Thursday, August 6, 2015

Francis Ford Coppola | The Conversation

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By Douglas Messerli

Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay and director) The Conversation / 1974

The acclaimed surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), is a genius at finding ways to overhear conversations where the speakers feel they are out-of-reach and totally safe. And in the very first scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant exposé of late 20th century paranoia proves that by following apparently illicit lovers (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they circle about Union Square in San Francisco at lunch, surrounded by amateur jazz singers,  bongo drummers, a mime, and numerous talking and gossiping San Franciscans with a long range recorder directed from a nearby high-rise like a machine-gun aimed at the couple’s lips and through bugging devices planted on two of luncheon visitors. Overseeing these proceedings is Caul himself, draped in a plastic rain-coat that makes him stand out in the crowd like a dowdy bag lady. Fortunately, he soon joins his regular partner, Stan (John Cazale) in a nearby panel truck where he is receiving and taping information coming from the various sources.

It is a brilliant ballet (filmed by Haskell Wexler, who was fired soon after) that seems to establish Caul in the viewer’s mind as precisely the surveillance legend that others proclaim him throughout the rest of the film. Working with Stan, Caul gradual teases out nearly every sentence of the couple and within a few days is ready to turn in the results in to the executive, simply described as the Director (Robert Duvall), who has hired him.

      Yet—despite the obvious fact that Caul is emotionally cut off from his fellow man and argues against trying to comprehend the reasons why he has been hired to undertake these sophisticated feats in tracking (he builds all of his own devices)—the clever voyeur, in this  case, has serious doubts. First of all, Caul is a man of faith—if not a man of great principle. And, in the past, working for the federal government he has been responsible, indirectly, the vengeful death of a man, his wife, and his child, killed because the man’s boss, with whom he had been involved in a fraud, in convinced no one else could have known of their plans. In short, Caul’s clever subterfuge has gotten the man and his family killed.
     After watching him in the confession box, however, we realize that his real faith lies in his professional expertise 
     In the end, it is precisely because Caul has no way to truly comprehend how to interconnect with his fellow human beings—his life is entirely consumed into the secretiveness of his employment, and he has difficulty in even answering the simplest of questions asked by his occasional lover, Amy (Terri Garr)—that he has difficulty interpreting the words spoken by the couple on his tape.
     In part, because of the woman’s simply expressed empathy—she sympathizes with a passed-out drunk lying on a nearby bench, she pleads for change to contribute to the impromptu jazz concert, and sighs deeply about conditions of their affair—Caul does not know how to read the other somewhat unrelated comments such as the male’s originally inaudible statement (fixed by Caul’s mechanical devices) “He'd kill us if he got the chance.”

    Combined by his feelings that the woman is severely saddened, he interprets the comment to mean that her husband would kill them if he knew about their relationship. And Caul, going over and over the tapes, begins to read them in new ways that suggest he is imposing more and more meaning, for better or worse, upon their sentences, while fearing that in delivering up the tapes he, himself, may be sentencing the young couple to violence or even death. Like the central figure of Antonioni’s Blowup, Caul attempts again and again to make sense of what  cannot be fully perceived.
     As Roger Ebert noted, however, we soon have even more reasons to begin to suspect the expertise of this bugging “genius.” Although Caul has three locks and an alarm guarding his apartment door, his landlady, is able to enter and leave behind a gift for his birthday, and later, telephones him on an unlisted phone he claims not to own. She has evidently had another key made and has also opened his mail. 
     Caul’s of-and-on girlfriend reports that she has observed Caul watching her from the staircase for over an hour, and she knows when he is about to enter her apartment, from how he inserts the key quietly and then opens the door quickly, that he is  expecting to encounter her with another man. 
     At a convention selling new surveillance devices, Caul is easily tricked by a peer, claiming to be his competitor, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) to carry a listening device with a gift of pen.

      And then there is, again, the problem of his conscience. Although he arrives at the Director’s offices with tape in hand, ready to hand it over for his payment of $15,0000, the fact that the Director’s assistant, Martin Stett (a very young Harrison Ford), suggests he pass it on to him, makes Caul suspicious, since he has been ordered to deliver it up only to the Director; he escapes without his payment, despite continued threats from Stett.
      Stett, moreover, soon after seems to be stalking him at the same convention, and after the convention Caul allows a drunken party to be held in his Spartan offices, where, after bedding down with a seemingly sensitive whore, he awakens to discover that she has stolen the tape, delivering it up to Stett and, presumably, to his boss.
     When he calls the Director from his “nonexistent” home phone, the assistant telephones back, revealing that they too know his home number. Although Caul is paid, he observes both Stett and the Director listening to the tape with a kind of anger that he, once again, misreads as another piece of evidence that the young woman, obviously the Director’s wife, and her lover may be harmed.
      For the first time in his life, Caul becomes determined, so it appears, to intervene, to act on his knowledge and prevent the murders. As he notes in a dream to a figure resembling the Director’s wife, “I'm not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”
      Taking a hotel room next to the one for which the couple has made an appointment in the tape, Caul, uses his tools to listen in, once more, to the conversations going on on the other side of the wall. Shouting and threats soon ensue, while, in terror, Caul rushes to the balcony to see if he might intervene; he faces a bloody figure and escapes back into his own room, terrified at what he has done, but still unable to actually involve himself. 
      When, after hours, the noise dies down, he breaks into the couple’s room only to find it immaculately made up, with nothing out of place. A visit to the bathroom shower reveals no signs of battle or blood. Finally, breaking the seal of the toilet, he sees only pure water—that is, until he flushes it, blood welling up along with what are obviously the papers used to clean it up.
      Returning to the Director’s offices, he is permitted no entry and guards threaten him until he is forced to leave. In front of the building, however, sits a limousine inside of which sits the young woman he has supposed to have been killed. Newspapers soon report the death of the Director in an automobile crash.
       Suddenly Caul and we both know that he has utterly misread the situation, has misinterpreted the words the couple spoke, the tone of their voices, and the meaning of their vaguely expressed phrases. What might have been read as “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” probably should have been read as a kind justification for the act the couple was contemplating, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Obviously they are not about to give him that “chance.” We now must ask if the couple were not purposely using Caul, walking and talking in circles to allow him to tape their elliptic remarks in order to draw the Director into their liar. In short, Caul has simply been used by the couple, who, in turn, working with the assistant, convinced the woman’s husband of the affair so that she might have him killed.

       Caul, without a clue of how to read or comprehend the words he captures upon his tapes, has been paid simply to lead the Director to his death, ideas which are confirmed when, confused and utterly exhausted by the terrible truth, the would-be genius retreats to his room to enjoy his only creative outlet, playing his tenor sax along with a jazz recording—once more a kind of second-hand participation. His phone rings. He answers but no one replies. It rings again, with Stett’s voice: “We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don't get involved any further. We'll be listening to you.” A short tape of the piece his has just played on his instrument follows.
      Now outwitted even in his own game, Caul breaks apart the phone to find the bug. Nothing’s there. He searches the few objects, the trinkets, a painting, and the record player he has in his apartment, finally even breaking apart a figurine of the Virgin Mary. He checks the ventilators, the curtains, the blinds. He breaks into the wallboards tearing through the layers of wallpaper, rips away the entire floor. With nothing left to destroy, he returns to his sax, quietly playing alone in utter despair. Unless he carries the device within the lining of his clothing (an idea posited at one point by his competitor, Moran), the bug can only exist within the beloved saxophone, clearly the only outlet for expression he has left in his life.
      Caul, finally, is left with nothing more to be listened to, even had he even been able to speak.
      If we now fear, rightfully so, the  NSA intrusions into our life, it all began here perhaps, just prior to the Nixon Watergate activities and the attendant tapes that ended his Presidency. Is it any wonder that we might all be a bit paranoid?

Los Angeles, August 6, 2015


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