and is instead relegated to the role of lonely sax player, adding his horn to a recorded symphony of distant players.
The apex of the movie comes at a point surprisingly distant from the couple Harry is tracking and trying to decipher throughout most of the film. Harry, after frustratingly firing the man both closest to him and his only coworker, Stan, attends what appears to be some kind of spy convention. There are booths and displays of different equipment used for various forms of wiretapping, some are goofy and others resemble something out of Get Smart, but Harry’s presence in the space clarifies that his position within the eavesdropping community is anything but anonymous. He is a bona fide celebrity, and as people begin matching him to his reputation, they request pictures and kiss his ring. At first he resists the admiration, but slowly his ego grows and memories of better times back east cloud his suspicion of the people he should fear the most, his colleagues.
Every time he’s reminded that he’s the best in the business he glows a little brighter, and Harry quickly forgets that he cannot embrace his fame and also remain in isolation from his peers. When he woos the sole beautiful woman in the crowd (who appeared as if from nowhere) he’s the happiest we’ll ever see him. It is now, at Harry’s highest moment, that the real man cowering behind the smoke screen is revealed:
Harry: If you were a girl who waited for someone… and you never really knew when he was gonna come to see you. You just lived in a room alone and you knew nothing about him. And if you loved him and were patient with him, and even though he didn’t dare ever tell you anything about himself personally, even though he may have loved you, would you..would you, would you go back to him?
Meredith: How would I know — how would I know that he loved me?
Harry: You’d have no way of knowing.
Harry’s obsession with privacy prevents him from ever experiencing real love with another person, and he is reckoning with the reality that he can’t be loved by someone he won’t allow to know him.
Soon after this exchange, we learn the sinister details about the double murder in New York his surveillance was at least partially responsible for. The plot is unveiled by Harry’s biggest and most jealous competitor, his number two Bernie Moran, who begs him to reveal how he pulled off the bugging. Harry is obviously distrot by the event still, and Bernie basically pantses him on the way out when he reveals that not only did he bug Harry, himself king of kings, but he also caught him in his most vulnerable state questioning Meredith about his own lovability. It hurts to watch, and Harry is truly pathetic when he remembers the pen in his pocket that led to his exposure — now is as good a time as any to state plainly that Gene Hackman is incredible in this role, he is nuanced and rigid, always communicating just enough but smartly withholding as much as possible.
In addition to his PTSD and fear and paranoia, Harry also has some common Catholic guilt. He was a sick boy who was prayed over by priests and rubbed in holy oil until he healed, an experience he recounts mournfully and seems to feel indebted by. We see him attend confession, and chastise people who use the lord’s name in vain. And yet, he’s a man dripping in sin. I’m tempted to match the seven deadly sins to each of the fractured story lines, but I will just say instead that the impetus of the investigation he’s completing is an adulterous affair, which Harry is only in San Francisco to witness because of his involvement in a murder, and a job he only accepts to appease to his own sense of greed and pride.
He tells us at one point that he is not afraid of death, but he is afraid of murder. The more his faith is exposed, the clearer it becomes that he allows himself to be isolated from love because this life is temporary for him, and he is focused on redeeming his immortal soul — but the damn if that spot will not come out. Even when he attempts to right the ship, and prevent the crime he believes will take place, he is greeted with the grisly truth that he was a step behind once again. When blood overflows the bathroom toilet, it is the jarring equivalent to Coppola’s famous horse head in the bed, a warning to Harry that his actions have consequences he cannot control.
Harry Caul is a sad, talented, man who wants to do good, but has broken bad. His forlorn saxophone, humming above the vinyl spinning beside him is the final musical theme of a beautifully scored film. Harry will be alone, because he is committed to his craft and because he’s addicted to examining the side of people that is most difficult to discover and exclusively prized by Harry himself, the side of a person they only reveal when they believe nobody is listening.