By: Curtis M. Parvin
Abuse of power and the invasion of personal privacy are terrifying realities of life notably explored by George Orwell in his novel, 1984 – published in 1949. The book is steeped in a fear of totalitarianism following World War II. Big Brother was Orwell’s way of warning against too much government power.
By the time America reached the early 1970s, our own political system was showing early warning signs of a similarly Orwellian nightmare.
The “Me Decade” did not see the rise of American fascism per se. Instead, its citizens witnessed a breakdown of democracy resulting from the Watergate scandal. People were being spied on, wire tapped, and manipulated by powerful institutions and elected officials. It was this political turmoil that gave rise to another artist, Francis Ford Coppola, who had just won over critics with The Godfather (1972), a film which wrestled with the tug of war between power and morality.
In his next directorial venture, The Conversation (1974), Coppola attempted to put a fractured American society back into perspective after their exposure to President Richard Nixon’s deception. The character, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), radiates the self-consciousness and paranoia of the Watergate years with his every step and suspicious glance at unfamiliar faces. His characterization, narrative journey, and placement within the frame all serve one common purpose: to show a powerless man trapped in a world of confusion and unpredictable danger.
Caul is a solitary man living an almost monastic existence. He is dedicated to the one thing that gives him purpose: surveillance. Due to the nature of his profession, Harry is very selective about who he lets in to his private world. In the beginning of the film, he visits a girlfriend, played by Teri Garr, to celebrate his birthday with a bottle of wine. When she asks him if he has any secrets, her attempt to foster intimacy frightens him away.
A coworker named Stan (John Cazale) is Harry’s only other friendly social contact. He and Stan don’t get on that well either, since Harry doesn’t know how to leave work at the office. Stan tries befriending his boss, but Harry’s criticism of Stan eventually drives him away. Left by everyone, Harry plays his saxophone as his solitude morphs into loneliness and his job turns into an obsession.
What, then, is Harry Caul’s problem? Is he just some jerk who pushes people away selfishly for work? No. Harry has a tortured past that weighs heavily on his sense of purpose and self. Guilt has buried its way into Harry’s being from an East Coast job that resulted in the murder of an innocent family. His self-imposed penance is cutting him off from forming relationships with people he could possibly hurt. New recordings, however, might provide redemption for Harry by saving a life or two.
Viewing these elements in their proper social context, we see that Harry’s new tapes are more than a mere McGuffin. There is an undeniable parallel to Richard Nixon’s “Watergate tapes”. One crucial object has the power to turn the tide and expose the immoral actions of powerful individuals. Harry is in many ways a stand-in for the average American who, if given a chance and proper information, could restore faith in a system that has been corrupted.
Moreover, Stan’s new employer has frightening similarities to President Nixon. Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) has the slick demeanor of a used car salesman, one who will sell you a lemon if he can make a quick buck. He invades the privacy of others – in one scene, he bugs Harry with a pen microphone. Sneaky tactics are used to one-up opponents in order to maintain a dominant position of power. Echoes of Watergate are heard again.
Apart from the plot, the visual style of The Conversation (1974) is also symbolic of an early 1970s mood. Note in the opening scene the relationship between characters and their environment. Harry and Stan conceal themselves from the world in a surveillance van. They are hiding from their world while at the same time trying to control and manipulate it for their own ends. Two girls stop to check their makeup in the van’s windows, unaware of the outsiders inside.
Harry’s “office” is a physical manifestation of his inner feelings of entrapment and emptiness, too. He and Stan work in a metal cage where all their surveillance equipment is set up: the rest of the space they work in is located in a vacant top floor of an old warehouse.
The camera placement/movement within Harry’s personal space, be it his workspace, his apartment, et cetera – even seems to disregard him as well. Michael Chapman would employ similar techniques while filming 1976’s Taxi Driver: during a phone call, the camera pans away from Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), our lead, to a vacant hallway, which suggests his hollow existence.
A single shot from the The Conversation (1974) is the crux of the entire film, from a thematic standpoint. Harry is in a bathroom – normally a safe, quiet, meditative place – surrounded by this tools, bugging the adjacent hotel room. He climbs into a tight hole between the sink and the toilet to drill a spot in the wall where he can get the best reception. His headphones allow him to block out the world and focus solely on his work. Harry has quite literally backed himself into a corner with his task.
The camera pushes in on Harry, as the sound of his tapes and an argument get louder. A tight close-up of Harry’s face reveals his fear and anger, until the words “I love you” make him whip off the headphones, stand up and regroup. He is once again trapped in a situation where he has no control over the outcome and yet feels an obligation to take action. A wall firmly divides Harry from what he could do and what he can do.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) was nominated for three Academy Awards and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It has remained in the public consciousness for over forty years due largely in part to its strong acting performances and innovative visual storytelling. Film critics and scholars return to this film because it is a snapshot of an era: the early 1970s were a time of confusion, paranoia and frustration. In many ways, not much has changed.
In 2016 the average American citizen still needs to question authority and re-examine existing social structures. We still need to ask the following questions: What if the powerless were given a real opportunity to change things for the better? Is it even possible for one person with good intentions to expose the evils of the establishment?
Remember the words of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”