Sandwiched in between two classics of modern cinema is not a place that any movie would want to be. Alas that is the place that The Conversation finds itself. Released two years after The Godfather and in the same year as The Godfather part 2, the conversation was understandably not afforded the same attention as its illustrious brothers. This a real pity as The Conversation has stood the test of time and in some circles it has become as regarded as Mr Coppola’s other works. In some circles this film is more highly regarded. It has certainly stood the test of time critically with an 8.0 rating on IMDB.
The film centres around the character of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert working in San Francisco. Regarded by many of his colleagues as the best in his profession, he lives and breathes the art of snooping on people. The film opens with Harry and his team capturing a conversation between a man and a woman (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) in a busy city square. Using the latest techniques (for 1974) and some of his own custom-made kit he is able to record the couple as they walk and talk. Once he processes the recordings it becomes clear that the couple are involved in something pretty heavy. They are talking as if they are about to be found out and killed. This strikes a chord with Harry as a previous surveillance job he carried out back East resulted in people dying. This is something that still haunts Harry and explains a little of his behaviour regarding his approach to his own security and safety.
Harry is a solitary man. His working relationship with his associate Stan (john Cazale) is all business. Like his place of work, everything is compartmantalised. He lives alone, keeps his female relationships at arm’s length, and keeps his telephone in a drawer. He is in turns troubled, reserved and considering his occupation, a bit sloppy with regard to his own security. His landlord can get access to his apartment. His girlfriend has noticed him spying on her and speaks openly to a female friend resulting in him being bugged by a colleague during a party. Harry can see some of these flaws but seems unable to do anything about it. His dilemma over the possible outcome of handing over the conversation to his client haunts him and forces him to confront himself in a way that he had avoided for a long time.
This is an example of the New Hollywood movement at its best. Coppola is on top of his game. Coming off the back of the success of The Godfather he was given total artistic freedom for this and it shows. The film is a cerebral piece. There is little in the way of action. Like the story itself the viewer is compelled to listen and concentrate on what is going on. It is never obvious (at least to me ) what is going to happen next. That can only be a good thing in an age of tab A fitting slot B cinema. It´s not that the film is difficult to follow but it demands your attention. Gene Hackman gives a superb lead performance, breathing life into the central character. You are at turns rooting for him and then repulsed by some of his completely anti social actions. The supporting cast is all on top form. Most of the roles are small with limited screen time but everyone is at their best. everyone is given the opportunity to flex their acting muscles by Coppola and relish the chance. Harrison Ford, in an early movie role, is superb as the personal assistant to the client ( a nice cameo role for Robert Duvall).
The Conversation deserves all the critical accolades heaped on it and should be viewed by everyone. Highly recommended.