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Please Be Quiet, I'm Trying to Listen
by Jon Schuller

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We live in a new, constantly changing world of instantaneous communications. Whether it's audio or video, the internet has given everyone, everywhere, the ability to see, hear and write to other people virtually anywhere in the world. There's an entire generation that may not even know about telephones, cameras, records or tape recorders. The new world revolves around cell phones (or "smart" phones) that can communicate, utilize the internet and take pictures or videos. It wasn't too many years ago that devices like these were the stuff of science fiction books or movies. Not only are they everywhere, they're affordable too. I may be considered old-fashioned because I still use a desktop computer, instead of a laptop. I admit my cellphone is low-tech too. Advances in electronics have usually been fueled by military uses and inventions, eventually becoming commonplace for consumers after only a few years. For example, what used to be the role of piloted aircraft for surveillance purposes is now done by pilotless drones, safely controlled by technicians thousands of miles away. 80 years ago the famous comic strip detective, Dick Tracy, wore a radio on his wrist and that was considered science fiction. I can remember television police dramas in the 1970s and 1980s where the cops could speak to each other on hand-held car phones, which were large, cumbersome devices. There are so many areas of electronics we've all had experiences with that now seem dated and antiquated. Going from 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs or going from VHS tapes to DVDs, to name but a few.

There
have been many movies about surveillance, private detectives and spies. How they watch and listen to other individuals without their knowledge or permission, of course. Husbands watching wives or vice versa. Or the government wire-tapping suspected criminals, like gangsters and others. Usually cameras and listening devices are involved and the more sophisticated the equipment, the better the results. The technicians who install and operate this equipment are all smart, careful and sometimes, paranoid. They're worried about who's watching or listening to them. One such a man is Harry Caul, who's a surveillance expert and has his own company based in San Francisco. He's portrayed by Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film, The Conversation.

Harry's been doing this surreptitious work for many years. He has able assistants, like Stan (John Cazale), and other professionals he hires when there's a major job to do. But Harry has no life outside of his profession. He's become totally obsessed with his own privacy; has no telephone, has a triple-locked door on his apartment; his company is located in a warehouse, with the office and workshop surrounded by a wire mesh fence. He hates crowds and has no personal relationships. He had a job several years before that resulted in the death of three people. When he does work with others, it's strictly professional, not personal.

Harry's gotten a new job, from a man known as The Director (Robert Duvall), watching and listening to a man and a woman as they meet and talk in San Francisco's famous Union Square. His
name is Mark (Frederic Forrest) and her name is Ann (Cindy Williams). Harry's team has set up long-range, sensitive microphones and cameras. The couple talks about being watched, as they casually stroll through the crowds. The audio and video tapes are brought back to his shop where they are refined and made clearer, easier to see and hear. Harry hears things that he interprets as potentially dangerous for the couple. His own paranoia (and guilt from the previous assignment) starts to play on his emotions.

There's a small celebration in the workshop after the job is completed as a few friends meet with Harry and Stan to congratulate them on their success. One visitor is another surveillance pro, William P. "Bernie" Moran (Allen Garfield), who brings some women along. Bernie starts bragging about Harry's reputation as the best in the business. He gives Harry a pen as a gift; it turns out to be a miniaturized recording device, recording Harry talking to a woman, Lurleen (Phoebe Alexander). Bernie shows it to everyone and laughs as he plays back Harry talking to her. Harry's embarrassed and asks them to leave.

Harry's having serious doubts about handing over the material from the job to The Director's aide, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) because of what he fears will be a death sentence for the young couple. He's being followed, watched and eventually, the tape is stolen from him. Harry falls into a pit of fear and worry. He starts to search his small apartment for listening devices or hidden cameras. He tears up the floors and the walls, destroying everything,
except his prized possession, his saxophone, which he plays, sitting alone in the middle of the mess he's made as the film ends.

The release of the film was interpreted (erroneously) as an answer to the Watergate Scandal which brought down Richard Nixon as the President, in August, 1974. But Coppola had said he got the idea for the film from the famous 1966 British thriller, Blowup, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. That film had shown what happens when people watch and listen to others, and when perception blurs, or becomes, reality. Gene Hackman not only created one of the most memorable characters in film history, but certainly one his best portrayals in his distinguished career. Harry Caul was the complete antithesis of the actor who played him.

One again, I have found a movie and its subject matter that can still resonate with audiences today. The myriad stories we hear on daily television and radio news outlets about surveillance, both public and private, affect all of us. We now live in a world where anyone might be a potential terrorist and governments, large and small, must find ways to stop and prevent terror from happening. Today's NSA has the most sophisticated equipment ever invented. But it's been 42 years since The Conversation broached the subject of personal spying on others. Today, there are cameras everywhere and, despite protestations of encroaching on personal liberties, they're being installed at an enormous rate. Movies can tell us about things before they actually happen. There may be more Harry Cauls today than ever before. Scary stuff, huh?

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.


Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

A Story of Bravery, Truth and Devotion

All Columns


Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).



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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.


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