It’s not surprising at all to me that everything we do on the internet or on the phone is monitored and for the most part, the average Joe and Jane is too caught up in not paying attention to this as an important issue and continues yakking or clicking away because they don’t see sanctioned invisible nosiness as a problem until it stomps on their big toe while chasing someone else.
That or there’s an “Oh well, what can you do?” attitude that’s only changed when they find out how bad things really are before case of mild online petition signing and outrage slides back into apathy as soon as that new Kardashian photo or cute cat video pops up in your inbox. Yeah, you know that’s you in there somewhere… I’ve got the transcripts if you want to come check them out sometime…
Anyway, The Conversation may (and should) make you even more paranoid as you’re watching it, but feel free to feel delighted as well as its eavesdropping surveillance whiz (Gene Hackman in one of his best performances) has his world fall apart around him while he plays catch-up with his conscience. For me, this is my favorite Francis Ford Coppola film because it’s still as timely, smart and ultimately depressing as it was when it was released almost 40 years (!) ago.
Hackman’s Harry Caul is seen as the best in the business by his peers, but internally, the man is a mess. Despite his technical expertise, everyone seems to be one or more steps ahead of him elsewhere in his life. He’s great with a listening device, but awful with people (as some “geeky” folk tend to be), which leads to him missing signals, and some really important ones at that. Hired to listen in on and record a conversation between a couple in a crowded park, Caul and his small crew pull off the job as planned, but Harry’s got some really bad guilt issues for someone who makes a living as a human listening device.
One of his previous jobs lead to the murders of three people (something Harry’s never come to grips with), so as he strips away the assorted layers of noise on the resulting tape, he becomes fixated on one sentence he ends up misinterpreting (and taking the viewer along with him). His unrelenting obsession with the tape and that single sentence leads to him to fear for the couple and not wanting to hand it in to his employer for fear of more deaths occurring thanks to his handiwork. Naturally, this turns out to be a very bad idea as Harry’s himself gets put under surveillance and his life spirals out of his control.
As Harry is tracked and deceived himself, we see most of it coming, slowly and surely but with a few curveballs mixed in for good measure that end up leaving him a pretty lonely guy. Part of his sanity finally leaves him as well after a not so cryptic phone call has him strip-seach the very apartment he lives in for hidden devices, a compelling sequence where you know he’s really not going to find what he’s looking for, but you sure hope he does. This is one of those films where walking in during the middle is useless – it needs to be seen from the very beginning to be appreciated as well as fully understood.
In addition to Hackman, all of the performances here are strong and Coppola’s direction is solid throughout. But it’s the editing by Richard Chew and Walter Murch and Murch’s excellent sound design that really make this one work so well, particularly the surveillance and tape deciphering sequences. Of course, arriving in the same year as Coppola’s more popular masterpiece, The Godfather II didn’t give this one a chance in hell of grabbing any of the three Oscars it was nominated for (including Best Picture). But while the crime epic sequel is better remembered, I’ve always considered this the better and more interesting film because it taps into a few emotions and leaves a nicely bitter aftertaste that lingers for a while afterwards.
When I finally got around to seeing Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic 1966 film Blow-up at a revival house here in NYC many years ago, I was surprised but pleased to find out Coppola was definitely paying homage to that film with his and doing it remarkably well. Harry’s peeling apart the layers of that audio tape, finally revealing its secrets and his life being turned inside out as a result are similar to David Hemmings’ photographer and his experiences after uncovering a murder in the park he randomly snaps a photo of a couple in. And before you ask, yes indeed, both films definitely inspired one of Brian de Palma’s best works, Blow Out, which you should take a peek at (or a re-peek if you haven’t seen it in a while).
Of course, queuing this one up on NetFlix or wherever means Uncle Sam KNOWS you know he knows you’re onto him. Er, not that you can do much about it what with the privacy you’ll signed away multiple times and then some over the years you’ve spent on the internet. Damn. Hmmm… maybe sometimes it’s best to just sigh and let out a “Oh well, what can you do?”, go sign that latest online petition and slide back into apathy as soon as that newer Kardashian photo or even cuter cat video pops up in your inbox, right?