Hidden within the confines of an electronically outfitted van, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is capable of wiretapping even the most remote whisper of a conversation. While he is often at the epicenter of moral corruption, Caul remains fastidious with respect to his own conduct and usually takes no interest in what he overhears transpiring between lovers and thieves. But when he believes he hears plans for a murder, he desperately tries to prevent the event. His talent, however, lies in his technical abilities, not in interpreting nuances.
Keenly aware that invasion is possible by even the most amateur eavesdropper, Caul is enormously protective of his private life. His San Francisco apartment, although nearly empty, is secured with multiple locks and a burglar alarm, and he wears a plastic raincoat as symbolic protection against the unwelcome intrusion of society. Coppola’s most claustrophobic and meticulous film, The Conversation was released at the height of the Watergate scandal, when the complicity of White House officials, including President Nixon, in the burglary and wiretapping of political opponents in Washington, DC, was constant front-page news. It is a slow yet harrowing film conveying the repulsiveness of surveillance, the loss of personal liberty, and our inability to reverse the catastrophic results of technology once it has been deployed.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)