Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola.
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola.
Starring: Gene Hackman (Harry Caul), John Cazale (Stan), Allen Garfield (Bernie Moran), Frederic Forrest (Mark), Cindy Williams (Ann), Michael Higgins (Paul), Elizabeth MacRae (Meredith), Teri Garr (Amy), Harrison Ford (Martin Stett), Robert Duvall (The Director).
In his Great Movies essay on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Roger Ebert writes “His colleagues in the surveillance industry think Harry Caul is such a genius that we realize with a little shock how bad he is at his job.” – which is something that I don’t quite agree with. I think Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), the main character in The Conversation, is great only at his job – he’s bad at everything else. He is a man who succeeds in recording conversations that no one else could – using his own specially designed equipment, and then mixing together different recordings into one cohesive tape. When he’s on the job – either recording the conversation or mixing them – he’s a genius. It’s everything else in his life that he completely and totally screws up at. We are told that at one time, Caul was the best at what he did in New York – but being the best meant getting a tape that no one thought possible – that lead to a triple murder. So he flees New York, and sets up shop in San Francisco. The opening scene of the movie is basically a brilliant montage of Harry getting the conversation that will obsess him throughout the movie – between a man and a woman who walk around in circles in a crowded public square. Harry will listen to that conversation over and over again, and try to piece together what it all means. And he’ll be completely wrong.
Harry’s is a job that you can only do if you don’t really care about what happens when you’re done. If you need a secret tape of a conversation between other people, the chances are you are not using it for purely good purposes. People will inevitably be hurt by what he does – but it’s the only world he knows, so he continues in it, even though he now knows what the consequences will be. He tries to cut himself off from the rest of humanity – he has an unlisted number that he thinks no one can get, triple locks on the door that he thinks his landlord cannot get into his apartment, he keeps his mistress (and that’s the right word, even if he isn’t married) at arm’s length. But he grossly overestimates his ability to shut out the world around him – and the power of the people he’s dealing with. Being paranoid is not something he needs to be in order to do his job – we see him at an annual convention for people in his business, some of whom flaunt their wares like salesman. It’s just who Harry has become, and it leaves him pretty much destroyed at the end of the movie.
The Conversation is the movie Francis Ford Coppola directed between the first two Godfather movies in the 1970s – and it’s another masterpiece like those two were. It is heavily influenced by European filmmakers – most notably Michelangelo Antonioni and his 1966 film Blowup – which is about a photographer who think he may have captured a murder in the background of one of his photos. In The Conversation, Harry believes the conversation he records may be evidence of an upcoming murder, and obsesses over what he hears on the tape – analyzing every vocal inflection to try and piece together what the meaning behind the words are. He becomes so locked into one way of thinking, he cannot imagine a different one.
The Conversation is a thriller, but a muted one. There are no chase sequences or gunfights or fistfights, or anything like that. There is a long sequence in the middle of the movie which is essentially a curiously muted party at Harry’s workshop involving the people in his industry – including a great performance by Allen Garfield as his chief competitor, who is pretty much Harry’s polar opposite. He comes across as gregarious and friendly, but there’s a coldness and a ruthlessness beneath that surface that only reveals itself slowly. We learn a lot about Harry in this extended sequence, even though it has nothing to do with the rest of the plot.
That’s because more than anything, The Conversation is a character study of Harry – a paranoid, lonely man who is scared of the implications he thinks he hears on that tape. This is one of Hackman’s best performances – quieter than he usually does, and more subtle. That last, haunting shot in the movie is of a broken man – one undone by his own hand. The Conversation doesn’t have quite the reputation of Coppola’s other 1970s films – but it’s a masterpiece just the same.