The 70s paranoid thriller more relevant than ever

The idea of surveillance deployed in homes in such everyday circumstances recalls the final scene in Coppola’s film. Caul receives a threatening phone call in which it is revealed that his flat has been bugged. The final scenes show him taking apart the flat in his search for the potential device but to no avail, eventually sitting among the ruins of his room mournfully playing his saxophone. While there’s some ambiguity as to whether the bug is be in the saxophone itself, or the whole scene is in fact a delusion, the effect on the character is the same, triggering a breakdown in him. It is not potential surveillance in the pursuit of information; it is surveillance as threat. Yet, would Caul have been that bothered by the same threat in 2024?

“It’s interesting to see the analogue mechanics of the technology [in the film] and how successful it is,” Bolton aptly suggests, “but compared to the level of surveillance that we are all under today it seems primitive and low-key. When we think about the facial recognition systems in shopping centres and the GPS tracking enabled by our phones, we are surveilled to a degree that would be unimaginable to Caul. The Conversation serves to highlight the magnitude of invasiveness that is surveillance, and the possibilities of misinterpretation, and the acquisition by bad actors. These themes could not be more relevant to our current situation.”

Perhaps this is why the film has aged so well: its paranoia highlights our surprising acceptance of far greater levels of modern surveillance. Lomas also believes that in some ways the film has only become more pertinent than it was in 1974, because the private technology sector, which Harry Caul does somewhat represent in the film, has arguably become so powerful and dominant in the digital age. “I think the film certainly does live on because of the wider fear of so-called ‘surveillance capitalism’ and the growth and influence of the private tech sector,” he says. “The real enemy in the film isn’t the CIA or FBI: the enemy is the private sector who put morals and ethics aside for the sake of profit. Today, we see that all aspects of our lives can be monitored by the private sector. Your data is a commodity that’s passed on to others, and, for all the concern about state surveillance, it’s private tech that’s the issue.”

Perhaps, then, a small dose of Harry Caul’s cynicism wouldn’t go amiss in the digital age, as unseen eyes watch on, ears listen in and the detail of our lives is continually gathered for purposes unknown.

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