Alexandra Petrache revisits a Coppola classic, recently screened at BFI Southbank for its Thriller season launch.
Found in a brutal-looking brown glassy building with a friendly and welcoming restaurant on the ground floor, the inside of the BFI Southbank throws you into an overwhelming mixture of red velvet, interactive sound installations and – as my friend Mariam put it the moment we walked in, getting a drink before entering the screening – a “21st-century take on a 1920s bar”.
The Conversation is a 1974 thriller written, directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, whom I had shamefully only known for “The Godfather” trilogy. It tells the story of Harry Caul, a surveillance expert with strong work ethics, who faces an internal struggle upon listening in to what sounds like a potential murder – should he get involved, or should he be “professional” and give his client the tapes regardless?
The film’s introduction follows a street mime who tries to impersonate rushing passers-by. Although superficially cheerful and relaxing, the scene feels claustrophobic, taking place in one square – San Francisco’s Union Square. Oddly enough, I felt watched and restless observing it. The camera pans to a character holding a large microphone (had I not known what the film was about, I would have thought it was a bazooka) behind a neon panel. We are being introduced to the world of surveillance experts. A cacophony of sounds and information emerges: musicians, random conversations, footsteps, everything else you might hear on a trivial day in a city square, and a couple just about raising their voices above everything else. We meet them again and again – when they comment about a homeless person who has fallen victim to the cold, when they talk about Christmas presents, when they wonder whether they would be able to “do it”. They look like they are being chased, constantly looking around and pretending to be having a regular conversation. A man knocks on the door of a van turned into a surveillance station: enter Harry Caul, the best in the field of surveillance, with unsuspecting looks and clothing. His only signature item is a grey long raincoat he takes everywhere.
Coppola gives away the turns of the plot little by little, giving audiences minute pieces of information to pick at. Although Harry does not talk much about himself, other characters drop small hints about his past and present – like the fact that Harry is “number one” surveillance, or that he started working in New York.
A parallel to how we use technology nowadays?
Harry is considered the best in this field, a true legend, and perhaps because he is always on the spying side of conversations, he is paranoid and obsessed with his own privacy. He barricades himself inside his flat and makes sure no one goes in. He pretends he doesn’t have a phone and does not answer any personal questions from other people. The film is an excellent parallel to how technology shapes the world and it is still very relevant to our days. We are the opposite of Harry Caul: we live a life very much made public through photos, check-ins and “likes”. We store our bank details online, pay using fingerprints and sign up to text alerts from the local ostrich egg farmer.
The colours of the film also depict a sombre and metallic reality, where privacy is apparent and even a conversation can be misunderstood. Palettes of grey, brown, green and yellow take over, giving the film a visual aspect that feels safe and predictable, while colours like red introduce key moments in the film and turns of plot.
Being such a freak for privacy and not even opening up to those closest to him, it seems odd that Harry allows his work colleagues to come back to his workplace after a conference and have a party. It is not only an invasion of his privacy, but also a risk for his work, with many tapes just lying around, including the ones that held the recent conversation he was obsessing over.
You should definitely watch it
The Conversation is a concoction of paranoia, fear and internal dilemmas. It still resonates strongly with today’s society, the use of technology and aroma of slight fraud.
Harry’s existence is a hypocrisy. He says he doesn’t “know anything about human nature […], anything about curiosity”, but he is curious in his own way – his fight with himself and obsession with the couple’s conversation show him unconsciously reaching for that sheer human nature he so vehemently despises.
The calibre of his work and the obsession for professionalism should offer Harry a safe and warm routine, but that turns against him when he has the slightest doubt; his world built on a foundation of high-quality well-done work starts wobbling when the conversation comes into his life. Perhaps it has echoes in another past job he had completed?
The Conversation was screened at BFI Southbank on October 20th for the launch of Thriller film season ‘Who Can You Trust?’.
[Coppola & Hackman on set]