The Conversation (1974) directed by Francis Ford Coppola
What’s it about?
Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, an expert “bugger” whose latest assignment involves recording a conversation between a couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) in a busy plaza and presenting the filtered tapes to a mysterious company director. However, as he starts to unveil the exchange between the two via working some magic with his audio mixing equipment, he picks up the line “he’d kill us if he had the chance.” This causes him to have a crisis of conscience as he fears that delivering the tapes to his shady client will result in their deaths.
Things start to look increasingly hair-raising for him as the director’s henchman Martin (Harrison Ford) is seen snooping around in his vicinity when he is at an electronics fair, and his own assistant Stan (John Cazale) leaves him to work for competitor Bernie (Allen Garfield).
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Why is it significant?
This was the film that Francis Ford Coppola made after his hugely The Godfather (1972). However, despite receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews, it remained a forgotten classic sandwiched between both the aforementioned gangster epic and its 1974 sequel. While both of those films won multiple Oscars, The Conversation didn’t win any (although it was nominated for three). While the two mafia masterpieces were amongst the biggest box office hits of their respective years, The Conversation flopped. However, over the years it has gradually gained the recognition it deserves as one of the director’s best.
While some have linked the film with the Watergate Scandal its script was, in fact, written in the 1960s. The fact that it was made and released as the affair was developing was largely a coincidence.
How does it hold up?
The Conversation is ostensibly a thriller, and is indeed very tense and suspenseful at times. It even borders on horror movie territory later on. However, with Francis Ford Coppola as director (at least during his “when he was good” phase) you shouldn’t go in expecting a straightforward genre piece. At its heart, The Conversation is very much a character study about a man who, due to his line of work intrinsically involving breaching the trust of others (by violating their privacy) has, in turn, become severely sapped of trust himself - trust in his clients, trust in his colleagues, trust in humanity in general. In a way, the film’s main dramatic conceit (that he might be able to save the lives of the couple he’s spying on by not giving their conversation away) is both a crisis of conscience for Harry and also, to flip the coin on its head, a way for him to redeem himself and give something of value to others.
There is an ongoing thread of perception and distance weaving its way through Coppola’s directorial approach. The opening shot starts off as a God’s Eye view of a crowd of tiny, ant-like humans enjoying a sunny day in a plaza, be they relaxing on benches or weaving their way past street entertainers. The camera slowly gets closer and closer to its target: the couple Harry is spying on. Within a few moments, the camera is right next to the pair, yet the audio is electronically distorted. As the film progresses, after some twiddling on Harry’s part more of their conversation is unveiled. Hence, we get a wildly varying sense of perception of this same brief moment in time, and an ever-evolving way in which both Harry and the audience can interpret it.
Throughout the film there is always a sense of Harry’s distance from others, both in his gruff interactions with them (particularly when they ask too many questions) as well as the ways in which scenes are blocked. For instance, the vast space of the cavernous warehouse where his equipment is setup is fully exploited so that the camera can record him standing numerous metres away from the others within the room, clearly isolated.
The one situation where he can truly disclose his inner feelings is in a dream sequence; in a foggy blue haze, he shouts after one of the two people he is stalking in his waking life. He reveals the secret of a childhood trauma, only for her to continue moving into the distance. Just as in real life he is unable to get through because he has been deprived of the currency of mutual trust.
One of Gene Hackman’s finest performances
Hackman is generally best known for playing large, formidable characters such as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection or Lex Luthor in the Richard Donner version of Superman. Here, however, is one of his more vulnerable characterisations - and finest performances. Unlike those other roles, his aggressive demeanour here isn’t so much a mechanism to get what he wants as one to push out the inquisitiveness of others. When his tough shell slips he reveals an introverted, whispering man broken by his lack of trust, whose only company when he gets home to his flat at night is his trusty saxophone.
In retrospect, it’s also interesting to see a pre-stardom Harrison Ford here. Here, without the baggage of being associated with archetypal heroes and Everyman types such as Han Solo, Indiana Jones or Rick Deckard he gets to play a character who is very much a sinister enigma.
It’s an exceptionally well-constructed film.
Runtime: 113 mins
Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
Script: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford