Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
American Zoetrope / Paramount, 1974.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is one of the artsier entries in the long list of 1970s paranoia flicks. The film begins with a crane shot of a busy San Francisco park, complete with drummers and a mime, and slowly moves down to reveal a couple having what appears to be an ordinary conversation. And then we see that they’re being watched through crosshairs, bugged by high-tech surveillance, and even tailed. This huge operation is being run by Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, but it turns out that even the repressed and disconnected Caul doesn’t know what’s really going on. As he begins to suspect that he’s become implicated in something truly evil, he begins to investigate his own investigation.
The movie’s intense, pushy, brilliant, and sometimes painful soundtrack is shot through with jazz, and the jazz riff or repetition with variation is a recurring theme. The young couple’s first conversation is broken into pieces and obsessively replayed as Caul tries to figure out what was really going on. The repetition of their words gives a sense of madness, a leaching of meaning from the world, like the tagline of the 2008 “language is a virus” horror film Pontypool: “Words lose their meaning when you repeat them.” Is the conversation meaningless, or is Caul just missing the phrase or intonation that will finally unlock its hidden meaning?
The Conversation is a Christmas movie—like Die Hard, The Lion in Winter, and Brazil. And because this is Coppola, Catholicism is not only alluded to but part of the movie’s core. The Catholic trappings can become sentimental (as when Caul must steel himself to destroy his statue of the Virgin Mary in order to find out if there’s a hidden microphone inside it), but Caul’s Catholic upbringing is central to his character. One of the movie’s key ideas is that the ways in which Caul used to make sense of his life no longer have any purchase on him. So he goes to a convention of other “buggers,” surveillance men, and the audience gets a good look at the free-market or consumerist narrative of his life, in which he’s simply providing a service, in which his role is that of the entrepreneur and business leader. But he also goes to confession. He says that he’s afraid that the young couple will be “hurt,” and although it “doesn’t have anything to do” with him, he still clearly feels that he’s complicit in what he believes is a plot to murder them.
But confession, the Christian narrative of sin and redemption, fails him. We never even find out what the priest says in response to his agonized confession; we never see the most interesting half of that conversation.
The free-market narrative of the sales convention is a narrative Caul already mistrusts, because he doesn’t trust the people who are pushing it. He fears that the other surveillance pros are going to backstab him and steal his secrets—fears that he learns are well-founded. The Catholic narrative, by contrast, is a story he truly seems to trust in a visceral, inchoate way, and yet his trust is betrayed. He gives a confession, albeit a partial and self-justifying one, and receives—from the perspective of the moviegoer—only silence.
Caul later has a dream in which he tells the young woman in the couple, “I’m not afraid of death. I am afraid of murder.” This view ofthe world, in which sin is much worse than suffering, continues to have a hold on him—but its hold is increasingly tenuous, like his grip on sanity. The story of the movie is the story of the collapse of all of Caul’s narratives, all of the stories he used to tell himself to make sense of his world. In figuring out the true story of the couple, he undoes his own story of himself.
The Conversation would be fascinating even if it were now irrelevant. The soundtrack alone is inescapable yet distancing, calling attention to all the ways it’s recorded rather than real-world. Gene Hackman is a husk of a person, and Harrison Ford, as a sleek young corporate thug, seems to leave a cold, greasy slick on the screen. But of course the story of the movie is only too familiar: The old narratives collapse, and there is nothing to replace them, no secret to be revealed, no new religion by which we can live.
1970s cinema is famous for its paranoia. Some of its best-known films replace one sustaining narrative with another, as when All the President’s Men exposes the presidency but glorifies journalism. Although The Conversation, with its sense of universal surveillance and, simultaneously, universal lying, was seen as a Watergate movie as well, in fact Coppola was startled to learn of the similarities between Nixon’s wiretapping and his antihero’s activities after filming ended. In its sense of paranoia collapsing into self-mistrust, and in its constant, totemic repetition of key phrases, The Conversation works as a precursor to 2000’s Memento. Its story is richer than Memento’s because Coppola is dismantling several popular ways of understanding the world, whereas Memento focuses on the revenge narrative, and The Conversation also doesn’t rely on its ending for its emotional effect. It doesn’t twist; it comes undone.
Merry Christmas, and watch your back.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos.