“We'll be listening to you.”
I can’t think of another director who dominated a decade in the same way that Francis Ford Coppola did during the 70’s. Beginning with The Godfather, following it up with its sequel and this film in 1974, and finally closing the decade with the ambitious Apocalypse Now. Each one of these films can be considered among the best of all time, and unfortunately due to the success of The Godfather sequel, The Conversation is often left out of the conversation. I wouldn’t rank this one so high up, but I can see its appeal and the fact that the film is as relevant (if not even more) today as it was 40 years ago. Both Coppola and Hackman have each declared that this is their personal favorite movie out of the ones they’ve worked in, and that just proves how much passion was put into this project. The Conversation works best as a character study of a paranoid and devoted surveillance expert who is so absorbed in his profession that he shuts everyone out of his life. His life is one of contrasts, because even though he is the best at what he does, he is easily a victim as well (it’s easy to spy on this spy), he is conflicted about putting other lives in danger with his work (he’s haunted about the murder of three individuals as a result of one of his most successful surveillance operations) , but at the same time he is proud of his work and accomplishments. He is considered by his peers to be the best bugger, but ironically he is so concerned about someone spying on him that he shuts everyone out despite the fact that he really has nothing to hide. He lives a persecuted life because that’s how far his paranoia has gone, but that doesn’t mean he’s good at keeping people out, because in several instances we see how easily he’s fooled. The focus is entirely on Gene Hackman’s character so don’t go into this one expecting an edge of your seat thriller.
The film opens with an extended long shot of a park in San Francisco full of people as the camera slowly begins focusing on a couple walking in circles around the plaza although we can’t quite make out what they are saying. There is a surveillance team following them around with microphones, but it’s hard to distinguish what they are saying from all the noise. This isn’t an issue for Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who has developed his own technology that allows him to filter out the noise by combining the three separate microphones that his team was using and piecing together the conversation. He is a bit disturbed with what he has recorded and begins having doubts about giving the tape to the person who hired him for the job (referred to as the Director). Harry keeps to himself and acts all secretive, not even allowing his closest assistant, Stan (John Cazale), to know what is disturbing him. When he finally decides to turn in the tapes, he is greeted by the Director’s assistant, Martin (Harrison Ford), who says the Director is away on a Business trip. Since he had specifically said to turn in the tapes directly to him Harry decides to return home with the tapes despite Martin’s protest. He begins to feel followed and this only intensifies Harry’s fears about getting the couple in trouble. At a surveillance convention that takes place soon after, we discover that Harry is a respected man in his line of work although no one knows much about his personal life.
The performances in this film are great, especially Gene Hackman who delivers one of the best roles of his career. He downplays the paranoia and delivers it in a very subtle manner. Despite not having much screen time John Cazale, Allen Garfield, and Harrison Ford each deliver solid secondary performances. The film’s atmospheric tone is set by the grainy camera work and the outstanding jazzy score which help build the tension. However this being a character study, it relies entirely on Hackman’s performance. The theme of surveillance also continues to resonate today after the ongoing scandals with Snowden’s claims and the increasing advances in technology. The Conversation is a wonderful film that continues to grow on me the more I think of it. It wasn’t the haunting thriller I was expecting to see, but it did surprise me at how well crafted the story was and how it centered on this character that is full of ironies and contrasts. The film ends on a brilliant note as well which just goes on to prove that The Conversation belongs to be considered amongst Coppola’s best work. It’s a shame that after such a brilliant decade, Coppola has never seemed to come close to what he did in those four films. Thanks to the 70’s his work will be hard to equal by any director so he still deserves to be considered as one of the best of our generation.