In a world in which cameras and microphones are everywhere, from the street corners to our very own computers, The Conversation (1974) seems like a quaint and outdated thriller. It focuses on a man whose job is to spy on people, but at the same time said man is very protective of his own privacy and lives in constant fear of someone tapping his phone lines. However a major lesson of Francis Ford Coppola’s film, which still applies today, is that having a recording of someone’s private conversations is one thing, but knowing what to do with that information is whole other ball game.
When I first watched The Conversation it was probably about one year after Edward Snowden leaked classified information regarding the United States’ ability to spy on practically anyone not living in a cave. If you have a cell phone, a tablet, a laptop, or just a good old landline, they will find a way to listen to what you are saying. In 1998 Gene Hackman starred in Enemy of the State, a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Conversation, and his character goes on a rant about the government’s spying abilities. When that movie came out I remember seeing government officials on the news laughing at the movie, saying it greatly exaggerated their power. Sadly, today’s technology has caught up the paranoia of both The Conversation and Enemy of the State, and it is better to cover the camera on your laptop if you want a semblance of actual privacy.
Back in the 1970s recording a conversation between two individuals, especially if they were talking in a crowded and public place, was a difficult task, but not one above Harry Caul (Hackman). Living in a San Francisco office building designed to isolate him, Caul is a surveillance expert, which is a polite way of saying a spy. He is not a spy in the James Bond sense, rather in the sense that he is paid to record people’s words no matter who they are. Somehow everything Caul does is perfectly legal, and there are even conventions where he and his colleagues can peruse the latest surveillance gadgets that will make their jobs easier. Imagine what they would think of today’s iPhones.
What makes Caul one of cinema’s great characters, thanks to a solid performance by Hackman, is that he is a fascinating contradiction. His colleagues say he is one of the best in the surveillance business, yet at the same time he has problems having conversations of his own in social situations and very much values his privacy. Even worse for a man in his line of work, he begins to have questions about the morality of what he does, especially since one of his past recordings resulted in the deaths of three people. In order to assuage his strong Catholic guilt, he tells himself once the recording is handed over to his clients the situation is quite literally out of his hands.
His faith and conscience are severely put to the test when he realizes his client (Robert Duvall) might have nefarious intentions regarding a couple whose conversation he recorded at a crowded square. After cleaning out the audio with his colleague (John Cazale), Caul becomes obsessed with the meaning of the couple’s words and whether it might get them killed. When he delays in delivering the recording to his client’s threatening aide (Harrison Ford), Caul begins to think he too might become a target. Suddenly the spy is afraid the microphones could be recording him.
The scene in which Caul desperately tears apart his apartment in search of listening devices might look like a paranoid man gone insane, but by the end of the movie we have learned just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not listening. Today the spies don’t even have to install a listening bug in your lamps; instead they just have to hack the microphones that are already in your house. You want total privacy? If you are reading this online, then it probably means you don’t have it.