Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was one of the finest releases of the 1970s. The fact that the director made it the same year he made The Godfather, Part II is all the more remarkable.
Morality and Microphones
Though originally billed as a thriller, The Conversation is really a character study about one man’s slow disintegration. Gene Hackman gives one of his best performances as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert hired to record two people during their lunch hour in Union Square, San Francisco. At first, the professional eavesdropper evinces no concern about what the pair actually discusses; he is only interested in getting a “nice, fat recording.” As he becomes more and more obsessed with the contents of the tapes, however, he begins to consider the moral factors of what he does. Unfortunately, he completely miscalculates what is actually being discussed, misreads a crime that occurs as a result, and completely falls apart in the film’s climax.
Lets get metaphysical
Coppola’s script is ingenious in its combination of mystery and metaphysical drama. Audiences weaned on MTV-style filmmaking might be put off by The Conversation’s leisurely pace, but the director is in perfect command of his material. 1998’s Enemy of the State (which also starred Hackman) employed a very similar premise and demonstrated the limitations of whipsaw editing techniques. Where Coppola’s film pauses for background material like the sequence at a surveillance conference or the long dialogue between Harry and his girlfriend, Amy (played with a wounded panache by Teri Garr), Tony Scott’s feature allows no time for such interesting dramatic development.
This isn’t to say that Coppola gives short shrift to the suspenseful elements of the film. Harrison Ford is wonderfully chilling in a small role as one of the people who hired Harry to tape the conversation. Every scene he’s in conveys an aura of malevolence. A hotel room scene where Harry attempts to unravel what has happened offers a Hitchcockian moment involving a shower and a toilet bowl. And the movie’s climactic scene is brilliant — spine-tingling and heartbreaking.