The Conversation (1974) dir. Francis Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford, Allen Garfield
by Alan Bacchus
There have many great San Francisco-set films, if Vertigo is the best, “The Conversation” makes a terrific companion - a paranoia film about a reserved and quiet surveillance man whose conscience is awakened when he finds out the couple he’s spying on may be targeted for murder. It’s a classic 70’s film from arguably the decade’s best director.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the nation’s top surveillance expert. The film opens on Harry and his team recording a conversation between a man and a woman in the middle of San Francisco’s famous Market Square using a series of long distance microphones. After reviewing the tapes Harry discovers what might be a plot to murder the couple. When Caul visits his employer he refuses to give up the tapes unless he meets his employer face-to-face. Instead he’s brushed off by his assistant, played by a young Harrison Ford. Harry’s conscience won’t allow him to release tapes, instead retreating to his lab to uncover the conspiracy himself.
Harry Caul is one cinema’s classic characters – a loner, with an acute talent, so acute in fact, his life has become a day-by-day intimate obsession with his job. He doesn’t get out much, and when he does it’s spent in the company of other wiretappers who seem bent on comparing dick sizes. A night on the town after a trade show turns into a game between Harry and his east coast competitor Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) of one-upmanship to prove who’s the better wiretapper. I won’t ruin the payoff, but the scene ends with Harry being humiliated by Moran. Harry’s insecurities run deeper though. An incident from his days in NYC are often brought up which resulted the mob murder of some of the people he was tapping. This guilty conscience awakens with his latest case. The climax of the film contains a great reveal about the case, and the denouement (and specifically the last scene) is sad and somber ending which reveals the current state of Harry’s mind. It’s one of Gene Hackman’s best performances. Usually known for his tough guy roles, Hackman’s Caul is a soft spoken, shy introvert. Despite his towering stature he is meek and insecure.
“The Conversation” was made at a time just as Watergate hit, and so Coppola’s timing was impeccable. He captured the paranoia of big government and the secrets and lies that are covered up by the highest powers. Other films such as “All the President’s”, and “The Parallax View” would tread similar ground. Coppola’s influence was likely Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” which tells the story of a photographer who thinks he discovered a murder in one of his photographs.
Sound designer Walter Murch was highly influential in much of Coppola’s work, including his George Lucas collaborations “THX 1138” and “American Graffiti”. The attention to the sound is remarkable and is as important as the cinematography. The film was shot by Bill Butler (Jaws) and may not stand out like Gordon Willis’ or Vittorio Storaro’s work with Coppola, but it’s justly unobtrusive and complements the quiet story.
What’s remarkable about the film is that Coppola shot it in between the two Godfathers. Has there been a greater quality of output from a director in such a short period of time? Please send me some examples if so. Coppola was at the peak of his talents. Watching the film again is a delight, but if you’re watching it for the first time, I’m insanely jealous.