GREAT FILMS: The Conversation (1974)

The Conversation (USA, 1974)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Harrison Ford

The 1970s was the decade in which Francis Ford Coppola could not fail. The Godfather and its sequel both won him Best Picture at the Oscars, and at the end of the decade he pulled Apocalypse Now out of the mire and made it a masterpiece. Nestled in between these films is The Conversation, nominated for Best Picture alongside The Godfather Part II but somewhat overlooked ever since. While it might not quite meet their epic standards or match their lofty ambitions, it remains a haunting character study and a great, slow-burning psychological thriller.
What marks The Conversation out from Coppola's other words of the period, and from its other contemporaries, is its understatement. Everything about the film is methodical and reserved: the way it is assembled, and shot, and edited, every aspect coils neatly around the central narrative like a tightly-wound spool of tape. All of the main performers are dialling down, resisting any urge to raise their voice or give a bigger reaction than the slightest twitch or glance. Even John Cazale, the loose cannon in Godfather II, holds back from letting off any steam.
The film is first and foremost Gene Hackman's piece. He is brilliant in the central role, a complete contrast from his commanding performance as Popeye Doyle three years earlier. He shrinks into the role just as Russell Crowe does in Michael Mann's The Insider, hiding behind the glasses like they were blinds on a window, and wearing the mac like a suit of armour.
Hackman's genius with the character lies in how he makes him seem completely natural. Harry Caul is a man who rarely lets his guard down, taking extensive precautions over every part of his life. The obvious trap for any actor to fall into is to play every such precaution as a conscious thought; this would result in the performance becoming that of an actor thinking about what to do, and it would quickly become jarring. Hackman, on the other hand, allows Caul's obsessive nature to wash over him - he acts like he isn't aware of it, which in turn makes it natural for the character.
The Conversation is a film about loneliness and isolation, driven by a character that revels and specialises in both these things. Coppola explores the various conflicts in Caul between the need for intimacy and the opposing need to keep at arms' length to avoid giving anything away. This is explored on a personal level, in his relationship with his landlord; a business level, in his scenes with Harrison Ford; a sexual level, in his stunted love affair; and a religious level, in his Catholic faith and the moral implications of his work.
The film also explores how technology intrudes upon our lives and erodes whatever sense of self or personal space we have. It's easy to call it a conspiracy thriller, considering its historical placing around the Watergate scandal, but it's far more of a cautionary tale or moral parable. The society we live in may be more technologically advanced than Caul's, insofar as we have moved on from reel-to-reel tape recorders. But issues surrounding privacy and the manipulation of personal information are still very much at the forefront, making The Conversation feel more than a little prophetic.
Another big theme in The Conversation is paranoia, contrasting the personal paranoia of Caul with the corporate paranoia of his mysterious employers. Caul's conversations with his competitors are immensely terse and evasive: they all work in the same industry, but Caul won't reveal any of his secrets. We aren't sure whether Caul is being delusional as to their true motives, or whether there really is more to them than meets the eye. The moment where Caul finds out he has been bugged at the party is a crushing blow for him: it demonstrates how tragic a figure he is, afraid of everyone and everything, and even more afraid to show it.
The film reinforces its paranoid atmosphere through its visual choices. The majority of the scenes are in faceless office buildings or empty warehouses - places that are so functional and drab that the tiniest unusual sound or out-of-place detail can deeply unnerve us. Caul always has to go through other people to get what he wants, to the extent that we don't meet "the Director" until the final third of the film.
It could be argued that Coppola is using this set-up to make a point about the nature of film-making. Caul is the actor, who is desperate to give the best performance he can to preserve and further his reputation, and he doesn't take kindly to being lied to or not being paid in the proper manner. The Director is distant and bad-tempered, refusing to speak to the actor directly until the latter's persistence becomes unbearable. The film doesn't dwell on its self-reflexive aspect like Mulholland Drive or Berberian Sound Studio, but it's still an interesting way of looking at it.
Like the medium itself, The Conversation is a film which follows and magnifies the tiniest details. Its story deals with a plot point that many faster-paced spy thrillers would handle inside of 20 minutes. Because we are not given any idea about the intentions of the Director, we are placed in Caul's position, obsessively scrolling back and forth through the tapes, locating and deciphering hidden meanings. What seems at the start like a normal, innocuous conversation becomes more loaded and ingrained with meaning, and the more we look and listen, the more threat comes out.
On top of its examination of paranoia, The Conversation also deals with the subject of voyeurism. Caul is a devout Catholic who fears eternal damnation and constantly wrestles over whether his occupation is ethical. He wonders whether his professional eavesdropping is helping people or leading to horrible deaths, remarking during the dream sequence: "I don't fear death; I do fear murder". The deaths of three previous clients haunt Harry: he cannot ever bring himself to absolve himself of what happened, let alone accept the Lord's forgiveness.
As before, what makes The Conversation interesting in this regard is its restraint. In Blue Velvet, David Lynch explored voyeurism through striking and surreal imagery, intending to pull the viewer straight into a nightmare, under the pretext that they couldn't and cannot look away. Coppola, on the other hand, is more immediately suggestive, surrounding the viewer with the slow-moving and mundane to make the murder all the more shocking.
Having built up a small cauldron of suspense, the ending of The Conversation is really quite beautiful. After being threatened over the phone by The Director's right-hand man, Caul suspects his apartment has been bugged and promptly tears it apart. When he finds nothing, he sits among the ruins and plays his saxophone, as the camera tracks back and forth and the credits roll. Caul resigns himself to his fate - having worked so hard to avoid detection, only to be bugged anyway, he decides that this is inevitable. Someone is always listening, and sometimes they won't want to hurt you, so the best thing to do is to carry out living and let things take their course.
The only real flaw with The Conversation is its dream sequence. Having worked so hard and held back for so long, the film shifts to a more Gothic sensibility and gives us a lot of disappointing, expository dialogue. Much like the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, it feels like it has been helmed by another director (and in Hitch's case it was - Salvador Dali supervised the whole thing). It doesn't completely derail the film, but it doesn't bring a great deal to the table either. 
The Conversation is a great slow-burning thriller and one of the best films of Coppola's career. Its story may appear more simple and straightforward than either The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, but it still has a wealth of ideas to intrigue and unnerve the audience. Hackman's performance contains some of his very best work, and he is complimented wonderfully by John Cazale and a rare villainous turn from Harrison Ford. You'll certainly have a lot to talk about afterwards - just be careful where you choose to talk about it.



  1. A great film and a great analysis.

  2. Very, very good write up. Feel like i really have a thorough knowledge of the film now even though i saw it years and years ago. Excellent work, very readable.

  3. Thank you David, that's really kind of you.

    Can't seem to see your profile - do you have a blog I can check out?


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