Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is a complex, emotionally internal, paranoiac and dehumanized surveillance expert is assigned the mission of recording a conversation between a young couple, Anne (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest). Unable to assuredly decipher what the conversation means – and he replays the tapes over and over again and starts to imagine an impending tragedy for the subjects. In the process of solving the mystery of the conversation he ends up breaking his own moral code, strips himself down to his soul and becomes emotionally involved in the case.
1. Coppola had two films vying for Best Picture in 1974.
Francis Ford Coppola’s atmospheric and tense surveillance thriller is not only masterfully written and directed (and in many circles, its considered Coppola’s best film) but it is a feat of sound design and re-recording, and has been deemed an important and culturally significant work. Coppola dominated the 1970’s. With The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part 2 (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola produced four masterpieces in a row. They rank amongst the greatest American films ever made. The Conversation is often Coppola’s forgotten film. Few have seen it. Remarkably, it won the Palme d’Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival but lost Best Picture to The Godfather Part II at the Academy Awards that year.
2. Gene Hackman’s performance is outstanding.
Harry Caul is an idol in the surveillance industry. He is a professional invader of privacy, and three people are dead because of the privileged information he turned over to a previous client. This job is partly responsible for Caul’s growing paranoia. Caul is a loner. He’s quiet, withdrawn and suspicious. He has multiple locks on his door and is uneasy knowing that his landlord has access to his apartment. He doesn’t reciprocate his girlfriend’s affections, and ends up losing her. Gene Hackman’s performance is outstanding. He effectively evokes Harry’s crippling anxiety with his flustered expressions and his stammering recounts of his past successes – which suggest that Harry could have been one of the men responsible for the Watergate bugging as the film was made against the backdrop of the Watergate affair - induces sympathy. We know all along that he has only the very best intentions in mind, and doesn’t want to consider what he is doing is wrong. His mechanical life takes a turn when he begins to feel the personal emotions he has long repressed/ignored.
3. Prophecy,Thriller & Character Study
Though snippets of the conversation, and ultimately its secrets, are held back and revealed at a near-frustrating stall, The Conversation is expertly paced and crafted. It works as a surveillance thriller, a prophetic exploration of the prevalence of technology in our lives, and a fascinating character study. The intensity begins to spike dramatically as we approach the shocking climax.
4. Amazing Soundscape
The distinctive musical accompaniment by David Shire, a repetitive piano score that is prevalent throughout the entire film. Just as Harry Caul is a master of recording, Walter Murch was one of cinema’s great sound editors and innovative designers, and his work on The Conversation – mixing this score, the recorded sounds of Harry’s tapes and even Harry’s flapping plastic raincoat - is great.
5. Eerily Relevant
Utilising advanced-for-the-time technology and recording equipment in the way that it does, The Conversation is demonstrative of the power that these technicians could have over private information back in the 1970’s. It is indicative of how detrimental and destructive the possession of information is, and how even privacy in public spaces is impossible. This is still eerily relevant and resonating today.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.