"It had nothing to do with me": Francis Ford Coppola’s "The Conversation"

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For Francis Ford Coppola, "The Conversation" would form a quartet of exceptional work from a decade of crowning excellence.

By Jeremy Carr

None of this is what Harry Caul wanted. While it was by no means a technically effortless endeavor, it should, still, have been another routine assignment. He and his freelance team of surveillance experts were to record the conversation between two subjects as they traversed the lunchtime crowd mingling around Union Square. Harry was to then assemble the recordings and deliver the tapes to his employer. That’s it. Then he’d move on. But this isn’t what happens in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Instead, as Coppola’s chief protagonists had done in the other films that distinguished the director’s extraordinary run of the 1970s,Harry finds himself reluctantly, though perhaps inevitably, enveloped in a world of intrigue and violence, and he endures the existential despair fundamentally resulting from his occupational options.

Under The Conversation’s opening credits, an overhead shot of San Francisco’s social hub slowly zooms closer, eventually scanning a cluster of undistinguished bodies and faces. Played by Gene Hackman, in what is surely one of his more nuanced, complex performances, Harry is briefly observed, but only incidentally so. His aim is to remain as unobtrusive as possible, and between his bland physical disposition and his omnipresent gray raincoat, blending in with the shade of the sidewalk, it’s a relatively successful practice. Coppola’s camera skims the area, probing for the targets—Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest)—occasionally picking up a passing glimpse of Harry and the members of his crew who are also stationed on the ground. Harry, in this introductory sequence, is not the point of focus, nor should he be. As it pertains to his working accomplishment and his life generally, Harry craves anonymity. He is unsociable with his neighbors and shelters himself within a solitary existence, seeking sanctuary in an apartment seemingly secured by multiple locks on the door and an alarm system. He finds solace in his privacy and in his music, playing along on his saxophone to a jazz recording. Harry knows what he wants in life, because in his line of work, he knows what’s possible.

But there are breaches in his systematic régime, the first indication of which is when Harry returns home and finds a birthday gift, a bottle of wine, waiting for him on the floor. How did it get there? And who knew it was his birthday? He phones his landlord and, to his surprise, discovers he isn’t actually the only one with a key. How could he not know this? The sequence is more than an early establishment of Harry’s character, though in an understated and yet entirely revelatory way it is most certainly that; it’s also a subtle indication of the potential lapses in Harry’s meticulous planning, lapses that will prove philosophically shattering and emotionally catastrophic as The Conversation continues. Harry’s futile attempts at sweeping control—over his life, his work, and others—are spoiled by the incrementally devastating breakdown of that emphatic façade.

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