THE CONVERSATION – 1974 – movie - A Classic Review - Directed and written by Francis Ford Coppola – the players are – Harry (Gene Hackman), Stan (John Cazale), Bernie (Allen Garfield), Mark (Frederic Forrest), Ann (Cindy Williams), The Director (Robert Duvall), Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), Amy (Teri Garr) – camera Bill Butler – the film was edited by Richard Chew and Walter Murch while Francis Ford Coppola was shooting The Godfather II.
Our protagonist is Harry Caul, a for-hire, clandestine, interceptor of private conversations, which are recorded and delivered to his clients. Harry is not a voyeur who peers into other people’s lives for his own sexual pleasure. He is, by legal definition, an eavesdropper.
He is well-known and somewhat famous in the surveillance community, but he leads a very isolated existence, rarely fraternizing with colleges. The act of surveilling requires the use of highly sophisticated listening, recording and digital signal processing devices.A barely understandable recording of the human voice can be “cleaned up” and enhanced. Primarily by by tape delays, passing the signal through circuits that remove echo and reverb, and the cancelation of specific frequencies and ambient noise (even the drums in this movie). All this effort makes the very garbled sound understandable.
Most of this equipment must be highly modified by Harry and his cohorts, to meet the challenges presented by each assignment. So, secrecy between and among Harry and his fellow eavesdroppers and competitors is necessary if they are to keep their competitive edge.
So, it’s hardly surprising that Harry suffers from a healthy case of paranoia about his own private life. His job is invading the privacy of others, and his survival depends upon protecting his own privacy. It’s a double whammy. Consequently none of his casual friends and lovers knows what he does for a living.
In this movie Harry has been hired by a corporate executive to record the conversations between a young couple, Mark and Ann . He does not tell Harry why, nor does Harry care to know. Harry is devoutly Catholic and on a previous wiretap job his work led to three deaths. This has caused him immense inner turmoil.
He and his employees, using various highly directional microphones, make simultaneous recordings of the couple as they walk about a noisy square populated with musicians, barking dogs and loud ambient conversations. Cleaning up the sound on these tapes passes through many steps that require increasingly subtle re-recording, and manipulation. Throughout this process, the conversation becomes increasingly
understandable. Mark and Ann set a time, a place and a date for their next meeting. Harry hears Mark say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance”.
At this point it’s just a flat, ambiguous statement without inflections. However it triggers Harry’s feelings of guilt and he suspects that the couple may be in danger.
It isn’t until Harry has extracted the subtle nuances and emphasis from their dialog that we learn what their conversation really means. Did Mark say, ‘He’d kill us if he got a chance”; or did he say ‘He’d kill us if he got a chance”. And it is here, on this turning point, that Mr. Coppola’s genius as a story teller and director is fully displayed.
As we end, Harry’s paranoia is now realized. Outside the headquarters building he approaches the Director’s Limo. We see Ann, safely ensconced in the director’s seat, calmly going through a folder of business papers.
Because of what he may know, he now finds himself the target of highly sophisticated surveillance. In closing, we find him in ripping up his apartment looking for hidden microphones.