Somewhere between The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, master filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola made the 1974 film The Conversation. The production just about predates Godfather Part II, which was also made and released in the same year, and which overshadowed comparatively small-scale, low-budget psychological conspiracy-thriller, not just upon release, but also when it came to the Oscars. Despite being proportionally highly successful – it made almost 3 times its budget – it was still a very low budget affair; an obscure title that often gets forgotten even in Coppola’s filmography, purely because it wasn’t as ‘big’ as the likes of Godfather and Apocalypse Now.
The story follows Harry Caul, a private surveillance expert who undertakes lucrative contracts to follow, bug, wire-tap, or monitor individuals of interest. He runs a small firm, builds his own specialist equipment, and is extremely secretive about his methods – but that’s mainly because he is the best at what he does, and everybody wants to know how he does it just so they can copy him. His latest operation involves recording the conversation of a young couple who appear to be having an illicit affair. They only meet in a crowded square, at lunchtime when everybody is out, and they walk in circles around the square, in amidst the crowd, to make it almost impossible to record their conversation. Almost. Harry devises a plan to capture their words on tape, and so does just that. But when he realises that the conversation that he has recorded may just have deadly implications if it fell into the wrong hands – i.e. the hands of the powerful, rich and jealous husband who hired him to make it in the first place – he has to figure out whether or not he can live with himself, or whether he should break his own rules about asking too many questions.
Taking his inspiration from Antonioni’s Blow Up, Francis Ford Coppola’s psychological thriller also has a lot in common with Brian ‘Scarface’ De Palma’s later 80s thriller Blow Out, itself a loose reworking of the Antonioni classic. Made in 1974, a time when political scandal was rife – the Watergate Scandal still fresh in the public’s mind – The Conversation tapped into an inherent you’re-not-paranoid-if-they’re-really-watching-you feeling that was spreading across the West. It may have been written almost a decade earlier but that merely goes to show the prescient nature of Coppola’s script, which, when it was finally adapted for film, proved just how important timing is. The Cold War was in full throttle; the US was still reeling from Vietnam, and surveillance, phone tapping, illegal recordings and the whole ‘Big Brother’ thing were all at the forefront of people’s minds. Somehow The Conversation tapped into this fear, a mystery thriller which used psychological beats to heighten the tension, allowing us to both see just what technology could allow people to do – just how far your lives could be invaded, if somebody chose to do so – as well as getting into the mind of the kind of man who would do such a job, and, in turn, seeing what the job does to that mind.
One of Gene Hackman’s personal favourite performances, playing the lead character, surveillance expert Harry Caul, went against just about everything that came naturally to Hackman (Unforgiven, The French Connection). A reclusive, eccentric, paranoid, socially-clumsy loner, who wears anoraks and hats and thick spectacles, and has long forgotten what it was like to open up and get close to another human being – that’s not what Hackman was, and not what he knew about, and yet you can see why he considered it one of his most valuable performances – the strong and reliable character actor seldom stepping out of his comfort zone across his long and noteworthy film career. Caul isn’t cool and charming, he’s geeky and intelligent, struggling with social contact, and struggling with his own emotions for the most part. It was a stroke of genius for Coppola to paint a lead character in such a way, because viewers were able to get to know him, balk at his evasive, distant manner, and then slowly side with him as his moral imperative kicks in, and as his world starts to unravel as a result. You see Hackman’s Harry Caul has been down this road before – he knows what it is like to get blood on your hands from a simple surveillance operation which, in the wrong hands, can lead to... well, murder. And whilst he was able to live with his last such encounter – mainly because it seems he was genuinely oblivious to the full ramifications at the time – this time around he is going in with his eyes open. He knows that something bad is going to happen. And he knows that he is not going to be able to live with it.
Supporting Hackman we have a number of decent players, some of whom you might recognise, and most of whom had worked with Coppola previously on either The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, or both: John Cazale (The Deer Hunter), Frederic Forest (Falling Down), a young Harrison Ford (Blade Runner) and even a cameo for Robert Duvall (THX-1138). Almost without exception they play against type, with both Ford and Duvall being quite surprising in their limited, understated, but pivotal roles. These are the men that populate the world of Harry Caul – the world that we see (and hear) through him – and it’s striking that the interaction he has with women in the narrative is certainly not what you might have expected from his character; but certainly makes sense for his character in hindsight. Far from a self-imposed monk, Caul actually has a number of female friends who he enjoys physical relationships with, but it’s interesting how he never lets them get too close – the intimacy is kept purely physical, with any overlap causing him to either run away, or get hurt; the former reaction largely evoked by his knowledge of the latter.
Coppola, again through Hackman’s Caul, also made of prime importance the technology in this surveillance world. Every little detail is impressed upon the viewer: the various different types of recording equipment, with their varying quality, reflected across the distorted audio we hear; the break-ups, interference, drop-outs and noise all captured perfectly by this filmmaker. Just like Blow Up (and Blow Out), it’s all in the details, and, as the lead character obsesses over the recording, playing it over and over again, so do we start to get swept up in the conspiracy. Pretty soon we’re as convinced as he is, making the twists and turns along the way all the more devastating, as if not only is Caul blindsided – but so are we. It’s a clever technique, and Coppola uses both sound and visuals perfectly, leaving us overwhelmed by this world where there could be a bug in literally anything – from your curtains to your lights; from your telephone to your electric sockets, from your floorboards to your ceiling. Once you start to think about it, it can only lead to madness.
It’s worth mentioning that Hackman revisited this character – to a certain extent – in Tony Scott’s similarly tech-orientated ‘Big Brother’ film, Enemy of the State, which took a more modern-day look at surveillance, and which featured a character that few can dispute is anything other than the older, gruffer, even more beleaguered version of Harry Caul. Enemy of the State, an engaging Will Smith vehicle, benefited no end from Hackman’s integral input, and for those who can’t see the obvious references – think of the monitoring of Smith and his ex in the square; the metal cage that Hackman’s character practically lives in, and even the way in which he dresses. Let alone the story of the film itself – about a recording which could have great implications if it got into the wrong hands. The Conversation may be very different in style (indeed it was designed to be an antidote to big budget blockbusters), but the two films still work great as a pair and, after the downbeat, spiral-into-hell final act of the former, it’s quite nice to see what must be the same character re-emerge in the latter, and get some chance at redemption.
At the end of the day Coppola’s The Conversation was a very personal piece, with themes of conspiracy, paranoia, and, ultimately, madness, all already observed in most of his more well-known titles – including his Godfather films and Apocalypse Now – but here given more prominence. Ultimately the film hinges on the intonation of one key sentence that is played repeatedly throughout the movie – “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” – and this symbolises just how much dramatic tension, character development and, ultimately gripping narrative storytelling he could achieve with such a relatively simple premise. It's not a perfect film, by any means, Coppola's almost OCD depiction coming across as marginally self-indulgent and borderline pretentious, but it is still a surprisingly good movie considering the limited subject and limited budget. If you haven’t yet experienced this little 70s gem, then it is definitely worth checking out. Recommended.
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