To fully grasp the hot streak filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola was on in the ’70s, it’s necessary to look beyond the titanic accomplishments of The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). Released the same year as The Godfather: Part II—and, amazingly, also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that year, giving Coppola two slots in the category—was The Conversation, which arguably represents the purest artistic statement of Coppola’s early career. Whereas Coppola’s other ’70s films are adaptations, The Conversation is an original. Moreover, the picture is so intimate that it demonstrates the filmmaker’s preternatural ability to use image and sound as a means of communicating nearly microscopic details about a protagonist’s inner life. Yet beyond simply being an auteurist showpiece, The Conversation tells a resonant story about themes ranging from paranoia to personal responsibility, and it contains one of the finest leading performances of the decade, by the incomparable Gene Hackman. In sum, The Conversation is a pinnacle achievement whether viewed as personal art, social critique, or even just craftsmanship.
Set in Coppola’s beloved San Francisco, the movie concerns Harry Caul (Hackman), a surveillance contractor revered by fellow professionals for his skill at secretly recording conversations in tricky situations. The opening scene depicts Harry’s team using a trio of strategically placed microphones to eavesdrop on an exchange between young lovers Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest), who speak while walking in circles through a crowded urban square. Harry merges the recordings until he’s extracted a pristine master tape, and then attempts to make delivery to his client, a director at the CIA. Yet when Harry is denied access to the director, he suspects trouble, so he withholds the master tape. It turns out that in the past, one of Harry’s tapes was used to justify an assassination, so Harry fears history might repeat itself. The problem, however, is that Harry is so reclusive that he has no close friends from whom to seek guidance or support. Therefore, the incredible drama of the movie stems from Harry’s quandary over whether to maintain his personal code of noninvolvement or violate his self-preserving principles in order to serve the greater good.
Every character surrounding Harry is used by Coppola to illuminate a different facet of the protagonist. Amiable coworker Stan (John Cazale) reveals Harry’s inability to trust; gentle prostitute Meredith (Elizabeth McRae) reveals Harry’s inability to share emotionally; undemanding kept woman Amy (Teri Garr) reveals Harry’s inability to commit; and so on. Meanwhile, edgy supporting characters including ice-blooded functionary Martin (Harrison Ford) and vulgar surveillance-industry competitor Bernie (Allen Garfield) represent the types of avarice and duplicity that first drove Harry to become a recluse. On nearly every textual and subtextual level, The Conversation is a master class in character development.
It’s also a wonder in terms of technical execution. Coppola and expert cinematographers Bill Butler and Haskell Wexler carve delicate images from light, movement, and shadow, articulating the significance of how different people occupy different spaces. Unsung hero Walter Murch, performing the role of sound designer before that job title existed, works magic with distortion and fragmentation to evoke Harry’s insular life experience, while composer David Shire’s whirling piano figures address the painful tension pervading the story. The performances are uniformly good, from Garr’s slightly pathetic likeability to Garfield’s crass aggression, but, obviously, the brittle textures of Hackman’s work hold The Conversation together. Disappearing behind dumpy clothes, horn-rimmed glasses, and a receding hairline, Hackman sketches Harry Caul with incredible restraint, so the flashes of emotion that the actor makes visible speak volumes. The Conversation isn’t perfect, thanks to occasional directorial flourishes that slip into pretention and thanks to a slightly overlong running time. Nonetheless, in every important way, The Conversation defines what made New Hollywood cinema bracing, innovative, and meaningful.
The Conversation: OUTTA SIGHT