In between making two of the most heralded films of all time in 1972 and 1974, writer/director Francis Ford Coppola made another film. That film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture. That film was The Conversation. A taught psychological thriller, The Conversation isn’t as grand in scale or as epic in scope at The Godfather movies by which it is sandwiched but it’s a deeply intriguing look inside the world of audio espionage and the consequences of it. Gene Hackman leads a terrific cast as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who has second thoughts about handing in his latest recordings for fear that those he has recorded will be killed, a repeat of a previous job which still haunts him years later.
The film opens onto a magnificent scene which forms the basis of the whole movie. Initially shot from high up on a rooftop the camera details a large plaza in which hundreds of people are milling about, talking and eating lunch, people watching or simply passing through. The shot is alive with detail and beautifully constructed but as the camera slowly zooms in you begin to focus your attention on a mime. Eventually the mime starts to copy a man drinking a cup of coffee. That man is Harry Caul (Hackman). Caul is in the plaza spying a young couple who are slowly circling, deep in conversation. Once at ground level the camera cuts to several other angles, showing the other members of Caul’s team hard at work, attempting to record the conversation. I have seen few better opening sequences than the one detailed above. It’s slow to build, intriguing, interesting and opens up several possibilities for how to proceed.
The way in which the conversation is recorded and then worked to create a clear sound is beautifully done. The analogue technology used seems dated by today’s standards but you can appreciate the complexity and skill of the operation. Something I enjoyed was that we go back to the plaza scene on several occasions as the recording is perfected, each time getting a better understanding of what the conversation entailed. This drip feeding of information is a classic thriller technique but done to near perfection by Coppola. The audio of the recording becomes part of the film’s soundtrack, eventually being woven into the musical score as it fixes itself to the conscience and unconsciousness of Harry Caul. The fuzzy audio and missing words slowly fit into place as the overarching story around it follows suit.
The plot and characters are both well drawn and layered. The central idea is perhaps more interesting than the actual plot but I was thoroughly entertained throughout. The conversation at the heart of the plot is fairly mundane and un-detailed, even when it comes to light in full. Because of this the audience can read into what certain words mean and the inclination of certain words can change the meaning of whole sentences. The acting and direction during that scene had to be spot on for the film to work and luckily both were. Gene Hackman is excellent as Caul. He is private and neurotic, worried about his past mistakes as well as the idea of being bugged himself. The film’s ending shows the fullness of his paranoia and although not finishing with a flurry, was a more than satisfactorily conclusion. Hackman underplays his role and is stealthy and private even with friends. Cindy Williams and Frederick Forrest are the couple being recorded and as I mentioned previously, they got their conversation spot on. The film features an early performance from a young Harrison Ford. Ford is composed and aggressive, playing off his later type. Robert Duvall has a small role as Harrison Ford’s boss but isn’t given much chance to shine. An actor who does stand out though, alongside Hackman, is John Cazale. Cazale, who has one of the greatest CVs of any actor despite dying prematurely at 42, is perfect as the edgy but unflustered sound recorder. He has a knack of quietly stealing the viewer’s eye from centre screen as fits his role really well.
The cinematography is something which deserves special mention. Haskell Wexler shot the terrific Union Square footage but was fired shortly into the production and replaced by Bill Butler. Although Wexler’s work stands out in my mind, Butler’s contribution is enormous. He helps Coppola to create some beautiful sequences and superb camera angles which really made me smile. One in particular was particularly noteworthy. The scene takes place inside Caul’s cavernous, loft style office and features a simple conversation with just two people talking. Rather than shooting from 90 degrees to the actors or using a simple over the shoulder reverse angle, Butler begins the sequence tight on one actors face while the camera is positioned to the left of the other actor. The camera then slowly pans and pivots towards the other actor while slowly zooming out. This is repeated three times during the same short conversation and was a really interesting, technically bold decision which added to my overall enjoyment of the film.
The sound design also deserves special mention as it is responsible for some of the best moments and biggest reveals. The way in which the conversation slowly reveals itself is superbly done and this is in no small part due to the sound designer Walter Murch. Something which we can comment on with hindsight is the film’s relevance in relation to The Watergate Scandal. The film was released while the scandal was unfolding but before it had reached its peak with Nixon’s resignation. Today it looks as though there are several parallels between Watergate and the film but whether these are accidental is still up for debate. Either way The Conversation is a fabulous film on both a technical and aesthetic level. It works well both as a thriller and a piece of art but is accessible, interesting and even occasionally moving.
- Robert Shields who plays the mime was actually a mime in Union Square at the time. He later went on to be an actor in both TV and film.
- Images of Gene Hackman as a young man in the similarly themed Enemy of the State were taken directly from this film.
- Coppola wrote the script in 1966 but couldn't get the project off the ground until after The Godfather had become a hit.
- The film came joint 173rd in my Greatest Films of All Time study.