In Dostoeyevsky’s Notes From Underground the self-loathing narrator proposes that every man has secrets he will only reveal to friends and secrets he must keep to himself. And then there are the things he is afraid to admit even to himself, and the more decent the man, the more things he will find himself unable to confront.
In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a man less concerned with the answers to uneasy questions than the questions themselves. He is a well-regarded surveillance specialist; a self-employed spy who builds his own equipment and attracts high profile clients who will pay top dollar for his services. As he explains to his enthusiastic assistant (the always-excellent John Cazale), he is uninterested in the personal lives of his clients or what their motivations might be—he just wants to get the job done as only he can do it.
Caul, who claims not to care about the inner feelings of others, goes to great lengths to keep anyone from gleaning his personal thoughts. And from his old-fashioned eyeglasses, coat and tie attire or the see-through slicker he wears rain or shine, he projects the look of a professor or librarian more than efficient sleuth. This is entirely by design: by making himself as ordinary as possible, Caul believes he can keep others from intruding on his personal space—which we quickly understand is, for him, sacred. As such, he is a human coil of simmering tension, all nervous energy and restraint. He is a quiet man with an urgent dialogue endlessly unspooling in his mind. Or, he has several urgent dialogues simultaneously distracting him. Or, he is ceaselessly trying to suppress these urgent, distracting dialogues. That he is unsuccessful is obvious: his discomfort around others reveals the obsessions and idealizations simmering deeply beneath his austere façade.
Gene Hackman, to be certain, had his work cut out for him here. How to take a character that is so intractable and ultimately unknowable, and manage to make him engaging, even sympathetic? Hackman, despite his renowned acting abilities, struggled to fully understand and depict Harry Caul, a role so dissimilar to previous assignments (this is the man who played Popeye Doyle, for God’s sake!) and his own personality. Ultimately, Hackman exposes a man who struggles so fervently to avoid telling anyone anything he inexorably shows everyone everything.
As a result, The Conversation is a tour de force, but it’s a quiet tour de force. In fact, it is just about impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today. Few directors would trust—perhaps with good reason—that audiences would embrace the deliberately languid pace and lack of resolution. In fact, while critically successful (then and now), this movie did not fare well commercially at the time of its release.
Of course, the movie is impossible to separate from the early ‘70s in several important ways. For one, its inescapable political implications (Watergate, wire-tapping) and its art house aesthetic sensibility (The Conversation is one of the more durable experiments to come out of the “new wave” of Hollywood bad boys who briefly had—and took—the opportunity to make movies they way they needed—and wanted—to make them). The Conversation, perhaps more than any of his celebrated films, makes the purest case for Coppola’s genius. The movie’s disconsolate message is tempered by its director’s lack of cynicism (a refreshing trait early on that ended up marring his later work with excess sentimentality and preciousness). Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, is perhaps the only director of that era sufficiently unselfconscious to depict a protagonist so self-conscious he is in constant danger of suffocating.
Also worth mentioning is the film’s uncanny similarities to Chinatown (also released in 1974). In both, an essentially respectable man has seen his best intentions harm others, and vows never to repeat his mistake. In both, a man realizes too late that he has gotten involved (and invested) in something far larger and more dangerous than he imagined. Both films are virtually flawless, from the script to the ingenious structure, the direction, score and acting. Especially the acting. Certainly in the ‘70s there was plenty of “acting” going on, which is why so few (if any) movies have aged (and seemingly improved) with time as The Conversation and Chinatown.
“I don’t have anything personal, nothing of value,” Caul insists at one point, and we know he means it. Or, we understand he thinks he means it. Or we realize, by the end, that he very much wants to mean it. Throughout, we see more than his colleagues, his girlfriend (who he considers overly inquisitive when, after many months, she would like to know where he works, where he lives and why he does not seem to own a telephone), his priest and—most significantly—he does. But the sum total of these subtle insights (the way he avoids swearing, the time he picks up a cookie and studies it for several seconds before putting it back on the plate, his diversion of playing saxophone alongside an LP recording) ultimately shed insufficient light on what makes him tick. This is actually the secret of the film’s success.
In less capable hands we would know everything at the outset: what his back-story was, what he was looking for and what he needed to achieve so we could root for him to “win”. There are, of course, no winners here, but the message of the movie is not nihilistic. By the time it concludes, the culmination of events has slyly served to confirm all of Caul’s skepticism. He trusts no one and thinks the worst of people, which is his personal tragedy. The larger tragedy is that on the few occasions he lets his guard down, or trusted his own instincts, he is proven spectacularly wrong for having done so.
The comprehension that he is involved in an event that might have appalling consequences unnerves him; the realization that he abetted people he would not knowingly have worked for devastates him. But he is not broken, yet. That dissolution is saved for the last scene, a final indignity wherein Caul’s most unimaginable apprehension is realized. After receiving a phone call on his unlisted number, he suffers the humiliation (and terror) of hearing his own apartment being bugged. Panicked, he promptly reduces his apartment to splinters in a fruitless attempt to find the hidden microphone. In what has to be one of the most harrowing scenes in cinema, the camera pans over a desecrated aftermath where Caul plays his saxophone amidst the wreckage. What earlier in the movie might have been construed as a bit of a contrivance (the one-man band playing along with a pre-recorded tune) now symbolizes this man’s lonely disintegration: his record player (along with all his other dispensable possessions) destroyed in the rampage, he must finally face the music, while the sound of an unaccompanied horn cries out his sad song.
Even once the crucial twist is understood, the film remains elusive. It is a darkly affecting drama, but what else? Also an allegory for Watergate (not likely, despite the rather facile, if pervasive critical analysis, considering the screenplay was written in the mid-‘60s)? A commentary on political chicanery? A love letter to the painstaking process of assembling a work of art, bit by technical bit? Some of all of these, to be certain, and several other things, for sure. It’s never quite the same experience once you’ve seen it the first time, but The Conversation warrants repeated viewings. Like the very best films, fresh nuances and details emerge and a deeper understanding and appreciation accrues. Popeye Doyle in The French Connection was the role Hackman was born to play, but his embodiment of Harry Caul should be celebrated as the best work he ever did.