Framework: The Conversation

Our DIY film school series explores Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 classic and its relevance to the technology and privacy issues of today.


Framework is a year-long DIY film school; 52 essential films to expand your consciousness.

Privacy, as we know it, is moving towards extinction. Its architecture is now comprised of a series of selections that we either, choose, click or request. Our personal information is more accessible than ever and is at the hands of algorithms that tend to weigh in on our decisions.

With our digital reality in mind, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation can be viewed as a history lesson in our battle with extended technology and the moral gauge that accompanies it. Information, and what we do with it, is an unanswered question that seems to reverberate over generations.

Two tiers of technology v.s. morality operate The Conversation through character Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), an “information specialist” assigned to a case that requires him to record the private conversation between a couple during rush hour in Union Square, San Francisco. A perfectionist in his own right, Harry’s initial concern is the quality and process of obtaining usable copy to provide to his employer, the nameless “Director” of a corporation. The result of his espionage is a tape that is replete with static, ambient noise and reverb. Where the first half of the film focuses on Harry’s intricate and multi-layered methods in trying to achieve useable sound on tape, the second half of the film requires his focus to change from tangible to hypothetical. His painstaking work with pitch and tone reveal a conversation that lures though its ambiguity, except for one key line, “He’s kill us if he had the chance.”

Normally austere and emotionally removed, Harry’s interpretation of what is said, mainly the key line, begins to consume him, and plants an ethical obstacle in his involvement with the case. His assignment turns mystery, and becomes a question of fact over blind interpretation, intonation over words, and morality over turning a blind eye.

The Conversation has been marked in cinema history for Walter Murch’s distinguished use of contemporary sound design, and the film’s successful move from classical image/sound match. Nominated for three Academy Awards and winner of the Palme D’Or in 1974 at Cannes, the film’s most recent accolades come in the form of its inclusion in the USA’s National Film Registry, preserving its position in history

Ironically, as much as The Conversation deals with the question of private and personal information, it is a film that is executed with cold distinction and is devoid of emotional tones. Although in the end, Harry remains an enigma, his plight is still significant. Technology sometimes makes us naked. Almost 40 years later, not much has changed. ■


The Conversation is available to rent at most local video stores, namely  Boîte Noire and Le Septième in the east, Avenue Video in the west. It is also available on  iTunes and Netflix.  

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