A better film than The Godfather? Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant The Conversation was made at the height of the director’s powers. Andy Boxall revisits the film.
Filmed by Francis Ford Coppola between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, The Conversation is an homage to films such as Blow-Up, except instead of photography, it deals with eavesdropping and electronic surveillance. Starring Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, it’s a claustrophobic, paranoia-filled psychological thriller, and one of the finest films of the 70s.
Harry is a surveillance expert, and has been recruited by a company to record a conversation between an unidentified man and a woman. Normally able to maintain indifference towards his subjects, Harry becomes convinced the couple are going to be murdered. Already plagued by feelings of guilt due to a previous job ending in the death of its subjects, he begins to take responsibility for his actions.
“The Conversation requires patience to fully appreciate, but its many layers make it totally absorbing.”
A very slow, considered film, The Conversation requires patience to fully appreciate, but its many layers make it totally absorbing. Although paranoia is the film’s primary focus, it’s also about devastating guilt, both religious and as a by-product of listening into others lives without their knowledge. The Conversation is shot in such a way that we the audience get to eavesdrop on Harry’s exceptionally private life, with heavy use of stationary, distant cameras intruding on his moments alone. There are many references to people observing or listening to others too, from the mime artist in the fantastic opening sequence, to our own personal interpretation of a particularly oft-repeated line from Harry’s recording of the couple.
With so much to explore and consider when watching The Conversation – again, increasing its voyeuristic nature – a second or third viewing is essential. Its connection with Blow-Up is well noted, but its paranoia also recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window too. Gene Hackman is superb as Caul, ably supported by John Cazale and Allen Garfield, plus the rest of the cast include a variety of Coppola regulars from that time, including American Graffiti’s Cindy Williams, a young Harrison Ford and even Al Nalbandian in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role.
The technology on display is fascinating too, with lots of reel-to-reel recorders, big video cameras, rotary telephones and huge audio filters all used extensively. It’s a credit to the film that none of this makes The Conversation feel dated, instead providing a tactile, retro feel along the same lines as Cronenberg’s Videodrome does today. Further mention should go to Walter Murch’s sound design, which the new Blu-ray really brings to the forefront, as it does with the image too. It’s a beautiful transfer that does the film the justice it deserves, and the disc has a good selection of new and old special features.
At times horrific (the scene in the hotel bathroom is like The Shining in miniature) and haunting (Harry’s destruction of his room) The Conversation is a bleak examination of surveillance culture in its infancy, as well as a sad portrayal of a lonely man obsessed with keeping his own life private. Troubling and thought-provoking, brilliantly acted and masterfully constructed, this is one not only one of Coppola’s, but also the 1970s, best films.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall
Released: 1974 / Genre: Psychological Drama / Country: USA / IMDB