The Conversation (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola is best known for the Godfather films, but between the first and second installment, he made a small, intimate film called The Conversation. Starring Gene Hackman in a brilliant, understated performance, the film traces a few days in the life of a surveillance expert, Harry Caul. He has recently taped an innocuous conversation between a man and a married woman—probably a case of adultery. But it doesn’t rise above cheap detective work, and clearly Caul’s capabilities for listening to under-the-breath dialogue put him in a class above an average private investigator. When an initial drop of the tape goes badly, Caul begins to think more about the contents of the recording, leading him to question everything he thought he knew.

The Conversation turns out to be a compelling thriller. Coppola’s sound design makes the greatest impact, as snippets of the original conversation find their way into Caul’s memory, and therefore the film, at various moments through the film. Not only do these snippets serve to inform Caul’s psychological state, but they also begin to take on new meaning, shattering like glass throughout every corner of the film, ultimately redirecting the narrative as Caul’s knowledge of the conversation solidifies.

But what is most interesting about the film is the way Caul’s increasingly fragile psychological state mirrors the cultural context of the last century or so. With the continued advancement of technology, we have grown ever more reliant on it for our knowledge and experience of the world. We don’t have conversations the same way we used to. We now have them mediated for us through various media, thus coming to rely ever more on the individual piece of technology for our experience of reality, relationships, and community.

So, while Caul initially believes in his methods, and uses the most sophisticated tools of the day to listen in to the conversation, he finds that simply an accurate recording of the conversation does not yield him the full truth of the situation. Listening to voices through a box only gives him a limited amount of information. He thinks he knows the truth. But when he listens again, the meaning seems to morph. And again. And again. And again. This leads to Caul feeling increasingly disoriented about what he does and doesn’t know. And that disorientation leaves him unmoored from any meaningful community—even though he “listens” better than anyone around.

In our contemporary cultural context, the disintegration of Caul reminds us of the great irony of a common term: the word “connected.” It means that through the various means of technology available to us, we are able to communicate at any time and any place. We can hear them and they can hear us, therefore we have a greater attachment to them. But instead of actually feeling and being connected at a real and fully human level, people have too often fallen into the trap of allowing the tools of technology to be the primary means of relating to one another. That yields a situation in which people become ever more alone and isolated, cut off from the beauty and spontaneity of true and life-giving human community.

Even 35 years later, The Conversation serves as a strikingly contemporary cautionary tale. It reminds us that though the modern world promises that through technology we will come upon an increased connection with and a clearer vision of one another, we must recognize that ultimately, these sources are fatally flawed—we must look elsewhere for truth, for knowledge, and for true community.

5 thoughts on “The Conversation (1974)

  1. Nice write up, as always, John.

    Quick plug–Zizek deals with this film quite a bit in “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.” Although he speaks in more depth about Lynch and Hitchcock, he does use “The Conversation” to illustrate many of his points. If you haven’t already seen it, I recomend it as something that enhanced my appreciation of Coppola’s film.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Ken. I think you’ve mentioned it several times in other contexts, so it was on the edge of my radar. I’ll make a point to check it out now.

  3. we agree on a film! Imagine that! Nice review of an under-appreciated gem. As I watched I kept thinking how lonely and disconnected from people this guy was and how his voyeurism was more than a little creepy.

  4. :) I like to mix things up now and again, to keep you off balance, you know. And I appreciate the mention of voyeurism. So much of our modern world is built on being voyeurs–movies being just one example of that. Another great reason why this film remains so contemporary.

    I keep thinking this would make a nice double feature with Rear Window.

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