There is a moment at the very end of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, The Conversation, that brings the entire slow burn movie in tight focus. It’s a jarring revelation but only if you have been paying attention as closely as the surveillance expert at the center of the story. The Conversation is a character study, almost staged like a play, and it’s subject is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). Harry makes his living doing freelance surveillance work in San Francisco. In the clandestine world of investigation services he’s the best in the business. While piecing together the audio feeds from multiple sources on his latest job, Harry becomes distracted by what he hears and starts to fear for the lives of the young couple he was hired to eavesdrop on.
On the surface The Conversation is a thriller about a man with a past breaking his one rule and getting personally involved in his assignment. This is a trope we have seen many, many times before. It is the execution here that sets The Conversation apart from other stories in the genre. The Conversation doesn’t focus on the story, it focuses on Harry Caul. Harry says more than once that his job is to capture the conversation that he was hired for. What happens after is entirely up to his client. He absolves himself of his own culpability saying any repercussions that come from his work are not his fault. What we learn is that Harry is a devout Catholic, and is very much haunted by violence that his work has caused.
As Harry gets more obsessed with the recording the more he becomes convinced that he could be sentencing two people to death. Harry focuses on a single line of dialogue, “He’d kill us if he had the chance.”, and plunges down a rabbit hole trying to parse meaning from it. What Harry never stops to consider, and the movie deftly navigates around, is why was he hired to record this conversation in the first place?
As Harry, Gene Hackman gives a brilliant performance. Far from his Popeye Doyle or Lex Luthor (depending on your own predilections for 70’s Gene Hackman performances), Harry is tightly wound, nearly agoraphobic, and fiercely protective of his own secrets. The centerpiece of the movie is a nearly 30 minutes sequence staged in the warehouse where Harry has his shop. Harry and a few acquaintances had just left a surveillance trade convention and continued the party at Harry’s. Everyone is drinking and carrying on but you can see the strain on Harry to keep up social pretenses even though he would obviously rather not be there, or at the very least, not have these people there. When one of them starts needling Harry about a past job you can almost hear the ticking waiting for Harry to go off, which he never does. This is the benefit of casting Hackman, an actor known for his larger than life explosive on-screen personality and ironically keeps the viewer on edge.
Along with Hackman, The Conversation features excellent turns from Cindy Williams (Shirley from Laverne & Shirley) as half of the couple Harry eavesdrops on, Robert Duvall as the client, Harrison Ford as Duvall’s oily assistant, and Teri Garr as Harry’s on and off girlfriend.
I’ve seen several of Coppola’s movies but The Conversation is one that I had never gotten around to despite hearing good things. I’m happy to say the overwhelmingly glowing reviews are all on target. It was nominated for Best Picture in 1975 and the only reason it lost is it had the bad luck of going head to head with both Chinatown and that year’s winner, The Godfather: Part II. For fans of 70’s auteur cinema, especially tight character driven thrillers, this is one that shouldn’t be missed. Like the best movies it is one that you will chew on for some time after finishing, returning to certain lines or scenes and finding that you are hungry to return to that world again.