The overall tone of this episode, and the novella generally, is much more old-school Hollywood entertainment than this film. Our serial surveillance man Walter Forbes has a much more extensive toolkit than Harry Caul had in 1974, but he faces a similar dilemma. It's the one faced today by personnel at the National Security Agency. In a world awash with information, how do you decide which information is important? How do you figure out what it all means?
This Cannes Palm d'Or winner was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and Best Picture Edgar Allan Poe Award (losing out to The Godfather Part II and Chinatown respectively).
In terms of film history, this isn't strictly noir. But it certainly has the feel of post-Hays code noir. Gene Hackman was the everyman detective of his day. He won an Oscar for playing New York narcotics cop Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, and would play an old-school private eye in a confusing new age a year later in Night Moves.
The film begins with surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) deploying a team to record a conversation in a public square. Though the technology might seem quaint, the subject of clandestine surveillance has never been more timely.
Modern surveillance tools that put Harry Caul's equipment to shame, and that are now available to the public, are the subject of the NPR story "Smartphones Are Used To Stalk, Control Domestic Abuse Victims."
Roger Ebert Wrote:
"Coppola, who wrote and directed, considers this film his most personal project. He was working two years after the Watergate break-in, amid the ruins of the Vietnam effort, telling the story of a man who places too much reliance on high technology and has nightmares about his personal responsibility. Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work." Full Review
If this sounds like it's getting too political, don't worry. Both The Conversation and Last Heartthrob are mysteries at their core. But just to get the conversation started, let's begin with these questions.
In the Edward Snowden age of NSA intelligence gathering, and private company data gathering, have we permanently traded privacy for technology?
Would you be comfortable with family members, friends, spouses, or significant others having complete access to your phone calls, texts, browing history, and everything else on your smartphone?
The Conversation is a post Hays Code Picture. How does it adhere to the principle that "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin?"
Send your answers in, and I'll add them to "The Conversation."
Watching the film isn't essential to enjoying the episode, but it's interesting to see how our views on privacy have changed in forty years. Here's the trailer, with a weird DVD menu at the end.
Music only plays a crucial role in episode three of Last Heartthrob, but David Shire's score to The Conversation is often part of episodes on This American Life.
There is no RiverRock Brew Pub outside of Last Heartthrob, but if you'd like to discuss The Conversation and "The Gunshots and the Suspect Signal" with friends, geographically the Rock Bottom Brewery is the next best thing. It's easy to picture Walter Forbes hanging out at Paddy's, too.
If you can't make it to one of these places. Send me a link to the photo of the place you decide to investigate. Cheers!