The Conversation; Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
Throughout the last decades, it has been said a lot about this movie and its timely coincidences with the “Watergate” case. There is so little to add to this subject, that the next lines will not mention a word of political matter. It is over and it is not my field.
On the other hand, let us have a look on this story depicted by the synthetic sounds heard by Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) during his professional wiretapping activities, as a private listener.
The movie opens with an amazing landscape from the Union Square in San Francisco, which is progressively moving from the air to ground level. The eye sets a target when the ear identifies the correct sound of a conversation emerging between a young lady and his partner. This is what the protagonist is working on: the recording of a private speech, a case of marital infidelity. He has been hired for doing that and is good at it.
Ironically, it seems to be nothing more upsetting for Harry Caul than the simple fact of having a meddler landlady. He arrives at home and notices that somebody has been there before, just to leave him a happy birthday card at the table. He does not have the only copy of the keys and feels kind of being under control of somebody.
During the major part of the film, we have Harry Caul dwelling upon what he does not want to be known for, as the saying goes everybody is the owner of what he silents and a slave of what he tells, he seems to follow it to the letter. Harry’s private life is kept away even from his lover. The moment he goes to see her in the middle of the night, we notice that she wants to know more about that man she eventually sleeps with. She wants to know his secrets but he hasn’t: he lives for the others’ secrets and keeps no one for himself. He is as empty as his apartment.
In the same way the recent The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006) did, the story deals with the problem of not having feelings to share with those who are in the surroundings. The protagonists of both films only think by others’ minds, of those they hear, spy and work for. By denying any sort of emotional implication on what they do, they loose their identity and end up mentally annihilated.
Thus, it may be noticed that there is a deeper sense of introspection in the plot than what it could be supposed at first sight. Not only politics but also psyche and emotion.
By using the central character’s mental block, the viewer understands he feels guilty and responsible for what is probably going to happen. Because of his strong Catholic beliefs, instead of run away, he worries and tries to help.
In dreams, Harry has the chance to talk to the adulteress lady and to prevent her for the danger, but he only speaks about his childhood; for the first time, his familiar privacy gets exposed, although it happens in dreams.
The stunning scene in the outcome reveals the true nature of this peculiar listener character: the aim for a childish state which is irreversibly miscarried.