The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola (1974) illustrated a surveillance expert who records people’s conversations on contract. Henry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a leading expert in wiretapping and surveillance, yet his previous work consequently led to the deaths of three people. Inside, he is overwhelmed with guilt for his actions, which is multiplied by his Catholic devotion. On the outside, Henry removes his emotions from his work, and he is withdrawn in social settings, as seen by his relationships with his lover and colleagues.
The movie depicts a job given to Henry in which he records a cryptic conversation from a couple. He deciphers the multiple recordings and mixes a final tape, revealing an extremely unsettling line: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Henry, despite his philosophy toward his work, becomes emotionally involved in the conversation, trying desperately to prevent the couple from being hurt by the Director, Henry’s contractor. He fails ultimately, hiding in an adjacent hotel room to the couples’ and witnessing a murder. He finds out later to his amazement that the couple is alive and okay; the sentence Henry heard in their conversation was a justification for the couple to murder the Director. To prevent any leaks, they wiretap Henry and inform him that they are listening to him, leaving Henry in a perpetual state of paranoia.
The film was screened in the height of the Watergate scandal, which involved the wiretapping of several political figures in the White House. Although this event was coincidential, nevertheless the movie strikes upon the fears of audiences toward the vulnerability of one’s privacy. Through his film, Coppola refutes the notion that wiretapping is “victimless crime” and argues that removing one’s sense of privacy has devastating social and emotional consequences.
One topic that will be discussed is the character development of Henry Caul. Henry lives his day with extreme withdrawal. His concern for his own privacy contradicts his own work in surveillance, providing dissonance that is uncovered from his previous experiences.
Another topic will be the social perception of wiretapping. The subject is relevant to today’s viewers because of the National Security Agency allegations of wiretapping.
The third topic will be a discussion of privacy and its subjective effects. A sense of security can be real or imagined, but when it is broken, like with Henry Caul, it can lead to psychological problems.