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  • Andres Benatar

Movie Analysis: The Conversation

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

Fate And The Chaos Of Uncertainty

“I don't care what they're talkin' about. All I want is a nice, fat recording.”

Harry Caul- The Conversation (1974)

It feels like a contradiction when openly expressing the lack of care you have for the details of a conversation, despite wishing it to be as juicy as possible. Then again, it’s difficult to find a Francis Ford Coppola film that didn’t depict a contradictory protagonist who ultimately suffered a tragic fate in light of the full scope of this contradiction coming to fruition.

The case of his 1974 surveillance thriller, The Conversation, portrays a man, who despite wishing to resist curiosity, ultimately becomes its greatest victim, all because he couldn’t help but look at the very details he initially feared would lead him down a road that involved more than just murder.

Ethical Surveillance

A lot can be said about the ethics of The Conversation and how it approaches the issue of surveillance tech and its implementation with a very practical and casual tone of normalcy. The sheer confidence the film executes in portraying an array of characters who engage in activities that have only become so controversial in the wake of the digital age and the post-Snowden revelation era.

As much as everyone is entitled to their own form of privacy, it is now almost impossible to not leave a digital footprint. A person who substitutes a search Engine like Duckduckgo as opposed to Google, or the Tor Browser for Chrome will prove to make it very difficult for online tracking. At the same time though, it doesn’t grant them absolute privacy, which ironically is one of the key factors of the film’s central protagonist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) aside from the very secluded life he lives.

The Ambiguity Of The Film’s Characters

The Conversation is a very controlled thriller. It doesn’t overplay its narrative suspense, and it uses the element of paranoia already present within its highly secretive protagonist, who through his closed-off demeanor, even to his closest associates, is a man shrouded by dark mystery.

Harry Caul is indeed a complex man from the simple fact that he operates in a world as complicated as surveillance. In fact, he runs his own business, and that entails his services through a multitude of clients. The one the film directly deals with is without a doubt a shady one.

You don’t need to be told that if Robert Duvall is playing the movie business head archetype that chances are he will be the shadiest character to deal with. Having a young Harrison Ford only adds to that aura of darkness shrouded in greater mystery.

The greater mystery at hand is the target Harry and his team, which included the late Coppola collaborator John Savage, have. From the moment that the lines “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” rip through the near-impossible wave-like madness of radio waves that the film’s score beautifully incorporates, the ambiguity of the plot kicks in, as do clues regarding Harry’s secretive and elusively restrained nature.

It’s rare to look at a protagonist of which little is given that so much can be derived from the simplest of mannerisms we often take for granted or mistake as bland expressions of human nature. Naturally, the first glance at Harry Caul would evoke nothing short of the feeling that he is a man of plain and slightly odd proportions. It even seems like a bizarre gimmick to look at Gene Hackman with a dorky-esque mustache.

But that’s beside the point. His character Harry Caul lives alone, rarely tells his girlfriend Any (Teri Gar) anything about his personal life, has three locks on his apartment door, and even goes as far as to call his building manager for confirmation that he is the only person to have access to his apartment the second he sees a birthday card, of which he told nobody of the date of, in his apartment, all the while showing there is nothing odd about taking off your pants and showing your whitey tighties (sexy, LOL).

This level of subtle and even accepted paranoia only gives the character just as much complexity as to the very mystery the plot carries with it in every listen Harry gives to the recording that has only made him question his ethics. As mentioned before, Harry’s past is very mysterious. The only hints the film provides are that he once worked in New York, and his surveillance work there lead to another murder he really really doesn’t want to talk about regardless of how aggressively it is brought up by others who just want him to be more open.

A Twisted Deja Vu

By the time the film reaches its conclusion, the elusive mystery regarding Harry’s client, who is only identified as the Director (Robert Duvall) is at peak levels of mind nerving paranoia, which is then followed by a shot of blood-drenched imagery so horrifyingly mind-shattering, that it grants the evil essence the film built up to that much more of a flare, and yet while still maintaining an ambiguity that will hardly offer any sense of peace for both Harry and the audience accompanying him in this dark journey.

This is further made clear when the twist of the director being the murder victim as opposed to the man and woman Harry was hired to surveil shows what’s at the core of The Conversation, and that is the utter lack of certainty that plagues each and every one of us living life as morally as possible.

The greatest element of The Conversation is the sense of mystery surrounding the potential murder. As much as it foretells what is to be a truly horrifying deja vu for Harry in a relentlessly repetitive manner, the twist further introduces a new manner of shock through its revelation.

This revelation resigns the central character of Harry Caul to a fate only characters of noir are ultimately destined to suffer, even if they had the best of intentions because in the end, just simply being at the wrong place and at the wrong time can be all the reason to show that anything can happen. It also shows that there was no point in fighting a fate only those who venture into such a dark and morally gray world can know and sadly understand all too well.

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