The Conversation can sometimes be a little dwarfed by coming between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, but it’s easily one of Francis Ford Coppola’s very best films, remarkably free of the more lurid auteurist anxieties that preoccupied so much of his work from the 70s on. It’s also one of the most remarkable surveillance thrillers of the 70s, suffused with anxiety around public space, and anchored in one of Gene Hackman’s most melancholy and introspective performances as Harry Caul, a surveillance contractor who is hired to record a conversation in San Francisco’s Union Square. Harry has become the best in the business by remaining aloof from his targets, but this particular conversation quickly becomes an obsession, alienating him from his colleague Stan, played by John Cazale, and sending him into ever more dangerous situations and paranoid states of mind as he attempts to get to the truth behind his recording – who’s speaking, who commissioned it, and what type of criminal enterprise is bound up with him delivering these tapes on time.
Many of these concerns are established in the film’s iconic opening scene, which takes the form of a slow pan down over Union Square, moving us closer to the two people having the conversation, as Caul lurks nearby, picking up their words, which are then relayed to his technicians, who are stationed in nearby buildings and in a control van. The stately naturalism of this enormous pan is offset by the bursts of static that rupture the soundscape of the scene, indicating that the film’s paranoia will be particularly acute around sound, and the possibility that someone is always listening. We first meet one of the key sound technicians poised, sniper-like, with a parabolic dish, on top of a building, ushering in a Cold War landscape where surveillance has become a more potent weapon that actual artillery ever was – a world in which private and public utterances have become so confused and confounded that Coppola has to struggle to maintain the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic sound that typically differentiates public and private space in mainstream cinema. The result is a radically denuded public sphere, presented here in the guise of Union Square, in which people are either oblivious and destitute, unaware of Caul passing amongst them, or else forced into performative muteness and mimicry, as in the case of the mime artist who moves through the crowd, the only person who can escape Caul’s microphones.
This disruption of private and public space means that it’s very difficult to establish a stable middle distance in this opening scene – or at least a middle distance that eludes surveillance – since long shots are absorbed into the scopic sightlines of recording devices, while close-ups are largely reserved for the scenes in which Caul’s team process and “clean” their recordings. Coppola’s opening tracking-shot sets the scene with a performative inability to bridge these two worlds, attempting to create a smooth transition from distance to closeness, but too ruptured and glitched by the noise of Caul’s recording devices to ever feel entirely seamless or convincing. In American cinema, the middle distance, and its associations with moderation, rationality, and common sense, has typically been associated with the male gaze both in terms of characters and directors, so it’s perhaps not surprising that The Conversation presents surveillance first and foremost as a severe crisis in masculinity – a technological castration in which the surveillant male gaze is displaced by surveillance technology, not unlike the way in which the suburban male gaze is displaced by the address of cable television in horror films about the nuclear family unit during the 80s.
Caul is the embodiment of this masculine crisis of surveillance, and responds with a kind of involuted masculine identity, stripping himself of character and affect with the same vigour with which the mid-century model of masculinity accrued it. The only personal items he owns are his keys, and his personal space is purely extrinsic – personal only insofar as nobody else can enter it, not even his lover, Meredith, played by Elizabeth McRae, who he visits once a week, but who is never permitted to come to his house or work. Caul only permits himself personal expression by retreating deep into melancholy solipsism of jazz improvisation – the only art form, as the film presents it, that is capable of evoking a world where men can only survive surveillance by becoming a part of it, turning themselves inside out to form a mute conduit for data about other people’s lives. For all Caul’s fetishistic attachment to surveillance technology, his main goal is to deflect surveillance from himself.
As a result, none of Coppola’s other characters are quite so present, or quite so absent, as Caul, who appears in virtually every scene, but perpetually displaces himself from what is occurring around him. Withdrawing from any relationship as soon as there is the slightest hint of a personal demand, he doesn’t even register his birthday, on the day the film opens, until Meredith gives him a present and asks him to tell her more about his life – at which point he abruptly dumps her. Insofar as he has a “character”, it mainly derives from his professional perfectionism, and his need to reassert his displaced masculinity through his work ethic and product. In one scene, he overtakes a gang of teenagers in a car to flex his surveillance chops on them, while in another he makes a joke about a “fag wiretapper” to show off his surveillance machismo. Most of the people he interacts with in the film are other surveillance experts, who clearly revere him, and perceive him as the alpha male within their community, partly because of how little he gives away about both his personal and professional life. All of these traits play perfectly to Hackman’s strengths as an actor – his capacity to suggest feelings buried so deep beneath the surface we may never see them – and Hackman beautifully captures the fragility of Caul’s personal space, in a role that depends on his proprioceptive paranoia as much as conventional body language or delivery.
Despite these hints of submerged passions – or perhaps because of them – The Conversation has quite a bleak, cold tone after the lurid pulp melodrama of The Godfather. Whereas the musical motifs of The Godfather swell, build and grow ever more emotional, the musical backdrop of the opening scene here – the conversation – are replayed, scrubbed and cleaned by Caul until they lose any affective resonance or immediacy. This coldness radiates out onto Coppola’s depiction of San Francisco, which often recalls that of Vertigo, since Coppola, like Hitchcock, taps into the winding streets to capture a state of continuous, circuitous, circumambient surveillance, in which Caul adopts a similar slippery position between surveiller and surveilled to James Stewart’s Scottie. Time and again, Coppola situates the action in vacant, gaping spaces, saturated with the possibility of surveillance – empty lots, abandoned streets, glass boxes and mass transit. It’s no coincidence that Caul disguises his surveillance van as a glassfitter’s unit, since he treats every surface as if it were glass – a transparent conduit for powers he can never entirely articulate, not unlike the security conference he attends where every imaginable everyday object is turned into a cipher for surveillance, a site of unexpected and uncanny mediation.
Since this effectively demolishes any semblance of a public sphere, Caul responds by transforming his own office into a miniature public sphere. Encompassing an entire floor of a downbeat office block, this workspace is full of thresholds, gates and barriers that are designed to differentiate public from private space, both to preserve Caul’s own personal life, but also to accommodate group events – people, parties, motorbike driving, romance – under tightly controlled circumstances. Trying to recreate a public sphere even as he flees from the impossibility of a public sphere, Caul thus often feels like a facet of the cityscape more than anything else, trying to situate himself in just the right communicative or surveillant node to avoid drawing too much attention to himself as a structural oddity or anomaly. However, the conversation that starts the film eventually complicates this process, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Caul is prevented from handing over the tapes in person, which goes against his personal ethic of maintaining as precise a chain of custody as possible. This draws him closer to the objects of his surveillance – the man and woman having the conversation – which in turn makes the corporation contracting the surveillance seem even more opaque, threatening, and itself resistant to the surveillance Caul performs.
Some of the most spectacular scenes in the film occur in Caul’s trips to this corporation, headquartered in the austere postmodern precinct of One Embarcadero Centre, which was only completed three years before the film was released, in 1971. In many ways, this building embodies surveillance – an enormous poured concrete edifice, impossible to read from the outside, but fitted with panoramic windows that offer an panoramic command of space that exceeds even the high-angle shot of Union Square in the opening scenes. Here, we meet “The Director,” played by Robert Duvall, and his assistant, Michael Stett, played by Harrison Ford, but their reasons for wanting the tapes become more opaque as Caul gets closer to their office on the first floor. It’s clear from early on in the film that the surveillance racket exceeds political and presidential agency – one of Caul’s associates boasts that he broke a presidential candidate – but an even more amorphous global power starts to emerge in these scenes in the Embarcadero skyscraper, not unlike the glimpses of postmodern capital that proliferate throughout the Cuban and Vegas scenes in Godfather II.
In lieu of being able to articulate this postmodern economic field, and its dependence upon images and information as the source of a new kind of capital, The Conversation evokes this emergent surveillant agency in two key ways. First, Coppola presents it as the source of a new and perverse violence, not unlike the sexual torture of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. To some extent, Caul can handle this violence, shrugging off the fact that his most accomplished piece of work to date resulted in a family of three being shaved, bound and beheaded – facts, he insists, that simply go beyond the purview of his job, and the quality of his work product. However, Coppola also present surveillance as the source of a narrative configuration that can’t be fully processed by New Hollywood, since it seems to hinge upon a romantic rapport between The Director and his assistant, and a broader homoerotic love triangle, that couldn’t be understood within the naturalism of American cinema at this particular moment in time. It’s the impossibility of resolving this narrative that obsesses Caul, not least because it speaks to his greatest, most primal fear – that the entities behind surveillance are not only invested in compromising traditional masculinity, but in erecting a new homoerotic world order in its place. To be surveilled, in this narrative possibility, is to be penetrated, visually and sonically, by other men – and Caul is obsessed and haunted by the possibility this might be happening without him even being aware of it.
In order to forestall this possibility, Caul holds onto the tapes he has created, attempting to reclaim control of the opening shot of Union Square, and the vistas of San Francisco from the Embarcadero windows, while resetting the public sphere in the process. This means resolving the fragmented audiovisual field of the film, and the audio of the tapes themselves, whose background noise is alternately too loud and too soft, only reaching a naturalistic middle ground after Caul does his very best work on it – work no other surveillance technician could achieve – to give it some semblance of focus. Yet despite this work on the tape, the audiovisual field continues to deteriorate while Caul maintains possession of the tapes, as Coppola moves between increasingly threatening panoramic shots and increasingly frantic close-up shots. Try as he might, Caul is unable to reset the naturalistic balance of the film, which remains open, right to the end, as a challenge and manifesto for New Hollywood naturalism – to recalibrate a world whose masculine command of sound and vision has been denatured and denuded by corporate surveillance.
Yet The Conversation seems to also glimpse that the very way in which New Hollywood framed this problem – as a crisis in masculine sightlines – was itself destined to partly perpetuate the problem, if only by framing surveillance culture as an individual male trauma, rather than as part of a broader postmodern trauma. As a result, Caul remains a figure of thwarted auteurism – the first of many in Coppola’s career – who is never quite able to retain control over his own work product, despite doing everything he can to perfect it. The primal fear of New Hollywood, in Coppola’s vision, is that film controls us more than it addresses us – and that even the most daring of male auteurist gestures is destined to perpetuate this process without some broader overhaul of identity politics that the film can never quite conceptualise outside of the homoerotic love triangle that fuels the surveillance in the first place, and which Coppola continually displaces and disperses. In the final parts of the film, Coppola evokes this sense of finitude, and the limitations of the New Hollywood project, through scenes and spaces so pristine, clinical and detailed in their naturalistic coordinates they seem to have papered over a proportionate horror – an abject surveillant possibility that requires the most rigorous and stylised naturalism to temporarily repress it.
This naturalism culminates with Caul trying to inhabit the conversation, and inhabit his own tapes, by renting a hotel room next door to where the couple in the conversation are planning to meet. All the film’s surveillant energy coalesces around the bathroom in Caul’s apartment, where he sets up his equipment, and the bathroom in the couple’s apartment, which he investigates after a hallucinatory sequence in which the couple appear to be have been murdered. This second bathroom, in particular, is presented as both the apex of Coppola’s clean, precise naturalism, and as a repository of abject surveillance, which comes to the surface when Caul has a vision of the toilet overflowing with blood and bandages. Like the flushing toilet in Pyscho, the toilet here stands in for a homoerotic gaze that can’t ever be properly processed by the film, leaving this hotel sequence unresolved, caught between Caul’s efforts to evade surveillance and his paranoid fantasies of the end point of surveillance – and between the various possible outcomes of the tape in question. All we learn, for sure, is that The Director is killed partly as a result of the tape, and that Caul’s own directorial agency is simultaneously cut off by a phone call in which he is informed that the corporation will always be watching him, even or especially in his most isolated moments.
This produces the iconic conclusion of the film – a vision of New Hollywood turning against itself as Caul tears his apartment to shreds to try and find any concealed microphones, dismantling the immaculate mise-en-scenes he has constructed to preserve the autonomy of his masculine gaze. Ironically, this process makes the apartment feel even more surveilled, reducing it to a series of yawning sightlines as Caul tries to do what the corporation demands, and what he can never achieve – expunge his memory of the tapes, as Coppola cuts to tapes forone last time as Caul, defeated retreats to his saxophone, riffing through a series of melancholy refrains that now, finally, link up with the jazzy piano score that has percolated throughout the entire film. For one brief moment, diegetic and non-diegetic sound are aligned, but the effect is simply to implicate Coppola’s camera, which now pans mechanically back and forth, with the unseen source of surveillance that Caul can never quite articulate. At the very moment the camera glimpses the agency behind surveillance, it becomes a part of that surveillance, and so The Conversation ends with a helpless sense that the cinema industry – including New Hollywood – is too enmeshed in the postmodern economies of surveillance to make any critical commentary upon it, save for this final and flamboyant gesture of macho defeatism. The result is one of the starkest films of Coppola’s career, suffused with the same tactile attention to objects and surfaces as The Godfather, but now set in a world in which the people responsible for them have vanished.