Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, “The Conversation” is a paranoia-thriller surrounding a man within the surveillance industry, released fittingly during the height of the Watergate Crisis. The private surveillant in question is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), and we first encounter him in the field, covertly recording audio of a conversation between a young couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) out for a walk. The two seem innocuous enough as they circle through the crowded plaza, we only get bits and pieces of their conversation as Harry and his small team use a variety of methods to capture their exchange. This film has a simple, but taught, premise and while it may be a slow burn as far as the pacing of the story unfolding- it is one wrought with tension, analysis, and questioning. It’s also a small miracle that this film is as good as it is because it was made and released inbetween Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films!
After Harry begins to analyze the audio back in his lab alongside his partner in the business, Stan (John Cazale), he uncovers a possible motive for his client wanting this information- with deadly implications. As a private, small time, surveillant Harry rarely knows intimate knowledge of who he’s tracking or why somebody wants them to be followed. He only knows the target and any knowledge relevant to getting information out of them through stealth and carefully applied technologies. As things escalate Harry finds himself between two sides of some high level corporate espionage, driven to prevent the murder of the young couple he was hired to tail. Harry Caul is an interesting character, especially for Gene Hackman after winning the Best Actor Oscar in “The French Connection” just two years prior. Here Hackman turns in Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s bombastic grit for a more measured and inward determination within Harry Caul. Harry’s a quieter detective, one whose problems are more internalized than Doyle’s.
Which leads me to the only real crux of an issue that I have with the film. After visiting a surveillance convention and meeting up with several acquaintances, Harry brings them back to his lab for a social drink. Up until this point in the film Harry has exhibited a very careful and fairly paranoid persona, he doesn’t let people into his life and he hides his secrets well. He’s even known by the others at the convention to be a shrewd businessman by making his own tech and never sharing his blueprints or prototypes to anyone. So, why has he invited a group of people to his working lab where his audio reels and secretive methods are hidden? After some deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple beats and one earlier scene that showcase how conflicted Harry Caul really is when it comes to social interactions and the nature of his relationship with intimacy. He seems to be a character that craves camaraderie and attention, but he also seems incapable of cultivating it in his own life. This character flaw is the only reason that I can fathom as to why he would loosen his standards so far as to let an unknown woman close to him and his secrets- which she takes full advantage of. Other than this scene, the movie feels flawless in Coppola’s hands- and most of it is as far as I can tell.
“The Conversation” is an excellently poised film within Coppola’s 1970’s filmography. Squeezed inbetween his first two “Godfather” films and followed up by “Apocalypse Now” in 1979, this was an excellent decade for the director. Rarely do I recommend a film based on it’s technical aspects- but even if the plot or performances didn’t catch your eye then maybe the audio and editing skill on display will, they’re absolutely fantastic for the film’s time. As a plus, a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford makes an appearance as a villainous corporate underling! What’s not to love about that?
Final Score: 1 Mime