The Conversation: Depicting a Surveillance Society

This essay will be examining in what ways and to what ends The Conversation (dir. Coppola, 1974) depicts a surveillance society. It will provide evidence of how Coppola’s use of camerawork, editing, mise-en-scene, music, narrative and sound, express his view of the detrimental effect surveillance has upon society and will draw conclusions on the effectiveness of his argument.

The Conversation portrays technology as being fundamental to surveillance. The film’s slow, mechanical, opening zoom into the crowded square represents how advancing technology is closing in on and suffocating society, gradually removing layers of our privacy. The eerie, inhuman effect of the zoom displays a robotic precision that human hand is incapable of achieving. This was achieved by use of the, at the time, newly invented electronic programmable zoom. Later, this technology, in combination with editing techniques, is again exploited to use the camera to effectively simulate hidden surveillance devices. Instead of cutting into action, Coppola cuts to empty frames. The camera remains static as actors walk in and out of frame and then slowly, mechanically follows. This technique is seen in the first sequence at the apartment of surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). Also in this sequence, the audience witnesses Harry casually remove his trousers and carry out a ‘phone call in just his underwear. Although a seemingly insignificant act for a bachelor living alone in the real world, the image holds different connotations when viewed in a filmic context. An audience used to the flawless star image of Classic Hollywood would be unaccustomed to seeing such a personal act performed by a high-profile actor in a mainstream Hollywood film. Harry and Gene Hackman’s seeming unawareness that they’re being watched draws a comparison between the audience and Harry as, like him, they are established as voyeurs, spying on people’s private acts.

In the opening sequence, Coppola goes to great lengths to accurately and truthfully replicate the surveillance of a young couple, and state of the art technology was central to this realisation. Coppola was quoted as saying:

“I could even shoot it the way the story implied, have the two actors walk through the crowd and talk and actually try to use our long lenses and our powerful microphones to try to pick up the conversation. We went to Union Square in San Francisco, and we chose some sites where we could have cameras up high in windows or on roofs, and we actually did the opening using much the (same) technology that would have been used to tap the two young people.” (2000).

Other techniques are used during the sequence to suggest the couple are being surveyed. The sound of the conversation has been deliberately distorted to simulate the sound recording equipment’s failed attempts to pick it up precisely. Crosshair has been placed on the camera lens to simulate the view through a telescopic lens and foreshadow the film’s forthcoming murder. The mise-en-scene also enhances the theme of surveillance, as the Mime (Robert Shields) is seen to secretly watch and imitate members of the crowd. He also begins to follow and infuriate Harry, foreshadowing his fate, as he too becomes a victim of a surveillance society.

Following the opening sequence, the story does not follow the surveyed couple, as convention might dictate. Instead, Harry becomes both narrative agent and anti-hero; a convention of the New Hollywood era. This twist allows a more derogatory view of a surveillance society, as the audience witness the detrimental effect it has upon a man who knows it better than any other. As the audience follow Harry, they witness the effect his knowledge of the capability of surveillance has had upon his life. Harry goes to great lengths in his attempt to maintain the utmost privacy. He predominately uses payphones and travels only by public transport. His sparse apartment has an alarm, three locks, and contains few personal possessions, conveying his unwillingness to reveal anything about himself to the outside world. Harry is viewed from behind transparent plastic at various points throughout the film. This motif is symbolic of his reluctance to reveal his true self, which displays the irony of his existence, as he has dedicated his life to revealing the truth about others. Also, viewing Harry through transparent plastic, as if through a camera lens, represents the voyeuristic nature of the audience.

Harry Caul’s name is symbolic of his desire to remain hidden, a ‘caul’ being a membrane that covers some newborn infants’ heads and faces. His transparent plastic raincoat is a symbolic caul that has remained with him into adult life, hiding his true self. During the sequence at Amy’s (Teri Garr) apartment, Harry and Amy lie on the bed. Amy is scantily dressed in a nightgown, showing her willingness to share herself with Harry, while he remains in his coat, representing his unwillingness to reveal himself. Harry’s hesitance before entering Amy’s apartment, due to a belief that she may be in league with some unknown force, shows his paranoia and mistrust extends even to those closest to him. This paranoia and mistrust are displayed in scenes throughout the film. Harry becomes deeply unsettled and agitated when Amy enquires about his life and shows great concern over his landlady gaining access to his flat and knowing about his birthday. His life is ruled by paranoia to the extent that he is unable to carry out seemingly trivial everyday exchanges without feeling threatened; a point endorsed by Austin-Smith:

“‘I don’t have anything personal’, says Harry Caul, protagonist of The Conversation to his landlady, ‘nothing of value, except my keys.’ The comment, made over the telephone rather than face-to-face, confirms Harry Caul as a character pathologically obsessed with his own privacy, even as he spends his days as a wiretapping expert invading the sonic privacy of others.” (no date).

During the after-party sequence, Harry’s dedication to privacy is further displayed by the numerous locks and fences protecting his workshop. He again shows his mistrust of people as he is seen to quickly hide away his materials. His unwillingness to reveal himself is also represented by the use of camera movement and editing. As he begins to divulge aspects of his personal life to Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), the camera tracks around to reveal his face. However, he shies away from revealing too much, and Coppola cuts back to an over the shoulder shot, obscuring his face. Later in the sequence, the transparent plastic motif is seen again, as Moran (Allen Garfield) probes into Harry’s past, making him feel threatened and instinctively walk behind a sheet of transparent plastic. Harry is later punished for one of his few acts of openness when it is revealed his conversation with Meredith has been bugged by Moran. This effectively illustrates the detrimental effects of a surveillance society, in which nothing is undisclosed.

Harry’s appearance, including his ordinary raincoat, standard prescription glasses and simple combed back hairstyle, contributes to his unassuming façade. Other examples of this theme are seen throughout the film. These include the initial meeting of Harry and the director’s assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford). Stett attempts to lull Harry into a false sense of security by feigning friendliness and offering him a Christmas cookie. Stett’s nonchalant manner is revealed to be merely pretence when he aggressively tries to grab the recordings from Harry. Other examples are Harry’s seemingly low-tech, yet, in reality, advanced surveillance equipment, and the surveillance van disguised as a glass fitters van. This theme adds to the audience’s feeling of insecurity, as surveillance experts are presented as being completely inconspicuous. This feeling is further enhanced as the audience see that the surveillance experts have no qualms about using their skills for their own immoral benefits. An example of this is Stan (John Cazale) photographing two unsuspecting girls from inside the disguised surveillance van as they apply their lipstick, totally unaware that they are looking into a two-way mirror.

Harry’s pretence that he is disconnected from the real world, his work is purely business, and he is not affected by the immorality of his actions, is also revealed to be a façade. The enjoyment he takes in playing his saxophone along to his jazz records, and his prevarication to Amy that he’s a freelance musician, show a dislike for the lifestyle he has confined himself to and a longing for freedom. His statuette of the Virgin Mary displays a human morality unsoured by his life surrounded by immoral technology. And when he suspects his recording of the couple’s conversation may have endangered their lives, his conscience is further revealed, as he visits a confessional. The hidden priest listening to Harry’s most intimate thoughts and feelings can be viewed as another form of surveillance, and again adds to that theme, but it also reveals more of Harry’s character. Much like his divulgence to Meredith, his confession reveals a man trapped by the confines of a surveillance society, longing to express his emotions and reveal his inner self.

Through Harry, the audience witnesses the loneliness and isolation caused by a surveillance society. His solitude is expressed through a leitmotif, in the form of forlorn, non-diegetic piano music, which is heard whenever he is seen on-screen alone. As his life is seen to unravel, the piano music becomes distorted, representing his disintegration. Although Harry attempts to mask his humanity, it is revealed to the audience through his acts of conscience and his flawed characteristics. The Conversation is a film fixated on technology, but it is human weakness that is at its core. It is due to Harry’s romantic delusions towards Ann (Cindy Williams) that he misinterprets the conversation and wrongly assumes she is a victim, not a criminal. After it is revealed that she and Mark (Frederic Forrest) are the real criminals, a different recording of the ambiguous line of the conversation “He’d kill us if he got the chance” is used, this time with an inflexion after “us”, drawing attention to Harry’s fatal error. At the hotel, another of Harry’s weaknesses is displayed, as his fearfulness prevents him from stopping the murder. Coppola is revealing a humane side to the introverted Harry to encourage sympathy for a character the audience wouldn’t normally be expected to relate to. Although he is a flawed character, Coppola positions him in a way that his humanity can generate sympathy with the audience, and it is the corruptive, insidious technology that is presented as the real villain.

After Harry discovers the truth about the murder, he returns to his apartment. The buildings being demolished, seen earlier through his window, are now completely knocked down, symbolising surveillance technology tearing down society’s walls of privacy. This message proved presciently well-timed, as immediately prior to the release of The Conversation, the Watergate scandal, the most significant U.S. political scandal of the late 20th century, to which surveillance was central, sparked growing social anxiety over surveillance. We see the tables turned on Harry as he suspects his own apartment has been bugged. This is seen by some as an apt punishment for his acts of immorality. “The Conversation has been described as an ‘Orwellian morality play’ in which the spy becomes the spied upon, and technology is used against the user.” (Austin-Smith, no date). Harry tears apart his apartment in search of the bug; symbolically demolishing his own wall of privacy. A surveillance society has literally and figuratively left his life in ruins. During his frenzied hunt for the bug, he destroys his statuette of the Virgin Mary, one of his few worldly connections to humanity and morality. This is representative of the immorality of a surveillance society destroying civilisation. Upon destroying his apartment, Harry sits alone with his saxophone, his one remaining worldly possession. Again, the camera simulates a hidden surveillance device by mechanically panning across the ruins of the apartment. This implies that Harry is still being spied upon and has failed to destroy the bug. The only possible hiding place that remains for the bug is Harry’s saxophone. This suggests that only with the removal of the last vestiges of his humanity will Harry’s surveillance end. It also acts as a prophetic metaphor for the devastating effect a surveillance society will have upon civilisation.

Coppola goes to great lengths to depict the terrifying reality of a surveillance society, including filming at an actual wiretappers convention and his accurate realisation of the couple being tapped at Union Square. In addition to this, forcing the audience to act as voyeurs, spying on Harry Caul through his indignities and breakdown, effectively displays a surveillance society as a frightening reality, not merely a filmic affectation. All this contributes to the formation of Coppola’s convincing moral argument against the horrors of a surveillance society.



King, G., 2002. New Hollywood Cinema an Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kolker, R., 2000. A Cinema of Loneliness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Levy, E., 1999. Cinema of Outsiders. New York: New York University Press.

Thompson, K. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Techniques. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


The Conversation, 1974. [Film] Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. USA: Paramount.

The Conversation, 2000. [DVD Commentary] Francis Ford Coppola. USA: Paramount.

The Conversation, 2000. [DVD Commentary] Walter Murch. USA: Paramount.


Austin-Smith, B. The Conversation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2011].

Canby, V., 1974. ‘Conversation’. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2011].

Deming, M., 2011. The Conversation Review. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2011].

Film 4, 2011. The Conversation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2011].

Peary, G. The Conversation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2011].

Ratner, M., 2001. Notes on the Conversation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 April 2011].


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