Alienation, Paranoia and the Individual in the Age of Surveillance.

Harry Caul is number one in the surveillance industry, an industry that only forty years later looks primitive in comparison to the tools of surveillance that are in existence at the moment. This is one of the things that makes this film so enthralling, it captures close to the moment of conception when such methods of surveillance were becoming pervasive the paranoia that was attached to this. Privacy was no longer expected. The self, when aware of the potential of being surveilled becomes hyper aware of its self to the point of madness.

This really is the premise for Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning film The Conversation. Weirdly overlooked by fans of film (possibly due to it being outshone at the 1972 Oscars by none other than The Godfather II), The Conversation is a fascinating portrayal of a mind that exists outside of normal courses of sociability. To be number one it seems one has to exist on one’s own pedestal and Harry Caul is the best in the surveillance business. He can tap anyone anywhere and thus of course his talents are in high demand. Although this film was released around the time of the Watergate scandal, something that would be explored with more biographical vigour in All The President’s MenThe Conversation really gets its teeth not only into the paranoia of the Cold War period but delves further into the psychological state of the individual living with the knowledge that there is a new reality, the reality of being constantly surveilled by another.

Harry Caul, after years perfecting the art of surveillance has become victim to this very art. Throughout the film, the stunning jazz score composed by David Shire really heightens the psychological state of the protagonist. There are plenty of examples of Harry Caul’s paranoia throughout the film but what really got me was during the party scene in his office based in a warehouse where he opens up to one of the women at the party and says something along the lines of ‘could you love a man that would never talk to you, never open up to you and never tell you that he would love to you’.

Nowhere else in the film does Caul open up to another human being and show the desperateness at the centre of his character for human interaction and his desperate loneliness. When moments later Caul and the woman return to the group to find that the conversation has been recorded, Caul breaks into a rage as his most intimate desires have been broadcast for all his associates to hear and mock. It is a forecast of things to come in the digital age, the fear of being authentic, of being without irony, of being truthful and honest in an age that has the potential to have all these sentiments recorded and thus be replayed again and again in an environment that is outside of context, thus hitting at the very tenterhooks of the self.


As Coppola’s film progresses, the reality of the event that the film is based around i.e. the conversation that takes place on the square in San Francisco, becomes increasingly unreal. Reality for Caul suffers under the guilt of possibly being implicated in another murder and the strenuousness of this is delivered in the soundtrack. Indeed even for the viewer, reality in the film is never quite settled, we are never viewing concrete events. Although we might be watching the film through Caul’s perspective, we are outside of him too and the camera constantly shows him through windows, curtains etc. in effect mimicking the nature of surveillance. This voyeuristic aspect highlights that by viewing another, we are in effect altering the behaviour of the viewed, that they can never act unconsciously when there is a possibility that they can be watched. And in a way Coppola reflects this effect in how we, the viewer, watch the film. Look at what is for Caul a suspicion that he is being followed, could be for us the viewer a figment of his paranoia or it could be a genuine fear. Also, the differing conversations that are happening when he is speaking to the woman at the party. She believes he is afraid of him while he is crippled by the fear of being followed. Everyone is following their own subjectivity in framing the event. The more isolated the individuals are, like Caul, the more likely they are to be swamped by their own subjectivity, of placing themselves at the centre of all events.

This I think is the genius of The Conversation and why it resonates so much with the world at the moment especially post Edward Snowden and Wikileaks and NSA and everything in between. We are now living in a world where we no longer have to be suspected of something to be surveilled. We are both complicit in the surveillance of others and aware that through our online presence and the presence of devices such as smartphones that we are susceptible at any moment to being recorded and broadcast to others outside of our own consent. Caul’s psychological breakdown and the absolute gutting that his apartment undergoes by him does not herald a breakdown without a symptom. The symptom is very real. There is an utterly clear possibility that his apartment has been bugged. Yet, Caul unlike people perhaps in the future, cannot live comfortably in his own abode knowing that he is being recorded. His loneliness and disconnection from everyone else is finally made manifest in the complete gutting of his apartment as the image above shows. The only thing, significantly, that is left untouched is the saxophone. Not only is the saxophone the only respite which Caul has from his own self being possibly on view for others, is that it is possibly the very location of the bug that is spying on him. I love the final image of the apartment’s destruction as loneliness, rampant individualism and surveillance combine to savage both the mind and the home of an extremely talented but ultimately paranoid man.

Have a read of an interview with the very man himself here:




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