The Conversation (1974) **** out of ****
Review by: Mark Bernard
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield
(PG) – Contains some sexual content and brief disturbing images
Running time: 113 min
I remember first seeing ‘The Conversation’ right after seeing Brian de Palma’s ‘Blowout’. I remember it being a good movie, but nothing to write home about in the end, its fears and paranoia’s were to mainstream in this day and age, no one now seems to give a flying f— if your phone is getting tapped, rather it’s just assumed it is.
When you write a review, I read somewhere that you need to take every movie that you’ve ever seen into that theater with you and apply it. This comes as a bit of an issue when reviewing older films, what if you’ve seen that movie a thousand times since, yet it was the first?
‘The Conversation’ is that movie. It’s been ripped off to such an extreme that in 1998’s ‘Enemy of the State’, Gene Hackman’s character had the same first name. Of course there is a difference between the two movies, one was a thoughtless action spazfest based on a great premise, the other is an incredibly complex character study on guilt and professional responsibility.
It’s for this reason that I wanted to re-visit ‘The Conversation’ in a review. We had watched it in class as an example of editing and I found myself taking notes on the plot and characters. In the end, even if the sense of paranoia and technological foreboding has no impact or significance (as it’s not only come to pass, but in so many more pervasive ways that the movie seems almost naive by example), but rather as a character study and an example of subtle formalistic control over the screen.
The lot of my reviews as of late have been centered around a central theme of frame detail and creating a structure and environment that is as much in the background as it is in the foreground. ‘The Conversation’ a great example of this. It’s not as subtle or integral as ‘The Piano’, yet it’s done far more under the skin than the Hitchcock films that inspired it. To say that one or the other is the right or wrong way to do something is neither here nor there, it’s just a different style of film. I will say that the more ingrained and subtle your messages, the harder it is to pull off and maintain that air of realism, and ‘The Conversation’ is in every way a realistic film. It can break this by how pervasive its attempts are, but that doesn’t matter in the end because it’s far less concerned with its socio-political messages as it is with the character of Harry Caul, as played by Gene Hackman.
As for Caul, it’s the best performance I’ve seen Hackman give. The traditional strong, violent, and explosive archetype that ‘The French Connection’ saw him to reprise ever since; doesn’t exist in the film. What we see instead is a frightened, paranoid, disconnected, and guilt ridden shell of a human being. To say that Caul has Asperger’s wouldn’t be a stretch; he understands social queues but he doesn’t seem to comprehend them. Making this even worse is the constant of manipulation that his life has become from those around him. He is alone when in company, and he can only feel himself when he is truly alone. This dynamic plays havoc with Caul throughout the picture as he strives for human connection, only to find that his paranoid fears are repaid exactly as he imagined.
That his whole career revolves around invading the privacy of others is contrasted by that his own privacy is his most prized possession. We see over the course of the film a tipping scale as he reaches out, then pulls back, testing the waters with the people around him as he attempts to wrestle with the subconscious irony that everything he is, is everything he despises.
For those who haven’t seen the film, Harry Caul is a corporate spy. Over a long career he has become a master in the arts of audio surveillance. He has very few friends and even fewer relationships, if one could even call them relationships, as everyone he seems to want to form a connection with, ends up pushing into his bubble of distance. He is well known for his work, and yet despises anyone who also works as such.
The movie opens with a surveillance operation, a seemingly indiscriminant conversation which grows into a deep fear, a culmination of his life’s work that reaches a breaking point… what is the client going to do with the recordings. On the surface, and perhaps even he, himself has made himself believe that, it doesn’t matter, that it’s not his responsibility what happens after he drops off the tapes, and his primary concern is only that he gets clean audio. But the conversation plays in his mind. Past events have led to dark results, things which he has pushed so far from his mind that any notion that they might be dug up again, tears him apart.
The tapes play again and again, it starts to unravel him.
It’s a classic Catholic guilt syndrome that often pervaded the great classics of the 70’s, notable with Coppola and Scorsese; but brought to fruition here in such a full, focused, and articulate manor is a treasure into itself. This is a study of self-hate in a way that few films have ever managed to achieve, and it’s done so with an even hand if I have ever seen one as our sympathy for Caul slowly is filtered out as we see him descend into his darkest depths.
There are questions to be asked as well from the film, such as why? Why does Caul do what he does given how it eats at him, how he despises it, despises himself for taking part in it, and yet takes such pride in his skill.
I’ve mentioned this before and it I really think it’s necessary to put the initial social commentary aside. We know how technology and privacy have progressed and it seems as a whole that we don’t care. I right now am uploading works to a blog that relinquishes my rights to my work as I upload them, if that doesn’t negate the entire incendiary proponents of the film, I can think of a million other things that would, of which we all might consider part of everyday life.
What matters is how Harry Caul behaves in a world of his own design. When we see him at his breaking point, all he can help but do is hide and cry, he is utterly useless.
That’s really all I have to say on ‘The Conversation’; it’s an interesting character study albeit a brief one. For those that are into morality plays and deep character analysis, the film is still very relevant. I highly recommend it for all yall film nerds out there.