A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple he is spying on will be murdered.
Year 2, Film #53
THE REVIEW: While director Francis Ford Coppola was busy making The Godfather: Part II, he found some time to also make The Conversation, both of which were nominated for Best Picture in 1974 (with The Godfather: Part II emerging victorious). However, that shouldn’t speak to the quality film that The Conversation is. This thrilling tale of surveillance rivals real-life stories of the Watergate scandal (which is even mentioned in the film) and the even more recent NSA leaks. But there’s two main parts to surveillance: gathering the information and trying to understand what the information means in context. This film explores both aspects in nail-biting, mind-twisting detail.
The Conversation revolves around a single conversation between two people (played by Cindy Williams and Frederick Forrest) that Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) has been hired to record. This conversation is the first thing we see through the eyes of Harry and his associates. The sound is distorted and choppy as we’re only able to hear the bits and pieces from the three different microphones picking everything up. Throughout the film, we return again and again to the conversation as both the clarity of the recording improves (to a listenable state) and the meaning of what’s being said evolves.
Coppola’s brilliance here is how he releases these bits of information to us. First, everything is filtered through the eyes of the paranoid Harry who walks around always looking over his shoulder. He trusts no one and is skeptical of everyone and everything around him. When it comes to his work, especially with this conversation, he remains strictly professional. His colleague Stan (John Cazale) asks at one point about the assignment and mentions that curiosity is just human nature to which Harry replies, “I don’t know anything about curiosity. That’s not part of what I do.” There’s even times Harry stutters, too nervous about what he’s trying to say or the situation he’s in. Seeing the film unfold through Harry’s eyes forces our perspective to be that of a skeptic and as a result, we question everything we see and hear.
The supporting cast also plays an important role as well. While these characters are kept more in the background than usual in a film, the effect their mere presence has on Harry is enormous. From his co-worker Stan to The Director (Robert Duvall) and his assistant (Harrison Ford) who hired him, and even competitor William Moran (Allen Garfield), all these characters serve as distractions of varying levels to Harry. The Director and his assistant concern Harry because he believes they’re tracking him which in turn causes suspicion as to why. After his first encounter with the assistant, Harry begins to question the whole assignment and becomes curious about the tape recording, something that’s atypical for him. And his competitor William Moran, who only appears for a brief portion in the middle of the film, serves as a sort of instigator to Harry. He starts asking Harry questions he doesn’t want to think about, much less answer. This in turn riles him up even further to a point where Harry actually lets go and relax for a moment.
But the real genius in this film goes back to this conversation. This singular conversation that we never quite get the full picture of. Coppola begins with the distorted recordings and dangles the bone of more information in front of us for the rest of the film. It’s not that we never get the full picture — there are many times throughout the film where we believe we understand what everything means. But once we’re positive we understand, things change and they change quite dramatically over the course of the film. It’s the difference between what we perceive is going on and what actually is going on and it also goes back to what I said earlier about gathering and understanding the information you have. The Conversation is exciting and keeps you thinking because you repeatedly reach these states of certainty only to have the rug pulled out from under you. New tiny details change how we perceive the same interaction that we must see and listen to at least twenty times. Each time it’s like a new conversation because just one word or one phrase can take on a whole new meaning and change the entire message and intent behind it.
The Conversation is to film as page-turners are to books. This film is gripping from beginning to end and there isn’t a moment where you aren’t enveloped in Harry Caul, his work, the the events that are unfolding around him. Gene Hackman does a phenomenal job portraying this paranoid and jittery surveillance man who unknowingly accepts a job where his aversion to curiosity must be stayed. And we as the audience are left to figure out, along with Harry, what this conversation between two people in Union Square, San Francisco actually means. It is a wonderful look at privacy and spying — issues which are highly relevant in today’s world — and at an entertainment level, how our thoughts can betray us when what we perceive to be real differs from what actually takes place. Must-see film that probably deserved more than just a nomination for Best Picture.
THE RATING: 5 out of 5