The Conversation (1974)

Sandwiched between the 1972 Best Picture Oscar-Winner Godfather and the 1974 Best Picture Oscar-Winner Godfather II, Francis Ford Coppola directed a low-budget, low-key character study called The Conversation. A modest success (returning 3-4x its budget, but orders of magnitude less than Godfather) and a critical darling, I tried watching it once on the small screen and could not get into it. Even though it’s the opposite of the epic gangster flicks, I still would primarily recommend it be watched on the big screen: it’s a movie that demands a lot of attention to detail. It is very clearly among the best of Coppola’s films.

A "plumber".

Gene Hackman contemplates life as a plumber.

Released four months before Nixon’s resignation but conceived in the mid-’60s, Coppola claims to have been shocked at how closely the technology used by the White House Plumbers mapped with what he filmed. (He wrote, produced and directed.) It’s no surprise that the movie still resonates on the topic of privacy, even though the story itself (the eponymous conversation) is just solid thriller material that works as pure entertainment without the larger themes.

The Conversation has three major aspects that show our protagonist Harry Caul in different lights: It is a mystery; it is a deep-dive into the questions of privacy; it is a showcase for the hottest privacy invasion technology of the ’70s. Let’s take the last first because there’s a big sequence that takes place at a security convention, and it’s kind of amazing nearly fifty years later.

The convention is pretty standard, complete with booth bunny and a bunch of nerds and creeps talking technical details, but the sense of wonder as you see tiny bugs and phone taps that are activated by calling the subject’s phone is unparalleled in 2022 when you realize everyone: a) carries around and lives with devices designed for spying on them; b) has more invasion privacy power by sheer accident than pros did in ’74.

Basically.

“Why would anyone want to carry this in their pocket?” “We’ll, invent a thing called ‘Twitter’…”

The point of this convention is to horrify us: These highly paid creeps have access to technology that allows them access to every private conversation we think we’re having. It’s meant to make us paranoid and it still works! Only now the highly-paid creeps are massive corporations and corrupt governments whose entire basis of operation is violating privacy. This aspect of the movie gives us the most “heroic” view of our protagonist, played expertly by Gene Hackman.

Harry is a true professional: He is excellent at his job, he builds his own equipment, he is sought after and has a kind of integrity in that he refuses overtures that could be very profitable and takes no personal interest in his subjects: He does his job without prurient interest, and even without human curiosity as his assistant (the sadly short-lived John Cazale) points out.

But this focus on the job underscores the fact that Harry is a literal tool. He takes a job to listen to “the conversation” (between Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) and rejoices in the technical aspects of the task (in sequences very reminiscent of Blow Up and later echoed by Blow Out), but when his client (Robert Duvall) has his heavy (Harrison Ford) running interference, he begins to suspect that the young couple’s lives are at stake.

Look at Harrison Ford back there.

A couple years later, at 29, Cindy Williams would go on to portray a young single girl in the late ’50s for the next decade.

What’s more, when one of Harry’s rivals (Alan Garfield) turns the tables on him, eavesdropping on him as a joke, we can see that Harry really, really doesn’t like it. In fact, Harry is paranoid: His lover (Teri Garr) knows nothing about him, he makes business calls from pay phones, he is alarmed when people wish him a happy birthday, and he spends considerable time cajoling the spare key from his landlady.

As he becomes increasingly agitated at the prospects of his work being used for nefarious purposes—something that has happened before to disastrous consequences, we learn—his sense of urgency to do something, to get involved, to try to stop a tragedy, dramatically highlights his limitations. Besides being a tool, Harry’s a coward, and his insistence professional ignorance raises an insurmountable barrier as far as knowing whether or not he’s serving good or serving evil.

I can't decide which is worse.

Cazale would go on to star in “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Deer Hunter” before succumbing to Meryl Streep and cancer.

The dramatic climax of the film comes at about 90 minutes, and could’ve gone any number of ways. It could’ve been completely ambiguous, for example, with Harry completely unaware of what his actions resulted in. (It’s not, but how 1974 would that have been?) This is followed by about 20 minutes of twists and revelations in which we see very plainly the effect of trying to avoid responsibility in the name of professionalism.

Shot in Technicolor, though the drab ’70s version of it (which suits here), with deliberately wonky sound in parts and a lot of repetition of parts up front, I still don’t think I could sit through it on the small screen. A use of Jazz Age classics heightens the sense of paranoia. Like, you can understand being on a secret mission and hearing “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along”, only to later hear someone else singing it—that might make you suspicious because who in 1974 was singing that song? Also, because the music is so upbeat in contrast with the tone of the film, it’s almost ironic in and of itself.

Composer David Shire (who would go on to win an Oscar for Norma Rae) slips in some traditional music later on in the film; I didn’t catch exactly when. The first part of the film, however, is all diegetic—the music all has a source within the film—and the shift is subtle and effective, as is the whole transition from an almost documentary feel to a more traditional cinematic experience.

That Coppola guy could make a movie, once upon a time.

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