The Conversation, a seminal film by acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola, takes a few seconds of fragmented, audio-recorded dialogue between a man and a woman and makes it the subject of a film. Scrutinizing the audio-track is legendary surveillance expert Henry Caul, a quiet, heavy-gazing man with a few (many) years of experience under his belt. His longevity does not provide him with any moral cushioning, however, and the film progresses as he realizes that the tape he is submitting to the corporation that hired him might result in the murder of his clients, a man and woman.
We see early on, when Harry visits a woman in a different apartment, the sexual tensions present: he’s afraid to become close to a woman, it seems, because he is afraid to reveal any sort of inner secret. And when he reveals this to a woman in what seems to be an entirely honest moment, it is recorded by a competitor, who Harry hadn’t realized had bugged him; all fun and games, for the competition, but Harry takes guard and responds equally as mad at this act of private thievery as he would have if his professional tapes were stolen. It’s all the same to him.
Earlier in the film, when the same sardonically hateful and envious fellow surveillance expert asks Harry about how he tapped into a boat and recorded a highly-guarded dialogue, which resulted in the murder of three different persons, we find out why he is so ambivalent to give the tapes in and return to such a state of murderous guilt. He tries to remain objective, but the line between duty and moral obligation becomes thin; a machine would be better fit for the job of Henry, but then does that not make the creator of the machine equally immoral?
The Conversation expertly blends existential angst and obsession into a sharp and uniquely spliced audio experience filled with buzzing, static voices. The slow increase of paranoia hits Henry hard, his past being suddenly explored in a sort of expressionistic black- and-white scene where he’s calling towards a woman he listens to, standing fearfully atop long concrete stairs, listening to him, as if he were another person just exploiting her for information, not a friend, not anyone who would help.
Francis Ford Coppola’s sensitive and intriguing look into surveillance professionals boasts great performances from Gene Hackman as Harry, and a very influential use of audio as a stepping stone and as a main ingredient in the narrative. A jarring, tantalizing look into a man who cares about nothing more than the keys in his life; to his apartment, his mind, and to his various recordings.