Perhaps a footnote underneath all its thematic layers, but what was striking about this overlooked movie was the incidental—deliberate?—ubiquity of certain American attitudes about workaholism. More specifically, the rat race and its envious side. Harry Caul (Hackman) eats, sleeps and breathes surveillance tech. So much so that a booty call he goes on not only goes unconsummated; he seemingly breaks off the relationship when his girlfriend’s game of 21 questions begins to go against his unspoken ethos; a pathological commitment to secrecy. An understandable stance to protect the secrets of his trade, given his chosen profession. And that blurs the line between having to switch off and retire to one’s domestic refuge, so we’re back to square one.
Above all, Coppola’s film is about stark dichotomies—privacy and paranoia, surveillance and guilt—and how—in one moment of moral awakening, and not a convenient placed reveal—Caul grips with growing conflicts about a current assignment. Caul is dedicated, detached and borderline eremitic. He is also a Catholic and a moral relativist who puts the bottom line ahead of the red line. He’s buried his head in the sand as regards the destruction his surveillance once left in its wake. He yearns for affection but demands it be shown on his own terms—electing to abscond from an amorous fling the moment intimacy implies a commitment on his part, admonishing his landlady for breaching his guarded sanctuary to slip a birthday gift while he’s away.
To understand Coppola’s genius in crafting depth in his story, it is best to examine how exposition is delivered prior to arriving to one (among several) similarly and pivotally insightful moments. Caul is not a government agent commanding an open-air assassination, despite insinuations to such op permeating the opening credits. The after-party following a surveillance convention is a choreography of celebratory glee and single-minded obsession with one’s vocation. On the one hand, Caul’s assignment undergoes increasing degrees of unlayering, for the techie; some of which pertains to his professional endeavors, but the more glaring side concerns a newfound moral compass. What first seems like a hit waiting to happen turns into to sessions of pouring over audio tapes sourced from various vantage points including a mic-and-scope set-up I mistook for a sniper’s post.
On the other, we get a prolonged behind-the-scenes glimpse of what made Caul a distinguished player among industry peers, i.e., lesser competition. A convention—where manufacturers solicit his feedback on their wares for endorsement, rivals plead their case for a collaboration, and his client’s rep follows him after an overdue delivery—precedes that lengthy party sequence. But that too sees Coppola weave his way through multiple points of tension. Coppola structures his ideas around these high stakes moments, and it is the abstractions surrounding the meat of the film’s story which resonate loudest as, with every turn, the roles are reversed between observer and observed—predator and prey—in the surveillance game.
Sometimes rowdy, sometimes pouty.