Francis Ford Coppola is a director whose ego can come through in his films, think Apocalypse Now (1979) for example. However, The Conversation (1974) is a very different beast, and is a creation on a much smaller and intimate scale than Coppola’s aforementioned Vietnam epic.
The film essentially concerns surveillance. The opening shot starts from a voyeuristic high angle over a crowded square at lunchtime. The shot is very long, and moves in extremely slowly, so slowly that you barely even realise that it is moving. The effect is that the viewer focuses on the people mingling about, trying to ascertain exactly what we should be looking for. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul a surveillance expert who is struggling with his conscience. Should he care about what people do with the audio tapes he captures using his high tech means, or should he just spy and absolve himself of all blame. The film is quite slow moving, and Coppola shows the ability to gradually build the moral dilemmas that Harry Caul is experiencing. And even whilst the snail’s pace can frustrate, Coppola always maintains a level of mystery surrounding the goings on so as to never lose the audience. This is a good thing, because the film accelerates wonderfully in the second half as the true nature of all things are slowly (then suddenly) revealed for all to see.
The Conversation is a strangely wonderful film in that it takes the viewer on an in-depth look at an industry completely foreign to most of us. There are surveillance conferences, scenes of men who work in the industry sitting around discussing war stories, an obsessive concern with the detail of surveillance technology and exceptional use of a sound design full of alarms, buzzes and garbled half-heard conversation that immerses you in this world. Hackman’s Harry Caul is a ‘man apart’, with a singular focus on his work to the detriment (or non-existence) of his personal connections. Hackman wonderfully crafts a man who seems totally not at ease in the world. This is a man who on the night of his birthday chooses to sit at home playing his sax along to an LP. On a thematic level, Harry’s work and his moral concerns regarding it, reflect a broader enquiry into Catholicism that also takes place in the film. Specifically the place of confession and the transference of sin and responsibility through the act of confession.
Much of the film does revolve around the titular conversation, which is a single, seemingly innocuous conversation. This one conversation, which Harry is paid to record, is repeated over and over again as Harry utilises all the technology at his disposal to try and ascertain what was said. And notably once he has achieved that, he goes outside the scope of his role, and attempts to discover the significance of it. The Conversation closes with a cracker of a twist. It is a plot turn that makes you see the whole of the film in an entirely new light.
This film, perhaps better than any other, shows what an original filmmaking voice Coppola was (is?). From a car chase that comes out of absolutely nowhere, to the endless close-ups of surveillance equipment, this is a little film with so much to absorb, and I recommend you give it a shot.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs