News and Commentary – A Semester of Seventies Films (7): The Conversation

Even in the glory days of the New Hollywood, Francis Ford Coppola’s intensely personal, almost willfully non-commercial masterpiece The Conversation (1974) was not an easy film to get produced. But after scoring a massive hit with The Godfather, Coppola was able to extract studio backing for the picture he cared about in exchange for his promise to direct The Godfather, Part II.

A film about a surveillance man, The Conversation was invariably associated with the unfolding Watergate affair, even though it was conceived long before that scandal developed.  Influenced by Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) and, brilliantly, by the suspense techniques associated with Alfred Hitchcock, the film was not motivated by Watergate but by Coppola’s interest in technology and the erosion of personal privacy (kids—we used to actually worry that people might be tracking our behavior).  Nevertheless, as Mark Feeney has argued, no other film “is so atmospherically Nixonian.”

Gene Hackman carries the movie as Harry Caul, the greatest wire-tapper in the country, but one with some serious personal issues. Harry pushes the seventies themes of personal isolation, alienation and despair to their limit.  Damaged and alone, awkward in the company of others, Harry instinctively seeks out protective shields that still leave him exposed (like that thin translucent raincoat he invariably sports, despite the fact that it never rains).  Coppola reinforces this by routinely shooting Harry through various plastic and glass barriers, a visual motif emphasized by editor Walter Murch (who shepherded the film during its lengthy post-production and who had an enormous influence on the finished product). 

Caul’s latest assignment is to record a conversation between two young people (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), which he executes with a bravura display of technological ingenuity.  But Harry soon comes to realize (after physically tussling for his tapes with a young, ominous Harrison Ford), that just as in the past, when “people were hurt because of [his] work,” (a traumatic episode that led him to flee New York and start over in San Francisco), he’s now very much “afraid it could happen again.”  And so despite his credo, “whatever they do with the tapes is their business,” a mantra repeated with increasing desperation, Harry is plunged into a personal crisis.  And then some—as this action is unfolding, the two human “relationships” that he does maintain – with his assistant Stan (John Cazale) and his cloistered lover Amy (Teri Garr) – seem to be coming apart.  On top of that, he is newly stalked by a menacing rival—Bernie Moran, the “best bugger on the east coast.”  (Chillingly portrayed by Allen Garfield—seething, ruthless and amoral, squeezed into an ill-fitting suit, obsessed with his reputation and jealous of his rivals, Moran is the Nixon of this piece.)   

Reeling from these blows, in the end, Harry can’t bring himself to just turn in the tapes and walk away – he keeps a hand (or at least his prying electronic ears) in on the action – maybe he can somehow stop the worst from happening.  But it’s the seventies film out there, and things are not as clear cut as them seem, and it is Harry’s life that is torn down, figuratively and even literally.  And as Coppola correctly observed, ultimately he hadn’t made “a film about privacy, as I had set out to do, but rather a film about responsibility.”  


Harry Glass

Harry (Gene Hackman), Through the Glass



Hints of Surveillance in almost Every Scene


Harry Stan

Harry at the Office with Stan (John Cazale)


Harry Confess

Rushing to the Confessional: "I am in no way responsible"


Harry Bench

Visual Payoff From the conversation: "Half dead on a park bench"



Nothing of Value but his Keys . . .