Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford, Allen Garfield
As though to flex his artistic muscle, slipped between parts 1 and 2 of his epic Godfather trilogy Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation, an unnerving mood piece and super slow burning thriller which could hardly have been released at a more apt time.
The film signals a complete departure from Coppola’s earlier crime masterpiece. Where The Godfather sprawled with enormous vastity, The Conversation offers a much narrower scope, an intimate portrait which sucks us with crushing force into a feeble mind and traps us there, haunting us with a nagging distrust between reality and experience.
Released in synchronicity to Watergate and the moral ambivalence of Vietnam, Coppola’s chillingly bleak story of a conflicted surveillance expert taps directly into its time. Gene Hackman plays the expert, Harry Caul, a man who finds his only steady companionship from the dials on his recorders and the solos from his saxophone which he improvises over jazz records. Caul is the most revered man in his field, and his current assignment is one demanding massive prowess. He must record the conversation of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forest) in bustling San Francisco Union Square, for what purpose and who exactly is unknown.
The task is business as usual at first, but Harry’s concerns are flagged after a meeting with his employer’s assistant, a reptilian Harris Ford who lingers like a spectre in the background of Harry’s consciousness after he rebuffs Ford’s attempts to acquire the goods. Something is obviously amiss, and in a tribute of narrative to Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Caul obsessively filters through his recordings, looking for the horrible truth which lies buried somewhere between the ambiguous dialogue heard on his tapes. In particular there are 8 words which loom in Caul’s ears, “he’d kill us if he got the chance”.
Despite the mystery and prospect of murder, the thrills are sourced by the slowly accumulated sense of dread and our confinement to such a troubled mind. This is a psychological film, an exercise in tone. The plot, as far as being a whodunit, or rather a watshedun, is glacial. It tests patience, but the true drama is found between the lines of the mystery. It’s in the character of Harry, a wonderfully austere realisation of guilt and paranoia. Harry operates under a strict code of professionalism, he listens in from a great emotional distance (or at least he preaches this as essential to his line of work), his art an imitation of his life, or perhaps the other way around. We sense that Caul’s distancing is a defence mechanism, freeing him from any humanitarian responsibility. In an earlier assignment, now famed among the surveillance community, Harry’s wiretapping would lead to a double murder. He never verbalises his guilt over this, but it manifests itself strongly. His existence is now entirely enclosed. He covets privacy, he says he owns nothing personal besides his keys. When his landlord leaves a birthday present in his triple-locked apartment, he’s horrified and angry, he could hardly imagine anything more intrusive. He wants no obligations to his fellow man, his life characterised by an anti-social desperation and paranoia, living as though a muted Big Brother resides over his every motion. He’s ostracised himself, turning to a devout Catholicism to ail his conscience, but this is a man in crisis, his mind a morose minefield of isolation and alarm as he fixates on his new assignment, his last helpless plea for redemption.
It’s a cold, uncomfortable existence, augmented by David Shire’s superb score, an icy dissonant jazz which acts like a Penrose stairs of piano, endlessly cycling into a swallowing current. Gene Hackman’s performance is also note-perfect (the real tragedy of the 1975 Oscars was overlooking Hackman for Best Actor). It’s a tight-lipped role where little is made explicit. There are only two moments in the film where Harry tries to put his anguish into words. The first is in a confessional where he flags his guilt about his previous case for the first time. He’s adamant that he should be absolved of all responsibility, his job isn’t to listen, it’s to simply record, but we don’t believe Harry for a second. Why else would he be there if he didn’t feel he owed something morally? The second is a dream where he chases the young lady of his recordings, spewing odd admissions about his youth. This is the closest Harry comes to fluency, unveiling burrowed anxieties as he speaks about his sicknesses as a child and his odd disaffection to death; his cryptic confessions at once a desperate plea for interaction and a symbol of his mounting sense of obligation. It’s the idiosyncrasies of the performance that make Harry’s suffering so palpable. He carries a meagre stench; moving twitchily and seeming to choke on every word. Hackman dredges a history of fragility to Caul’s skin, bringing the anxiety of the film to the surface with it.
Although the mechanics of the plot mightn’t feel so, Coppola’s film is a taut exhibition in atmosphere. In his near pathetic weakness, Harry Caul is one of cinema’s great battlers, and Coppola makes his obsession and paranoia our own. Whether or not we can trust Harry’s perceptions seems beside the point. We are absorbed in his discomfort, his pain fueling The Conversation’s truly distressing vison.