The Conversation Reviews
What marks The Conversation out from Coppola's other words of the period, and from its other contemporaries, is its understatement. Everything about the film is methodical and reserved: the way it is assembled, and shot, and edited, every aspect coils neatly around the central narrative like a tightly-wound spool of tape. All of the main performers are dialling down, resisting any urge to raise their voice or give a bigger reaction than the slightest twitch or glance. Even John Cazale, the loose cannon in Godfather II, holds back from letting off any steam.
The film is first and foremost Gene Hackman's piece. He is brilliant in the central role, a complete contrast from his commanding performance as Popeye Doyle three years earlier. He shrinks into the role just as Russell Crowe does in Michael Mann's The Insider, hiding behind the glasses like they were blinds on a window, and wearing the mac like a suit of armour.
Hackman's genius with the character lies in how he makes him seem completely natural. Harry Caul is a man who rarely lets his guard down, taking extensive precautions over every part of his life. The obvious trap for any actor to fall into is to play every such precaution as a conscious thought; this would result in the performance becoming that of an actor thinking about what to do, and it would quickly become jarring. Hackman, on the other hand, allows Caul's obsessive nature to wash over him - he acts like he isn't aware of it, which in turn makes it natural for the character.
The Conversation is a film about loneliness and isolation, driven by a character that revels and specialises in both these things. Coppola explores the various conflicts in Caul between the need for intimacy and the opposing need to keep at arms' length to avoid giving anything away. This is explored on a personal level, in his relationship with his landlord; a business level, in his scenes with Harrison Ford; a sexual level, in his stunted love affair; and a religious level, in his Catholic faith and the moral implications of his work.
The film also explores how technology intrudes upon our lives and erodes whatever sense of self or personal space we have. It's easy to call it a conspiracy thriller, considering its historical placing around the Watergate scandal, but it's far more of a cautionary tale or moral parable. The society we live in may be more technologically advanced than Caul's, insofar as we have moved on from reel-to-reel tape recorders. But issues surrounding privacy and the manipulation of personal information are still very much at the forefront, making The Conversation feel more than a little prophetic.
Another big theme in The Conversation is paranoia, contrasting the personal paranoia of Caul with the corporate paranoia of his mysterious employers. Caul's conversations with his competitors are immensely terse and evasive: they all work in the same industry, but Caul won't reveal any of his secrets. We aren't sure whether Caul is being delusional as to their true motives, or whether there really is more to them than meets the eye. The moment where Caul finds out he has been bugged at the party is a crushing blow for him: it demonstrates how tragic a figure he is, afraid of everyone and everything, and even more afraid to show it.
The film reinforces its paranoid atmosphere through its visual choices. The majority of the scenes are in faceless office buildings or empty warehouses - places that are so functional and drab that the tiniest unusual sound or out-of-place detail can deeply unnerve us. Caul always has to go through other people to get what he wants, to the extent that we don't meet "the Director" until the final third of the film.
It could be argued that Coppola is using this set-up to make a point about the nature of filmmaking. Caul is the actor, who is desperate to give the best performance he can to preserve and further his reputation, and he doesn't take kindly to being lied to or not being paid in the proper manner. The Director is distant and bad-tempered, refusing to speak to the actor directly until the latter's persistence becomes unbearable. The film doesn't dwell on its self-reflexive aspect like Mulholland Drive or Berberian Sound Studio, but it's still an interesting way of looking at it.
Like the medium itself, The Conversation is a film which follows and magnifies the tiniest details. Its story deals with a plot point that many faster-paced spy thrillers would handle inside of 20 minutes. Because we are not given any idea about the intentions of the Director, we are placed in Caul's position, obsessively scrolling back and forth through the tapes, locating and deciphering hidden meanings. What seems at the start like a normal, innocuous conversation becomes more loaded and ingrained with meaning, and the more we look and listen, the more threat comes out.
On top of its examination of paranoia, The Conversation also deals with the subject of voyeurism. Caul is a devout Catholic who fears eternal damnation and constantly wrestles over whether his occupation is ethical. He wonders whether his professional eavesdropping is helping people or leading to horrible deaths, remarking during the dream sequence: "I don't fear death; I do fear murder". The deaths of three previous clients haunt Harry: he cannot ever bring himself to absolve himself of what happened, let alone accept the Lord's forgiveness.
As before, what makes The Conversation interesting in this regard is its restraint. In Blue Velvet, David Lynch explored voyeurism through striking and surreal imagery, intending to pull the viewer straight into a nightmare, under the pretext that they couldn't and cannot look away. Coppola, on the other hand, is more immediately suggestive, surrounding the viewer with the slow-moving and mundane to make the murder all the more shocking.
Having built up a small cauldron of suspense, the ending of The Conversation is really quite beautiful. After being threatened over the phone by The Director's right-hand man, Caul suspects his apartment has been bugged and promptly tears it apart. When he finds nothing, he sits among the ruins and plays his saxophone, as the camera tracks back and forth and the credits roll. Caul resigns himself to his fate - having worked so hard to avoid detection, only to be bugged anyway, he decides that this is inevitable. Someone is always listening, and sometimes they won't want to hurt you, so the best thing to do is to carry out living and let things take their course.
The only real flaw with The Conversation is its dream sequence. Having worked so hard and held back for so long, the film shifts to a more Gothic sensibility and gives us a lot of disappointing, expository dialogue. Much like the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, it feels like it has been helmed by another director (and in Hitch's case it was - Salvador Dali supervised the whole thing). It doesn't completely derail the film, but it doesn't bring a great deal to the table either.
The Conversation is a great slow-burning thriller and one of the best films of Coppola's career. Its story may appear more simple and straightforward than either The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, but it still has a wealth of ideas to intrigue and unnerve the audience. Hackman's performance contains some of his very best work, and he is complimented wonderfully by John Cazale and a rare villainous turn from Harrison Ford. You'll certainly have a lot to talk about afterwards - just be careful where you choose to talk about it.
Although not as epic in scope or as poignant as the first two Godfather films, The Conversation is a quiet, powerful look at the paranoid American. As civilization "progresses" and technology improves by leaps and bounds every year, we as a people discover more ways to not only loosen our ties that bind humanity together, but we also become more adept at keeping tabs on our opponents.
Harry Caul could even be seen as the everyday American in 2012. Technology allows him to be well-versed in the lives of others, but at the end of the day, seldom is known about what makes him tick. He is a shrewd surveillance expert. His hands are not drenched in the blood of others. Yet, his work offers such intrusion into the lives of others, that deep down he knows he is in some ways culpable for the crimes committed because of his life's work.
What starts as just a well-crafted thriller, evolves into a psychological thriller about the conscience of a man who is so immersed in the minds of his fellow man, that he hasn't yet fully figured out his own.
These themes are augmented by David Shire's entrancing piano score. It slowly builds tension and really adds to the mental terror experienced by the protagonist. I was really impressed by Hackman's performance as well. Delivering a performance as layered as an onion, and from what I understand, something very different from Hackman's real life personality.
Maybe I was just starved for something meaty to chew on. But this film helped me realize just how much of a creative force Coppola was in the early 70's.
With this film, we follow Harry Caul, a top surveillance man whose life revolves around his work, which is primarily spying on others. He takes his work very seriously, and has basically no social life. He lives a spartan existence, and in contrast with invading other peoples's privacy, keeps his own life tightly guarded. During a routine wiretapping job, he becomes obsessed with the conversation he is recording, mostly due to misinterpreting the emphasis on certain words he hears. This leads him to try to prevent what seems like an inevitable tragedy, but ultimately finds him way over his head in a situation no one wants to be a part of.
Taking cues from Antonioni and Watergate, this is a slick, albeit surprisingly low-key and muted psychological paranoid thriller. It's quintessential 70s from the aesthetics, to the style, and the ovrall tone. It's got universal themes, which makes it timeless, but it definitely fits the mold for a typical 70s film, and that's definitely not a bad thing.
The film is perhaps a tad overrated. I am giving it an extra half star though, because I love the approach and techniques, This is a film where sound (in general, but especially with editing and mixing) is crucial, and this is Example A of how to do this sort of thing right. I would have liked to known more about Harry, and gotten some more penetrating insight into his character, but there's just enough that comes through all the subtlety that I cna't complain too much.
Hackman is great, and is nondescript look is wonderful. John Cazale once again proves that he was the best character acotr ever, especially since every film he was in during his short career was great, as were his performances. Teri Garr is pretty attractive in a very retro way, and it's fun seeing Ford in a shadowy type of role. There's a nice uncredited cameo that I won't surprise, but the choice is a good one.
All in all, a fascinating film about guilt, paranoia, and obsession. The style and techniques trump substance, but this is far from a shallow film. As I said, it's just very understated. Sometimes though, this is the best way to do things.
In my opinion, I believe that during the 70s, Francis Ford Coppola was one of the greatest working directors. With two Godfather films, a Vietnam war epic, and this film, Coppola was on fire during this time. I love this film, just as much, if not more than his Mafia epics, and I give it credit, just as I do with the Godfather films for doing basically everything right.
Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, a private and cautious surveillance expert, recording conversations for other people for a living. On one particular assignment, involving a man and a women having a cryptic conversation in a park in San Francisco, Harry becomes very involved with what the meaning behind the dialogue exchange is, and more so once the party he is working for begins to act much more suspicious than he would like. What follows is Harry's attempts to get a grip on the assignment he's drawn himself into, while also dealing with the lone existence he's created for himself.
Hackman is great here. Playing a character much different than the majority of other roles he's been given, here he has the task of underplaying many emotions to convey the life of a person deep inside his own shell. From the way he handles conversations to the stray looks he gives to something not quite right, Hackman shines throughout. Co-starring in the film you also have John Cazale (look him up, died too young, but very impressive filmography) playing an associate of Harry's. Then you have Harrison Ford in what is probably his creepiest role ever.
Harry Caul: I'm not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.
The look of this film is great, using the surveillance theme as a wonderful way to mix both the plot and the overall atmosphere the film attempts to evoke. Having the opening conversation repeated again and again, propelling both Harry and the viewer into a spiral of analysis over the meaning and context of what is being said functions effectively and leads greatly into the films final act.
While mostly playing out as a character study with themes involving paranoia, the thriller elements that work their way into the are quite effective as well, while never sacrificing the character work handled throughout.
Certainly helping is the score by David Shire, which effectively supports the moods of the characters and the fact that Harry's character is a jazz fan works nicely into the film as well.
Not much more to say, besides the fact that this is just a truly great film.
Martin Stett: I'm not following you, I'm looking for you. There's a big difference.
I?m certainly interested to see what others thought of it.
Innovative sound use (it lost the Sound Oscar to a fucking earthquake movie?) and an awesome ending compensate for the occasionally flat plot.
More later. Wow, I'm two for two...