What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called The Harrison Ford Blog-A-Thon being hosted by Sat In Your Lap. I’ve always wanted to write about this movie because it features not one, but two guys on my list of favorite actors, and thanks to this blog-a-thon, I’ve got my chance! You can see all the participant in this blog-a-thon here:
“The Conversation” centers on free-lance surveillance expert Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman). Ironically, Caul is obsessed with his own privacy; his San Francisco apartment is almost bare behind its triple-locked door and burglar alarm. He doesn’t have a telephone and only uses pay phones. His office is encased in wire mesh in a corner of a large warehouse. He has no friends, his mistress knows nothing about him, and his one hobby is playing along to jazz records on a tenor saxophone in the privacy of his apartment.
Odder still is Caul’s insistence he is not responsible for the actual content of the conversations he records or the use to which his clients put his work. The problem is that’s just cover for his “Catholic Guilt” driven by the fact that some of his past work led to a triple homicide.
Caul, his colleague Stan (played by John Cazale) and a team of free-lance associates have taken on the task of bugging the conversation of a couple as they walk through crowded Union Square in San Francisco. Being a public space, this is no easy task as they are surrounded by a cacophony of background noise. Amid all the extraneous din, the couple discuss fears that they are being watched, and mention a discreet meeting at a hotel in a few days. The challenging task of recording this conversation is accomplished by multiple surveillance operatives located in different positions around the square. After Caul has merged and filtered the different tapes, the final result is a sound recording in which the words themselves are crystal clear, but their meaning remains ambiguous.
This is where Caul’s curiosity collides with his “Catholic Guilt.” Caul has a growing concern about the fate of this once his client hears the tape. He plays the tape again and again, focusing on one key phrase hidden under the sounds of street musicians: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Caul obsesses on this phrase, and eventually his concerns cause him not to give the tape to those who hired him to make it.
As a result, Caul himself becomes the target of pressure from his client’s aide Martin Stett (played by Harrison Ford); to the point of finding himself the target of a surveillance operation. Ultimately, the tape is stolen from Caul, and he discovers his client has it when he confronts him about it. Caul also discovers the motive for the commission of his work; the woman in the recording is his client’s wife who appears to be having an affair with the man in the tape.
Taking up the role of sleuth, Caul books a hotel room next to one mentioned in his recording. In his surveillance of their room, Caul overhears his client in a heated argument with his wife. When he goes to the balcony to see what is transpiring, Caul believes he is witnessing his client killing his wife. Afterward, Caul intends to confront his client, but is unable to find him.
During the search for his client, Caul sees the wife he thought had been murdered; she is quite alive and well riding in a limousine. Upon more digging, Caul discovers his client was in fact killed…in what is being called an “accident.” He also discovers that the couple in the tape were not talking about themselves being killed; they were in fact plotting the demise of the woman’s husband, the very same man who hired Caul in the first place.
Once Caul realizes he actually witnessed the murder of his client and not that of the wife, he gets a phone call from Martin Stett, who warns him point-blank not to look any further into the matter, capped with the thinly-veiled threat “We’ll be listening to you.”
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Literally, the day after I selected this film for this event, the whole thing broke about the New England Patriots videotaping the Bengals sideline. That only served to re-enforce my point about spying on your opponents in sports and how it has been around since the dawn of sports themselves. Then, the story about the Houston Astros and the “sign-stealing” scandal emerged…and subsequently mushroomed into the realm of the completely ridiculous. That’ s when I knew I had picked the perfect movie at the perfect time for this hidden sports analogy.
Be it sports or politics, guys like surveillance expert Harry Caul exist for one reason; getting an advantage over one’s opponent. To fully understand this analogy, let’s establish one principle here: cheating is cheating is cheating. Sign-stealing has no moral departure from corking bats, deflating footballs, or loading up on North Korean horse-testicle juice; are all about increasing one’s odds of winning. Where the line gets drawn here is the guys who throw games for gambling purposes; that’s far more cancerous to the integrity of any sport. But that’s for another time.
But in keeping with the sports world’s scandals du jour, Harry Caul is the original professional “sign-stealer.” If he weren’t essentially a “spy for hire,” for the rich and powerful, Caul would likely be working for a professional sports franchise doing exactly what he does in “The Conversation.”
Let’s just cut through the crap here. The Houston Astros and the New England Patriots aren’t the only teams in the world spying on their opponents. They sure as hell aren’t the only ones who got caught. History bears that out.
Cheating isn’t limited to just baseball and football. NASCAR racing has a long tradition of it.; Smokey Yunick might be the “Babe Ruth” of cheating in racing. International cycling may be the dirtiest sport out there in terms of “bending” the rules. Russia just got handed a four-year ban from international sport for illegal “doping,” but the history of cheating in the Olympics goes all the way back to ancient Greece. In other words, cheating in sports is everywhere, and everybody does it.
We all need to accept that in order to further this conversation about “The Conversation.” Not only is Harry Caul the original “sign-stealer;” he’s also the cautionary tale about what to do with information once you get it. He spends the whole movie wrestling with his conscience, which means he spends a lot of time not being able to get out of his own way.
As Caul is a professional, it’s his conscience that trips him up. The Astros and the Patriots had no such issue…but the people running their spy rings weren’t professionals. In fact, one can make the argument that the mistake the Astros and the Patriots made was taking their cheating to a new level, but doing it in a way so clumsy they doomed themselves to failure. After all, the Astros were only discovered because an ex-Astro pitcher ratted them out. If you really think about it, stealing signs is an exercise all about hitters. That begs the question why in the world would anybody tell the pitchers about it? In a free-agency world, didn’t it occur to anybody that letting the pitchers in on such shenanigans only opened the door to one of those pitchers eventually going to another team. Then, it only stands to reason that pitcher might not want to fall victim to your sign-stealing scheme, so he blows the whistle. Tell me I’m wrong…especially since that’s exactly what happened.
As for the Patriots, their attempts at video surveillance were even more fraught with amateur mistakes since they got pinched not once, but twice. The first time happened during the 2007 NFL season when they were caught videotaping New York Jets’ defensive coaches’ signals from an unauthorized location. The fun part is videotaping opposing coaches is not illegal in the NFL, but it can only be done from permitted locations. In other words, the Patriots found a way to take something perfectly legal and make it a violation.
The second time happened late last season when the Patriots sent a video team to Cleveland supposedly to film a documentary on an advance scout who was at the game, watching the Browns and Bengals play. Conveniently enough, the Bengals were set to play the Patriots the very next week. The Patriots sent a third-party video contractor to Cleveland for the shoot, who were credentialed by the Browns, but the Bengals and the NFL were not made aware of this. A member of the Bengals security staff spotted the Patriots.com credentialed cameraman wearing Boston Bruins gear and proceeded to observe what the cameraman was doing. The allegation is the cameraman pointed his camera at the Bengals coaching staff and sideline for an extended period of time; so long that stadium security ultimately confronted the camera crew. To be fair, the NFL has yet to do anything with this story other than conduct a curiously-long investigation, but it’s not hard to see where the trail of bread crumbs might lead.
The bottom line is in all three cases, a guy like Harry Caul would have never made such amateurish mistakes. You can see that plainly when Caul insists he is not responsible for the actual content of the conversations he records or the use to which his clients put his surveillance activities, especially in the cases of the Astros and Patriots in which there PERFECTLY LEGAL WAYS TO DO EVERYTHING THEY DID! That would have totally removed his crises of conscience, and we wouldn’t now be forced to listed to the self-appointed moralists at ESPN pretending that the sports world isn’t awash in cheating.
In other words, the Houston Astros and the New England Patriots aren’t the only cheaters in the sports world; they’re just not very good at it. That also means it is entirely possible nobody else got caught because they called in their own Harry Caul.
The Moral of The Story:
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