Stolen privacy: Coppola’s The Conversation

This essay in our Summer 1974 issue explored Francis Ford Coppola’s study of a paranoid wiretapper living in a world where privacy can be bought and sold.

The Conversation (1974)

When Francis Ford Coppola insisted that he made The Godfather for the freedom big money would bring him to work on his own personal projects, many people jeered at what they took to be the guilty old Hollywood bull, the promise so often made, so often not delivered. Well, Coppola has delivered and the cynics stand mute.

The Conversation is remarkably ambitious and serious – a Hitchcockian thriller, a first-rate psychological portrait of a distinctive modern villain (a professional eavesdropper) and a bitter attack on American business values, all in one movie. I feel that Coppola has partially botched the thriller, but the film is a triumph none the less – gritty, complex, idiosyncratic, a rare case of freedom used rather than squandered.

People have also said that Coppola is congenitally lucky. The Godfather’s release coincided with a grisly Mafia carnival in New York (bodies stuffed into auto trunks or thrown into rivers – that sort of thing), and now The Conversation, which is about a man rather like Watergate bugger James McCord, profits from the great American national uproar over privacy and illegal surveillance. But Coppola claims that he began writing the screenplay for The Conversation in 1966, years before such things became national issues, so let us call his timeliness prescient rather than lucky. Timeliness isn’t necessarily a sign of triviality in an artist; it may be a sign of good instinct, an ability to connect personal concern with national obsession. I think Coppola may become this sort of non-exploitative ‘public’ artist, a kind of cinematic Dickens (all proportions kept).

There’s no doubt that he develops his protagonist, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), with a Dickensian richness of eccentricity, an extension of spiritual condition into physical metaphor. The conception is audacious and aggressively paradoxical. Harry is a wiretapper, an eavesdropper, a man who listens through walls and across open spaces – in all, ‘the best bugger on the West Coast.’ He steals privacy for a living. At the same time he is obsessed with his own privacy, or what he takes to be privacy. We soon realise that Harry suffers from an extreme desolation of the spirit, a nearly pathological loneliness and guilt; his insistence on ‘privacy’ is just a way of keeping people at a distance. Repressed, awkward, terrified of his own powers and feelings, he cannot bear the demands people make on him, any demands. Yet he is immensely skilled, and the machines provide a refuge. At work in his fenced-off, prison-like corner of an immense warehouse loft, he thrusts the tape-recorder between himself and experience, and he feels in control.

The man who knows that any secret can be stolen protects his own ‘secrets’ by the simple expedient of living as little as possible. He pretends that he doesn’t have a telephone (keeping it in a drawer) so people can’t reach him, and in the modern world, that is a way of denying that one exists. Even the connection with things is kept to a minimum; possessions may also be a drain on ‘privacy’ (‘I care about my keys,’ he tells a friendly landlady who worries about his furniture in case of fire and has had the temerity to duplicate his keys). Coppola’s paradox grows in power and wit as its logic becomes clear. Poor Harry is so fearful, so given over to obsession, that he begins spying on himself. Before entering his mistress’s door he hides outside, ‘casing’ the apartment; since it’s clear that she has not been unfaithful, who is he casing but himself, a man caught red-handed in the act of visiting his mistress? When the rumpled, affectionate woman grows restive, he agrees to end the connection, but still there’s no possible safety; Harry knows about Harry, and that’s dangerous enough. (In a dream that expresses both fear and longing, Harry tells his secrets, but never in life.)

The Conversation (1974)

His agonised diffidence, which invariably is misunderstood and gives pain, results from a self-loathing so extreme that no one can relieve it. Such a condition of spirit cannot be ‘explained’, and Coppola really doesn’t try. It’s enough to embody it. Gene Hackman, who has been physically imposing in some of his recent commercial pictures, here alters his carriage and stance, and his burly strength seems undistinguished, graceless, mere irrelevant weight. Repressed characters can be a trap for actors; they tend to overdo the fumbling mannerisms and show us too much acting, as if to distance themselves personally from the men they are playing. But Hackman, who has always demonstrated a rare talent for ‘ordinary’ men and non-actorish readings, here conveys a human being all locked up inside without nagging us with small points – the performance is ‘clean’.

Harry has blood on his hands, and as a congenitally guilty Catholic, it’s killing him. We know that in the past his eavesdropping has led to three murders. Therefore when a mysterious corporate magnate (Robert Duvall) hires him to spy on his faithless young wife (Cindy Williams) and her lover (Frederic Forrest), Harry hesitates before turning in a tape of the lovers’ conversation. On tape the two have made an assignation at a hotel. If the husband should take vengeance, wouldn’t Harry be responsible? When a treacherous prostitute steals the tapes and turns them over to the husband, he is forced to confront his nightmare. In a scene of nearly unbearable moral tension, Harry’s terror of involvement does epic battle against his agonising fear for the young couple, but he cannot resolve the crisis; with the screams for help literally coming through the wall, he falls down in a swoon. Coppola stays with Harry throughout this scene, and it’s only later that we find out what happened. Someone gets killed, but in the emotional and moral terms of the movie the catastrophe is Harry’s; he suffers a spiritual and moral death from which there is no possible resurrection.

There only remains the final working out of his fate, which is intricately and ironically just. Against his will, Harry has become part of a murder plot; when he discovers that his own apartment has been bugged by the plotters, he rips it to pieces, tearing up the walls, the floor, the furniture in a fruitless search for the microphone. The insane logic of Harry’s obsession has thus been fulfilled: the bugger gets bugged, the man with only his privacy to protect destroys his possessions and winds up guarding literally nothing – an empty space, a cavity sealed with locks. The American mania for ‘home security’ here reaches its comic apotheosis. Our last view of Harry is very sad: he sits alone in the wreckage playing a saxophone along with a jazz record – halfway into life, halfway out. We’re left with little doubt that the stasis is permanent.

Privacy, as we know, is a modern middle-class notion, a product of relative economic well-being and city living and respect for individual selves. Yet the same modern society which creates the demand for privacy also creates the technology which makes its elimination a fairly simple matter. Privacy can be bought, sold, or stolen, like any possession or commodity. Indeed, Harry Caul would like to operate as efficiently and impersonally as any other professional. He would like to think of his victims as anonymous ‘targets’, to lose himself in the delightful technical intricacies of robbing them without regard for what he is stealing or what they might feel about it.

Gene Hackman and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Conversation (1974)

The movie is an angry, funny attack on this sort of thinking, which Coppola sees as a natural product of American business values and our eternal boyish enthusiasm for technology as an end in itself. Stealing privacy has become part of the American way of life, and to make the point clear Coppola sends Harry to a San Francisco convention of security experts and equipment manufacturers, at which evil, destructive but undeniably ingenious little spying gadgets are hawked and sold like kitchen appliances or motorboats. To the businessmen-spies, it’s just an ordinary convention, a professional meeting place; to us the ordinariness of such an event is perhaps the most peculiar thing about it. In The Godfather, also, the most extreme and fantastic behaviour was shown to emerge from a setting of normality – family life. Coppola seems to relish the more bizarre American contradictions, the clash between context and substance, between the style of an act (banal) and its meaning (horrifying).

Although he is drawn to extreme behaviour, Coppola’s style of representation remains straightforwardly realistic. That’s why his films may not at first appear to be the work of an artist. His attitudes and personality emerge not so much from the camera style as from the behaviour on screen. For instance, he has a genius for shallow, noisy, self-propelling types – the American as untrammelled egotist, powerful and infantile at the same time. He appears to love their theatrical energy and flash, and his sense of how such people reveal themselves in social situations is so accurate that he can do very funny, outrageous scenes without a trace of caricature. (Much of The Godfather, of course, was extremely funny.)

In The Conversation, Coppola has a savagely good time with Harry’s surveillance colleagues. Boastful, frenetic, absurdly aggressive, these American go-getters can’t stop competing for a moment, not even at a party, and so they begin showing off and playing dirty tricks on one another. Their viciousness while ‘relaxing’, more revealing than any amount of overt skulduggery, suggests that they are successful precisely because they don’t give a damn who they hurt or how much. The code of ‘professionalism’ provides an apparent morality, a blinding justification for any act; they have no idea, not even a suspicion, that they are evil men. The surveillance experts are hideously funny and also tragic; looking at them it’s hard for an American not to think of soldiers testing weapons in Vietnam and other examples of professionals run amuck. By immersing himself in a particular, idiosyncratic corner, accurately perceived, Coppola has made contact with a major strain in American life, a malaise that persists through generations. His unresolved love-hate relationship with the characters makes the bitterness of his criticism acceptable; if he entirely hated them, the film would have collapsed into diatribe, and we would have rejected his attitudes out of hand.

In a long, fascinating sequence, Harry reconstructs on tape the lovers’ conversation as they walk slowly around a crowded San Francisco square. Some of the meandering talk has been recorded close-up by one of Harry’s bugs, some of it from hundreds of yards away by long-distance microphones. As Harry mixes the separate tracks together, perfecting the aural image, we actually see the conversation; and it occurs to us that Harry is reconstructing and perfecting life – or at least a simulacrum of it. Of course filmmaking is also a reconstruction of life, and it’s tempting to view The Conversation’s attack on irresponsible professionalism as also an implied attack on certain kinds of irresponsible filmmaking – empty, technically perfect work in which beautiful images are the director’s only achievement; art without feeling or bite. Coppola’s own sense of responsibility, I would say, requires him to give each of his characters as much dramatic and personal stature as he can muster. The Godfather was so pleasing, in part, because Coppola seemed to envelop all the characters in the warmth of his own appreciation. Everyone was ‘on’, and so we rejoiced in their entrances and bloody exits as if they were guests at a particularly brilliant and hilarious party. Most of The Conversation is sombre, even melancholy, in tone, but the principle of responsibility remains the same.

The Conversation (1974)

Did Coppola intend The Conversation as a critical commentary on Blow-Up, a way of showing how that kind of story could be done? (He started work on the screenplay the year Blow-Up was completed.) The similarity is suggestive; both films centre on technological voyeurism and irresponsibility, and Harry’s work with the tape parallels the famous sequence in which the fashion photographer discovers a murder by repeatedly cropping and blowing up a photograph. At the very least, I feel I can say that the emotional thrust of The Conversation reminds me of what was wrong with Blow-Up. Now, more than ever, the inhuman chic of Antonioni’s manner seems to invalidate his attack on non-involvement. Except for semi-prurient curiosity and vague disgust, Antonioni’s own attitudes remained obscure and hidden; and so his people, stranded in an arbitrarily arranged and decorated vacuum, became mere inert portents of disconnection and alienation. They felt no pain, and neither did anyone watching Blow-Up. Since everybody in the film was dead, and reality was elusive and unknowable anyway, the photographer’s criminal indifference never registered as an emotional fact.

Coppola has rescued the story from ‘art’. He places his alienated man in a recognisable American business/social world, and the details and mood seem intuitively right, making emotional contact in a way that Antonioni’s awkward, vaguely metaphorical use of swinging London commonplaces did not. Moreover, Coppola is far too interested in Harry to allow this sad technological wizard to become an example of modern man’s inability to feel or communicate or any rot like that. Contradictory, stubbornly eccentric, intensively imagined as a particular kind of human futility, Harry could never inspire any such banal interpretation. As Gene Hackman plays him, he is anything but emotionally dead (that cliche of ‘advanced’ filmmaking) – he’s inarticulate because he feels too much and too incoherently, immobile because every possible road of conduct becomes an imagined disaster. Participating in life is an agony for such a man; therefore whether he acts or fails to act, we are drawn to him emotionally.

I have tried to emphasise the solid benefits Coppola has derived from a relative aesthetic conservatism; yet I fear that because The Conversation holds to a framework of realism and is concerned with something so old-fashioned as spiritual anguish it will be dismissed as ‘humanistic’ in some quarters.

The Conversation is one of those movies (the classic example is Rear Window) which are told almost entirely from the restricted viewpoint of a single character, deriving their power and excitement from this apparent limitation. Of course Harry isn’t immobilised in a single room like James Stewart’s photographer; his immobilisation is spiritual and moral. Nevertheless, as there are only four major settings in The Conversation, feelings of claustrophobia and paranoia become a psychological factor in our response to Coppola’s movie, too. The viewer chafes and frets as each man is drawn into a mystery by fragments – a clue here, a portent there. For the viewer, as for the central characters, the experience is one of reluctant passage from ignorance to knowledge, from a frightened surmise to a horrifying certainty.

The Conversation (1974)

These restricted viewpoint strategies direct our responses more coercively than ‘open’ constructions. The opening shot of The Conversation, which should become famous, closes off the big world, delivers us over to that segment that Coppola wants to explore; it’s a continuous zoom which starts at an immense distance above Union Square and slowly moves closer, discarding irrelevancies and distractions from our view, until we finally discover Harry in the crowd, eavesdropping on the young couple. From thereafter we see nothing that Harry doesn’t see or fantasise himself. Normally we like the characters we are forced to identify with; Coppola makes a more ambivalent and troublesome demand on us. We don’t like Harry very much, but Coppola’s narrative method holds us in tension, frustrating our moral bloodlust, our desire to see Harry destroyed; he’s contemptible, pathetic, yet we are baffled and dismayed by the same things as he. The climax of The Conversation, when the murdered man’s blood wells up out of the toilet and spills at Harry’s feet, strikes us as a hideous moment of self-knowledge for Harry, the truth behind a lifetime of denial and evasion. It is one of the most grimly satisfying scenes in recent movies, a true horror epiphany. And at that moment our feelings are finally resolved into outright sympathy: Harry has been punished enough.

Unfortunately, after all the suspense build-up, the repeated playing of the tape, etc., Coppola never satisfies our curiosity about the mystery itself. Limited to what Harry knows, we never quite understand what is going on, and some of this confusion could have been avoided with a little extra exposition. For instance, I assume that Cindy Williams is Robert Duvall’s young wife, although for all we know she could be his daughter; it’s hard to understand how the prostitute who steals the tape knew she was going to be invited to Harry’s workshop, and so on. Murder mysteries are often full of such loopholes, but we generally don’t notice them – the pacing is too fast. The Conversation’s slow, repetitive, accumulative method forces us to review what we know, like a detective building a case, and the narrative sloppiness becomes irritating.

Worst of all, the surprise denouement, in which the victims and murderers get reversed and Harry realises that he has been used even more viciously than he had thought, occurs so quickly and casually that we can hardly take it in. I sympathise with Coppola’s dilemma. A confrontation between Harry and the young couple might have straightened things out easily enough, but by presenting Harry with an actual physical threat (as Hitchcock did to his voyeur in Rear Window) Coppola would have turned The Conversation into a more conventional melodrama. He sticks to the internal and psychological threat, thereby losing a part of his audience at the end – an honourable failure.

Some other details are not so honourable. The whole ‘sinister’ atmosphere of the corporate office, with its shadowy Mr. Big and his ominous, cryptic young assistant, comes very close to the style of a TV movie. It’s hard to say whether Coppola’s imagination simply faltered or whether he felt a little TV trashiness was needed to get the film financed and widely attended. Like Klute a few years ago, The Conversation hangs a first-rate characterisation and an accurately perceived social milieu on to an implausible, badly resolved thriller plot. Still, Coppola is a most stirring example of a man purified by success. I have the feeling that after earning another $7 million or so on Godfather II he’ll make some movies even more difficult and uncompromising than The Conversation, and among them will be a work of art satisfying in all its details.