by Nikkolas Nelson
“Don’t just call me paranoid.
Try and read between the lines…”
It’s almost unfair that The Conversation and The Godfather: Part II came out the same year, 1974. With the former, Coppola lost Best Picture to himself for the latter and he still had yet to make Apocalypse Now. It’s almost unfair, period. The Conversation is one of my favorite movies. See it if you haven’t yet—I will keep this as spoiler-free as possible. Next to Unforgiven and Prime Cut, it’s my favorite Gene Hackman performance.
To me, the film is about the inherent folly in the human desire for godlike omnipotence—an argument introduced with the telling opening shot—a bird’s eye view that slowly pushes down over a busy park. Harry Caul (Hackman) winds through the crowd, briefly followed by a mime—a seemingly innocuous choice, but a mime’s existence as a silent imitation I believe speaks to, no pun intended, Harry’s true nature and desire. “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice, fat, recording,” he says—essentially the same goal of a mime—to mirror (record) a subject as accurately as possible. However, a mime’s clownish heart understands that this endeavor is ultimately foolish. His comedy is drawn from that source. Harry, on the other hand, takes this effort very seriously—the tragic flaw that leads to his literal downfall.
In our first scene alone with Harry, he politely but bluntly chastises his landlord for letting herself into his apartment to deliver a package. Her main infraction, however, seems to be that it wasn’t immediately apparent to Harry how, despite several locks and an alarm system, she was able to access his apartment. For a moment, the package seems to have miraculously appeared, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that it was the landlord that performed the miracle. But before we dive deeper into that, lastly in this scene, notice that as Harry has this conversation, behind him, outside his living room window, a building is being torn down—a nice piece of foreshadowing.
Harry detests blasphemy. Add to that a trip to the confessional and a small statue of The Virgin Mary in his apartment and we’re led to believe that Harry is simply religious and that’s why he disapproves of taking the Lord’s name in vain. But I don’t believe it’s that simple. God is the ultimate surveyor, capable of the ultimate surveillance. Every action, every word, even every thought anyone ever has, is perfectly recorded. I think Harry respects, and in no small measure, fears his superior competition.
The call (Caul) and response style of jazz also plays a pivotal thematic role—hearing through the chaos for that singular voice that speaks to you like, say, picking out one conversation taking place in a crowded park. When we first see Harry playing the saxophone, he does so along with a recording of an entire band. The last time we see Harry playing, at the close of the film, he plays alone among the ruins of his apartment where he has torn apart even the Virgin Mary statue, looking for the inexplicable besting of his abilities perpetrated by shadowy former clients. Harry resigns to his singular voice as the only possibly reliable one, and therefore, in my interpretation, realizes that he has to quit the surveillance business.
I won’t discuss 1998’s Enemy of the State with nearly the same depth. The fun is watching it immediately following The Conversation and picking out the uncanny similarities. It was my friend Kyle, Moviejawn subscriber, and my constant compagnon cinéma (movie buddy), who first floated the theory to me that Gene Hackman plays the same character in Enemy of the State and The Conversation—Edward Lyle is Harry Caul twenty four years and a name change later. Again, the similarities are almost spooky but not nearly as chilling as the combined prophecy of these two films.
“Once buildings start blowing up, people’s priorities tend to change…” is a harrowing prognostication with the World Trade Center as part of the latter film’s backdrop, not to mention, in the years since, it seems like each new day comes with another story about the overreach of the surveillance state and compromise of our personal data. So, if you’re in the mood for a double feature that will leave you in a fetal position under the dining room table, unable to convince yourself that your cat isn’t “in on it”, and with every electronic device you own fried in the microwave Mr. Robot style, this is the way you’ll want to spend an evening.
PS. I wrote a similar jawn (is this Kansas hayseed using that word right, Philly?): That Song by Rockwell Where Michael Jackson Sings the Hook: An Analysis of A Scanner Darkly available for even more paranoia induced panic attacks on moviejawn.com.