by David Morgan-Brown
Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola made a name for himself with the critically and commercially successful Godfather films (the first two, that is), but his undervalued masterpiece was the film he made between these two behemoths, and for my money it’s the superior film (Coppola would agree, stating it’s his favourite film he’s made). It may lack the grandeur or masterful scope of those classic gangster flicks, but The Conversation is no such film – it is a lonely, taut, claustrophobic, obsessive thriller. It is one of the quintessential films of the ‘70s, a time in the cinema of integrated creativity between countries, combining the narrative trickery of American thrillers and the languid and involving pace of European dramas.
The Conversation was a personal project by Coppola, who began its screenplay in 1966 after being inspired by Antonioni’s Blowup, a similarly existential thriller film about an inward character who allows his voyeurism to get him accidentally caught up in a murder mystery. That film was a cerebral mind-fudge with quite a malleable narrative, but Coppola’s homage perfectly intertwines story, themes, and character.
Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul and with just a pair of glasses, a bad moustache, and some baggy clothing, he becomes unrecognisable, downplaying his usual charisma and infectiousness to a negative value. He is a side-character, maybe even just a background character, but the film forces us to survey him, many times we feel like peeping toms watching him at work or at home through the eerily voyeuristic cinematography. He works for a client, recording a conversation in a busy public area between two people he has no personal involvement with. Afterwards, he begins piecing together the sound recordings to try and reveal an audible conversation. There’s a calculated sense to the way the film portrays him at work on his surveillance, the brilliant editing and sound editing gets us just as involved in his work as he is. What he discovers begins to unravel him, causing him to become more active than passive if he is to make a change in the world and to stop terrible things from happening. However, there a few twists and turns throw into this story that may put Caul in a more pessimistic and paranoid mood than what he started in.
The mystery of the mystery he is trying to solve becomes so maddening that the film briefly enters psychological horror territory, where gruesome hallucinations submerge reality. Coppola and Hackman have brilliantly crafted a character where his work as a spy exemplifies his disconnection from all other people and reinforces his isolation, a characteristic ahead of its time in the cinema.
Being released less than a year after the Watergate scandal amplified how conscious the film was of American society, but even without it, The Conversation would have still resonated, then and now. Time will tell if it is timeless, but with privacy issues and spy technology on the rise over the past thirty years since the film’s release, it’s only proven to be even more relevant today.