“It’s Not Supposed to Matter”

“The Conversation” Remembered

You can’t fit The Conversation into any neat, cinematic genre convention. It’s a bleak, cynical character study within a psychological thriller. It’s also an inside-out twist on the traditional hard-boiled P.I. as Round Table knight.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is no gumshoe. He’s a surveillance expert. A legendary eavesdropper considered tops in the biz. He’s also a religious man and a very private man. His solitary, isolated life is secured by a door with three locks, the use of payphones, and a mistress he only sees in private. If everyone led as guarded a life as Caul, a kind of perverted seclusion, he’d probably be out of a job.

The job is everything to Caul, the consummate professional. It’s all about the challenge, the operation, getting the best damn recording he can. He couldn’t care less about why he was hired, who the subjects are, and what they’re talking about. Whenever his assistant Stan (John Cazale) expresses the slightest interest beyond the mechanics of the work, Caul cuts him off quick:

“Listen, if there’s one sure-fire rule that I have learned in this business, it’s that I don’t know anything about human nature. I don’t know anything about curiosity. That’s not part of what I do.”

Caul does share one cliché with his cinematic predecessors, and that’s a past. One of his jobs went south and led to the deaths of three people. That’s an incident that haunts Caul, even caused him to relocate across the country. But that’s not what makes him tick. It merely adds fuel to the fire.

The crux of the conversation begins the film. Caul’s been hired to record a meeting between Ann and Mark (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) at San Francisco’s Union Square. The public plaza is crowded with people and noise, requiring operatives on the ground as well as rooftops to provide the coverage Caul needs.

Ann and Mark are probably star-crossed lovers conducting an illicit affair. Caul’s client is probably a jealous spouse or lover. None of it matters to Caul. It’s not supposed to matter. That’s what he tells himself. But one snatch of dialogue won’t let him alone. The recording begins to chase Caul as much as he chases after the perfect recording.

Other plot elements turn up the heat, and Caul’s sucked in, contrary to every mercenary instinct he possesses. Something sinister’s afoot. Menace is at hand. Life and death hang in the balance. Harry Caul really cares, despite everything he tells himself, and that struggle is the heart of the film. That’s a fascinating twist on the traditional role of movie sleuth.

Take some of the best-known examples of black and white bloodhounds. The films were black and white on the screen, with the moral codes to go with them. Spade never second-guessed his belief in righting wrongs and serving justice. The poor schmo was fully prepared to sacrifice love, and probably a roll in the hay with Mary Astor, for the sake of avenging his partner and punishing the guilty. Marlowe also walked a righteous tightrope, loyal to those who deserved it, and unswerving in his belief that no bad deed should go unpunished.

Movies and their sleuths grew up, hardened, turned more violent and more cynical. It’s tough to beat the atomic explosion of 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly for sheer noir bitterness. By the 1970s, with the country reeling from Viet Nam fallout and the Watergate scandal, audiences cheered when cop Dirty Harry (1971) tortured a suspect, and even Marlowe was reinvented as a vigilante in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1972). The classic Chinatown presented a golden age dick motivated just as much by not being played for a schmuck as by serving the common good.

That leads us to Harry Caul and The Conversation. A cynical response to dirty politics, big brother and maybe even the romanticized worldview of the director’s own The Godfather (1972). (The Conversation came out in January 1974, while The Godfather Part II premiered in December 1974.)

Caul’s not just a crack surveillance man, he’s the archetypal hard-boiled investigator turned amoral. Going in, he doesn’t care what the subjects are talking about. He doesn’t want to know what they’re talking about. He couldn’t care less about right, wrong, up, down, the man in the moon. Not knowing is comfortable. Not knowing is safe.

Give The Conversation a good hard look, and a good hard listen, because there’s plenty there, on multiple levels. Coppola directs with a tight and sure hand, presenting a terrific turn by Hackman as everyman. The pacing flags a time or two, but will mostly capture and haunt you, just like Harry Caul is trapped by his own occupation. Even the Harry Cauls of this world can’t stay on the sidelines forever.

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  • THE CONVERSATION | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
    (1974, Paramount)
    113 minutes
    Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola
    Starring Gene Hackman as HARRY CAUL
    Also starring John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Michael Higgins, Elizabeth MacRae, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford, Mark Wheeler, Robert Shields, Phoebe Alexander
Respectfully submitted by Ben Solomon, June 2014. Ben was the creator of The Hard-Boiled Detective, a subscription-based pulp mag on the web featuring an unnamed, tough-as-nails private dick. It was a delicious and unapologetic throwback to another, simpler era; an era of broad-shouldered he-men and soft-shouldered broads, where fedoras and trenchoats are the order of the day and the roscoes spit ka-chow ka-chow all night long. It was also a certified hoot.

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