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.