Francis Ford Coppola most definitely sits high up in the pantheon of great film makers, probably with tenure. Nothing in his estimable career can match up to the year he had in 1974, when he released a pair of Best Film Nominees: The Godfather Part II and The Conversation. It’s near impossible to overstate the impact of The Godfather saga on the history of film, and some even consider Part II the high water mark of the series. But where does The Conversation fit in the discussion? Was the Academy right to pass it over?
The central concern of the film seems to be the role of trust and privacy in intimacy. Harry Caul is a guarded, paranoid surveillance expert who keeps all his secrets to himself. In an early scene, he visits his girlfriend, who couldn’t be a kinder, more comforting presence. When she innocently asks for a little bit of insight into his past, he breaks off their relationship. Immediately, he regrets it. But his is a profession that proves people are never safe. Wherever you go, whatever you do, someone could be listening and readying themselves to exploit you. He can’t bring himself to be vulnerable, and thus he alienates himself from everyone around him.
Despite his nature, Harry longs for connection and absolution. His confessions to a priest are an incredibly painful (but necessary) opportunity to actually discuss himself. When he meets a girl at a party, he unloads his heartbreak over his break-up on her, but still frames his scenario as a hypothetical, vainly trying to keep his distance. In a dream sequence, he eagerly admits every failure he can think of to a fading specter. He’s a man burdened by tremendous guilt, and no one can ease him of it because he is incapable of trust. Despite being a talented saxophonist (as far as I can tell), he is embarrassed to the point of rage when his hobby is revealed against his will. And in yet another hint to the depths of his loneliness, he only plays the sax while following along with a record, so that he may pretend he’s part of the band.
His guilt is a constant presence in his life. Years ago, he managed to record a conversation between a pair of conspirators that mystifies his professional peers. But the results of that recording led to the brutal murder of one of the conspirators and his family. Harry’s greatest achievements are simultaneously his greatest sins. Though Harry pretends he is not culpable for what his surveillance leads to, he is haunted none the less. When he applies his craft to a couple he is assigned to follow and goes over the tapes of their conversation, one key phrase becomes his fixation: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” In this moment, Harry sees the beginnings of a cycle repeating itself, and he worries the ominous Director will seek retribution on the couple. Harry gets a second chance. Or at least it seems that way.
The Conversation attempts a 3rd act twist that caught me off guard a bit. I guess that’s the central goal of a big twist, but it kind of derailed the movie for me. It didn’t really seem to fit with the allegory and emotions the film had been playing with. Fine. So the couple had actually been planning to murder the Director, and Harry misunderstood the key phrase. Is it surprising? Sure. But what does it mean? It kind of robs the story of the guilt and ethical dilemma that haunted him. Harry was borderline powerless in the scenario. What could he have done differently to avoid this tragedy? Spied better? Truly, better surveillance, better invasion of privacy seems the only solution. All this twist suggests is that people are fundamentally unworthy of trust or space, and that seems cynical to the point of insanity. I doubt that’s what Coppola wanted to suggest, but it seems like an inevitable conclusion. Maybe I’m missing something, but this was the worst kind of twist. Not only did it have nothing to do with Harry or his journey, it totally undid the significance of all preceding events.
My violent reaction to the twist speaks to how well the movie was working for me, so I’m willing to entertain the possibility that something went over my head. Particularly since the the final scene of Harry tearing up his apartment and desperately searching for a recording device is such a powerful one, and the final image of Harry playing his saxophone in the ruins of his home such a lasting one. The Conversation is certainly a great piece of film making, but with that twist looming over the whole production, I can’t help but feel it’s more a visceral than a cerebral one.