Director’s Spotlight: The Conversation
Next up on this month’s Director’s Spotlight of Francis Ford Coppola is 1974’s The Conversation.
What’s that, you say? You’ve never heard of it? The Godfather, Part II was released that year?
You’re absolutely correct. But so did this fantastic film centering on paranoia and self-alienation and starring Gene Hackman. Here’s how I relate to it; remember how Christopher Nolan did Batman Begins in 2005, then people got super excited for The Dark Knight? But he also did a great film in that gap: The Prestige, starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in his best role. While critically acclaimed, nobody really remembered it in the long run because of the hype building for Nolan’s upcoming sequel. The same applies to The Conversation, which competed against The Godfather, Part II for the Best Picture Oscar but was overall dwarfed in terms of sales and recognition.
This is unfortunate, as this film is one of Coppola’s greatest works and one worth repeated viewings. It concerns Harry Caul (Hackman), the best in the audio surveillance business and not without admirers, but one who lives a solitary existence: his apartment is almost completely bare except for several locks on the door and a telephone he claims doesn’t exist; he hates sharing information about himself with others, even in intimate situations; he even wears a transparent raincoat everywhere he goes, for no apparent reason. The only enjoyment he allows himself is playing along with jazz records on his saxophone. The film, however much a character-study as it might be, plays out as a conventional thriller. Caul is already wracked with guilt from a past wire-tap job, and after recording a young couple’s conversation for a mysterious client, is afraid another tragedy may play itself out. Twists and turns abound, as Caul’s paranoia and withdrawal from society increase to horrifying levels. I won’t spoil the ending, but the twist near the end and the final scene alone are worth seeing this film.
One of the greatest things about this film is the context in which it was released. Nixon had just resigned amid scandal involving wire-tapping, and this film’s themes of mysterious conspiracies and the ever-increasing methods of eavesdropping hit home in a hard way. Many people felt it was an attack on the administration and what they were capable of, and perhaps they are right. Either way, it makes for an incredible work of art. The screenplay is superb, building on each scene’s suspense while also allowing the audience to gain further insight into the character of Harry Caul. Gene Hackman has possibly his best (or at least most complex) role, with strong support coming from the late great John Cazale, Harrison Ford, Allen Garfield, and an uncredited Robert Duvall. The cinematography is phenomenal, especially on the memorable dream/nightmare sequences within Harry’s growing madness. All in all, it’s very impressive, considering Coppola was working on another Oscar-winner at the time.
This thrilling masterpiece deserves 4 1/2 out of 5 pitchforks and not only deserves to be remembered, but lauded as one of the best films in the pantheon of the one of the best directors, Francis Ford Coppola.