The Conversation (1974)

reviewed by
James Kendrick

"The Conversation" (USA, 1974)
A Film Review by James Kendrick

Director: Francis Ford Coppola / Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola / Stars: Gene Hackman (Harry Caul), John Cazale (Stan), Allen Garfield (William P. "Bernie" Moran), Frederic Forrest (Mark), Cindy Williams (Ann), Michael Higgins (Paul), Elizabeth MacRae (Meredith), Teri Garr (Amy), Harrison Ford (Martin Stett) / MPAA Rating: R / Review: **** (out of ****)

As "The Conversation" slowly weaves its absorbing and intricate web, it works its way under your skin, drawing you into its sense of paranoia, until you are sharing the same feelings as the protagonist, who in this case is a man named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman).

Caul's profession is surveillance -- watching and recording other people. Even one of Caul's fiercest competitors (Allen Garfield) admits that he is "the best bugger on the West Coast." He is a private contractor, and will work for anyone, including rich businessmen or even the government.

When the film opens, Caul and his assistant, Stan (John Cazale), are in the middle of a difficult assignment. A mysterious man known only as The Director has paid Caul $15,000 to record a conversation between his wife (Cindy Williams) and another man (Michael Higgins) as they walk in circles in a park in the middle of downtown San Francisco during crowded lunchtime.

Caul completes the assignment by using three recording devices: one in a shopping bag carried by a man following them, and two parabolic microphones of his own design positioned over two hundred yards away. Of course, none of these three recordings is complete, but back in his studio, Caul works carefully to assemble the raw footage into a complete conversation. The scenes depicting Caul at work reminded me of Antonini's "Blowup" and Brian De Palma's "Blow Out." Like those movies, "The Conversation" invites the viewer to watch over Caul's shoulder as he puts the pieces together, slowly deciphering what was said.

The conflict comes when Caul breaks his strict rule of not getting personally involved in his work when he realizes that when he turns the tape over to the Director, a murder might ensue. He doesn't know for sure, but several years ago he was involved in another assignment that resulted in three deaths, and he doesn't want to live through it again. Of course, his job is to listen to conversations, not to hear them. When Stan shows curiosity at what the conversation is about, Caul snaps back this his profession is to not be curious. "I don't care what's being said," he says. "I just want a good recording."

Hackman plays Caul as a tightly-strung, paranoid, and intensely personal man who is incapable of being involved in human relationships. Early on we see him with a semi-girlfriend (Teri Garr), but the relationship sours because he hates being asked questions, even simple ones like "Where do you work?" His unrelenting privacy blocks him off from the rest of the world, so much that he becomes distraught when he learns that his landlady has a key to his apartment.

In this way, "The Conversation" is an affecting tragedy. Although it is a brilliantly written and expertly-paced mystery with some fantastic twists and scenes that might make Hitchcock proud, it is also a finely-tuned character study, mostly due to Hackman's outstanding performance. It also incorporates a running theme of how privacy is slowly being eroded by society and, more specifically, technology. Caul is paranoid simply because he knows that any person can be recorded at any time in any place. He knows because he's the expert, and even though he is one of the best, there are others out there.

"The Conversation" was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola when he was at the height of his talent. He had just won Best Picture in 1972 for "The Godfather," and even though "The Conversation" was nominated for Best Picture in 1974, it lost out to his own "The Godfather Part II."

But unlike the sprawling "Godfather Saga," "The Conversation" utilizes Coppola's striking ability to create a closed sense of claustrophobia and suspicion. He successfully taps into the primal fear that we can never be alone, that someone is always watching. This is one of the few films that might be more relevant today than it was twenty-three years ago, because in the age of the Internet, global telecommunications, and satellite cameras, the threat of invaded privacy is more real than ever, and always getting worse.

1998 James Kendrick

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