In the early 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola worked at such a prolific rate that he not only released The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II within a span of two and a half years, but also wrote and directed The Conversation in between them. Of the four films Coppola directed in the 1970s, The Conversation somehow falls in the shadows of the first two entries in The Godfather series as well as his sprawling Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now. This unfortunate circumstance results in a lack of awareness and appreciation of one of Coppola’s strongest works. Over forty years after its release, The Conversation endures as a minimalist masterpiece of the suspense genre, contains an unforgettable performance from Gene Hackman, and imparts a lasting meditation of the consequences of surveillance culture.
Coppola wastes no time by opening The Conversation in the middle of the film’s central focus: a discussion between a young woman and man walking around a public square in the middle of the day in downtown San Francisco. While these two talk Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, and his associates work clandestinely to record the discussion despite technical challenges presented by the outdoor setting and the speakers’ shifting locations. After Caul and his colleagues have finished taping he returns to his loft workspace to get down to the business of merging the various tapes of the incomplete recording to yield a master document of the conversation. While filling in the gaps of the conversation and deciphering the recording Caul quiets his assistant’s growing curiosity over the conversation’s content by declaring, “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.” As Caul begins to realize that this recording may carry significant danger if it falls into the wrong hands, his adherence to this discipline fades. Together Coppola and Hackman create Harry Caul who, unlike the protagonists of kindred films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, is not a young, attractive, innocent bystander. Caul looks all too much like a man who has devoted himself single-mindedly to the task of listening to others while trying desperately not to be noticed while he does it. Coppola and Hackman imbue a sense of irony and humor into the character of Caul and the impotence of his attempts to control what happens around him. In spite of Caul’s cold professionalism and preposterous personal life he serves as a very human and sympathetic character as the mystery of the recording consumes him. Hackman provides the film’s complex main character but he’s not alone because The Conversation also features an excellent supporting cast including John Cazale, Terri Garr, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Allen Garfield, and Robert Duvall, who supplies a particularly chilling cameo as the Director.
The Conversation debuted just months before Richard Nixon resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal and bears some influence from those events, but the film’s powerful depiction of the perils of surveillance, not only for a society but also for an individual’s humanity, still functions as a timely warning today. Through Harry Caul the audience witnesses the true cost of this kind of surveillance, a cost which resonates deeply with both Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance programs in 2013 as well as the FBI’s recent legal tangle with Apple over gaining access to the content of an iPhone. With The Conversation, Coppola spins fiction from the front page and creates a beautiful, absorbing, and cautionary tale that speaks volumes about where unchecked curiosity inevitably takes us.
- John Parsell