Conversation, The (1974): Coppola’s Thriller, Starring Gene Hackman in Top Form

Francis Ford Coppola is one of the few directors who have made four masterpieces in a row, two of which in the same year: “The Godfather, Part II” and “The Conversation,” both receiving Best Picture nominations, and the former sweeping the actual awards.

Well ahead of its times, “The Conversation” is a prophetic film about paranoia, the increasingly dominant role of technology in our lives, and the impossibility of privacy even in public spaces.

The film’s protagonist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a professional surveillance expert, a wire-tapper and industrial spy for hire by anyone, so long as the price is right.

In what seems at first like a routine assignment, Harry and his assistant Stan (John Cazzale) use state-of-the-art technical expertise to track a young couple, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest). As guns-for-hire, they are asked to record the couple’s conversations.

The client is a mysterious and powerful businessman, known only as the “director” (Robert Duvall, uncredited), whose motives are unclear. After listening to the tapes repeatedly, however, Harry makes the deduction that Ann is the director’s wife and that she is having an affair with Mark, one of her husband’s employees. To his horror, Harry concludes that his client plans to murder the couple.

Plagued by guilt from a previous assignment in which the information he had gathered led to the murders of several people, Harry becomes obsessed with preventing the murders of Ann and Mark. For the first time in his career, he decides to get emotionally involved in his work, but he gets in over his headto some disastrous effects.

Following the triumph of “The Godfather,” writer-director Coppola surprised the Hollywood community with this small, intimate, brilliantly crafted film, which explores the implications of indiscriminate eavesdropping.

Hackman is superb as Harry Caul, a painfully lonely, cynical, paranoid, and alienated man whose work has driven him to guard his own privacy zealously, although there is precious to protect. A year later, Hackman would play another eavesdropper named Harry, this time a detective in Arthur Penn’s superb noir melodrama. “Night Moves.” The similarities between the two characters are so striking that for some critics “Night Moves” is like a prequel to “The Conversation.”

The film was released just after the Watergate break-in, but it was written years before and was already shooting when the news of the break-in appeared. Technically brilliant, “The Conversation” does in aural terms what Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” does in visual terms; Brian De Palma’s 1981 “Blow-Out” will combine elements of both pictures. One of Coppola’s most artful and ambiguous works, the film is also reminiscent of Antonioni’s Red Desert.

Though the film was a commercial failure (despite Oscar nominations), “The Conversation” is a key film of the 1970s, a truly horror film dealing with paranoia, both personal and collective, and invasion of privacy.  Seen at the time of its release as a prophecy of of the Watergate-era paranoia, the film is now more resonant as a meditation on technology and its pervasive impact on every aspect of our lives.

A fascinating character, Harry is a solitary figure who relates to the world via technology. At first, there is no reliable basis for moral action. However, as conspiracies proliferate and dark suspicions are confirmed, he begins to change.

Hackman conveys brilliantly Harry’s dehumanized quality, showing the price paid for it when his value system and professional code turn on him, making him a victim in his own apartment by isolating him in a paranoid space. The scene in which Harry destroys his room completely in search of a transmitter is devastating and lingers in memory long after the film is over; he even smashes a statuette of the Virgin Mary.

Cast

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman)
Stan (John Cazale)
Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield)
Mark (Frederick Forrest)
Ann (Cindy Williams)
Paul (Michael Higgins)
Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae)
Amy (Teri Garr)
Martin Stett (Harrison Ford)
Receptionist (Mark Wheeler)