How ‘The Conversation’ Captured the Essence of 70s Paranoia

Francis Ford Coppola’s classic suspense flick is surveillance with an aural fixation.

One of the idioms I hate is often framed in a question like: “Can I put a bug in your ear?” First off, uh, no, you can’t put a bug in my ear. Second off, even though the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms will have you believe the phrase has something to do with giving someone a hint, “bugs” are also errors in programming code. Or, better yet, the miniature microphones used to listen in on our conversations, which, thanks to the proven surveillance of our digital lives, might be one in the same.

Given this latter meaning, a “bug in the ear” would be like a “camera in the eye” and a harrowing invasion of privacy, the ramifications of which are well explored in our fiction and films. (Anyone see the latest season of Black Mirror?) Our sympathies are often aligned with the surveilled in these depictions, for we are them. But almost as often, our stories explore the experiences of the people who are listening in — the bug in people themselves and their inner lives. For my money, the best of breed in this microgenre is writer-director Francis Ford Coppola’s ode to audio and eavesdropping, The Conversation.

Released in 1974, the film finds actor Gene Hackman as middle-aged (has he ever been anything else?) audio surveillance expert Harry Caul, a Catholic loner for whom spying is a replacement for interpersonal intimacy. He’s tailing a young couple (played by Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams), whose banal-seeming conversation contains details that emerge through repeated listenings, such that Caul comes to believe they’re in danger. He’s been through this before, and it ended badly, so he resolves to make it right, to the chagrin of his powerful client and that client’s lackey, played by a fresh-faced Harrison Ford. Paranoia ensues as Caul tries to intercede on the couple’s behalf, only to be grimly reminded that we can only ever hear part of a story.

“I’m not following you. I’m looking for you. It’s a big difference.” — Martin Stett (played by Harrison Ford)

via DVDClassik

I too have recorded conversations. As a reporter, recording phone calls is par for the course — it’s an understood compact between the interviewer and interviewee. This is in even higher relief with podcast interviews, wherein recording calls is the substance of the thing itself. To wit, I’ve recorded hundreds of conversations. Pre-iPhone, I did this with an array of handheld digital recorders and microcassette recorders before those. So it’s with some sympathy that I can relate when I see the bug men in Coppola’s film, with their ungainly 1970s-era reel-to-reel machines and goofy pin mics. The difference, however, is that my “marks” were aware that I was recording them. In fact, as a cub reporter in the 1990s, I was instructed to say as much, owing to some arcane FCC statute about which my editor fretted. Eventually, I fell out of the habit, but no one came to subpoena my little tapes. Now I just assume all conversations are recorded and pored over by bots and NSA interns.

Like Caul, I’ve also perpetrated what could be construed as illegal wiretaps. This is the first: My brother is a raconteur prone to comic tall tales that, as a writer, I thought should be captured as starter dough for fiction. So, I attempted to record one of our phone conversations. (Some answering machines in the mid-’90s actually had a button that facilitated this.) My brother was on to me from the get-go. (He’s worked closely with audio engineers his whole career, so some imperceptible telltale sign gave me away.)

Wise to my scheme, he proceeded to tell me a lie of such epic criminal proportions that I outed myself when I urged him to shut up and stop incriminating himself until I could turn off the recorder. He savored the gotcha moment, and I haven’t bothered bugging him since. Though it never occurred to me until this writing that he could have just as easily been bugging me. I’m not paranoid enough to pursue the thought further — why bother with thoughts of my little brother when Big Brother is just a Wikileak away?

I accept that I’m simply not interesting enough to be a person of interest. As a cultural force, paranoia has been on the wane as surveillance revelations have become increasingly banal. Everything we suspected is true. Sure, there was a minor flare-up of X-Files-ish “the truth is out there” conspiracy theory paranoia in the ’90s, but one has to go back to the ’70s to get the good shit. Paranoia back then was purer, like the era’s cinema or drugs. The government had to earn your mistrust.

As such, The Conversation‘s paranoia is a virulent strain that could only have been cultivated in the vibrations and waveforms that coalesced into the Watergate era. It was a paranoia spurred by President Nixon’s Oval Office recordings and an 18.5-minute gap in the tapes that Chief of Staff Alexander Haig attributed to a “sinister force.” Whatever was in those missing minutes was not the impetus for Coppola’s film, as is sometimes believed. He reportedly had drafted an outline as early as 1966, inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. As editor and sound designer Walter Murch shared with Michael Ondaajte in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Coppola “had the idea to fuse the concept of Blow-Up with the world of audio surveillance.”

Everything one needs to know about The Conversation happens in the first 10 minutes. The recorded conversation is the film’s titular MacGuffin, a term cineastes will know is said to have acquired its Scottish-sounding name from director Alfred Hitchcock. Inasmuch as Antonioni’s spirit hovers over Coppola’s film, so does Hitchcock’s. The conversation that opens The Conversation works like an overture and, like Hitch’s Vertigo, will establish all the resulting themes.

In Vertigo, ex-cop Scottie Ferguson (a haunting James Stewart) and his feverish unwinding of the conspiracy at the heart of the film is the model for Hackman’s Caul, who, like Ferguson, is fueled by massive regret. In fact, if the taped conversation is the MacGuffin, then regret is what imbues them with meaning. And much in the way regret functions, Caul plays the tapes over and over as if echoing the regret that repeats in his mind. We begin to empathize with Caul and forget that the very nature of his trade is abhorrent. In the opening shots, Caul’s endangerment of others is visceral — until we learn otherwise, the faces of the conversing couple are ominously framed in what appear to be sniper crosshairs. That the crosshairs turn out to be on the scopes of shotgun microphones is a relief that diverts us into thinking Caul et al. are innocents. And this is part of Coppola’s artful misdirection — Harry Caul is actually a bad guy, albeit one eventually trying to make good, but part of a bad system nevertheless. Caul’s outward stoicism prefigures a kind of moral neutrality, though his visits to Catholic confession belie his trouble maintaining that pose. He can no longer convince himself that he inhabits a moral gray zone when he fears it might actually be blood red.

Initially, Caul purports not to care about the content he captures. For Caul, it’s not about the substance but the recording. Like any audiophile, he’s more into his speakers than his music. This idea is reinforced when Caul chides his sidekick (played by Godfather holdover John Cazale) that his work is “getting sloppy” and says he should pay more attention to recording and less about what’s being recorded. Later, of course, the content of the recording and its meaning will eventually consume Caul.

All About Eavesdropping

The second time I was involved with clandestine recording occurred when my grandmother died. For reasons lost to time, my brother (the usual suspect) and I thought he should wear a wire — at her funeral. Grief is weird. Anyway, he rigged up a minidisc recorder with a clip mic that he ran under the length of his sleeve so he could nonchalantly point his shirt cuff at an interlocutor and get the goods. We never bothered to listen to the recording, but I’m sure it sounds exactly like a microphone being rubbed against a shirt cuff. (I would later learn on set while directing the film Pill Head that sartorially sensitive mics are the bane of sound recordists.)

In contrast, Caul is no mere sound recordist. He’s a legend in his industry. He could mic a shirt cuff and it would sound like Mozart. He’s unusual — even his place of work is an odd mashup of a maker lab and a loft that would be the wet dream of any modern San Francisco real estate agent. Caul’s workbench occupies a corner of a large, empty warehouse and is contained by what appears to be a chain-link fence. Some, however, will recognize the peculiar digs as a Faraday cage, an early 19th-century technology originally created to protect those experimenting with electricity but later proved useful for protecting sensitive electronic gear from from external radio-frequency interference. It’s a shield — like the character’s transparent raincoat, or “caul,” like an amniotic membrane. Perhaps, as Dylan Thomas mused in his poem To-Day, This Insect, “This story’s monster has a serpent caul.”

Is Harry Caul the bug? Is he a latter-day Gregor Samsa? At the end of the film, Caul is led to believe that his own apartment might be bugged due to Harrison Ford’s portentous proviso, “We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don’t get involved any further. We’ll be listening to you.” Caul, naturally, looks for a bug — at first ransacking the joint, then taking it up a notch by ripping out the walls and floorboards. It’s a demonstration of paranoia par excellence, and that the endeavor proves fruitless is the film’s defining feature. Just because he can’t find it doesn’t mean the bug isn’t there. Or, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

We leave Caul spent, alone, bringing a saxophone to his lips. Is he playing for himself or an unseen audience? He doesn’t know, and we don’t know. All we do know is that someone put a bug in his ear.

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