The Conversation is a provocative thriller from Francis Ford Coppola that reminds us of the fine line between technology and privacy.
Technology frequently comes with a cost and this film is no exception. Rather than focus on the eavesdropping victims, Coppola’s focus is on the eavesdropper himself. One can make an argument about the similarities with both political thriller Enemy of the State and comic book masterpiece The Dark Knight with how it treats privacy and technology. Throw in the post-9/11 Patriot Act, too. At what point does someone become willing enough to cross the line?
A client (Robert Duvall) hires wiretapping expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) to record a conversation between a couple. Harry does so with his engineers, Stan (John Cazale) and Paul (Michael Higgins). They head out to a busy Union Square where they find Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams) walking. The noise doesn’t make the job easier since the recording is on three different tapes. In any event, Harry syncs as much of the conversation as possible on one tape. Of course, this comes after the landlady violates his privacy by leaving a birthday gift. Meanwhile, Harry is reluctant to reveal any of his personal information to his girlfriend, Amy (Teri Garr), who accuses him of spying on her. Talk about being paranoid!
Meanwhile, Harry is all set to deliver the audio tape to his client. However, his client isn’t in–instead, he meets with Martin Stet (Harrison Ford), who takes the tape. But at the last minute, Harry decides to keep it for himself despite Stet’s warnings about becoming involved. Harry sees Mark and Ann in the elevator and listens to the tape again. This time, Harry hears them making a comment about someone killing them if they have the chance. Could this be his client? Paranoid as ever, he heads to church for confession after dismissing Stan’s question. Anyway, Harry attends a surveillance conference and is introduced to rival William P. “Bernie” Moran (Allen Garfield). He notices Stet following him but it turns out he just wants to have another meeting.
Things get more chaotic and paranoid from here on out. Stet calls Harry and lets him know he’s being watched. Harry’s number is unlisted so how did Stet even get it? Moreover, the tape is missing! This is when Harry learns that Ann is his client’s wife. Anyway, his client soon dies, presumably in a car crash with Ann set to inherit the wealth. As the film comes to an end, Harry gets another call from Stet, which leads him to destroy his apartment while searching for bugs.
Gene Hackman is basically playing the polar opposite of himself in Harry Caul. Unlike the approachable Hackman, Harry is more of a reclusive loner. In creating Caul, Coppola draws inspiration from the film’s technical consultant, Martin Kaiser, as well as Harry Haller in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. In another universe, Hackman might have earned an Oscar nomination. The category was very strong in 1974 with Coppola’s other film taking all the air out of the room. Regardless, Harry Caul is among the best Gene Hackman characters on screen.
Interestingly, San Francisco’s Union Square makes an appearance in Enemy of the State, a similar thriller that also stars Gene Hackman. The 1998 thriller is not a sequel–although Hackman’s Edward Lyle dresses in a similar manner and the NSA file on Lyle features a photo of Caul–but plays with similar themes. Anyway, the biggest thing here is using the same equipment as the Nixon Administration. This might be a coincidence but it definitely plays a role in the film’s staying power. It’s easy to see why people would think of the film as a reaction to the Watergate scandal but Coppola started doing his research in the mid-60s and would finish the script in 1970. In fact, the film owes a lot to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up for its existence.
The Conversation also owes a great deal to supervising editor and sound designer Walter Murch. Thanks to Coppola’s other film, Murch and Richard Chew have a lot of freedom in editing the film into what it is today. Murch is one of the greatest sound designers ever so it’s not even a shock that Best Sound is one of the film’s three Oscar nominations. What I wouldn’t do to experience the film in a movie theater as it was originally intended!
Francis Ford Coppola accomplished a rare feat for a producer-screenwriter-director as a result of the film’s release in 1974. It just so happens that Coppola would lose the Best Picture Oscar to himself because of being a nominated producer for The Godfather Part II. This doesn’t happen much in Oscar history especially in the years where the Academy only nominated five films–Victor Fleming directed two Best Picture nominees (one won) in 1939 but wasn’t a producer. Coppola is the only producer to lose to himself after Academy started crediting producers instead of the distributing studio in 1951. Coppola doesn’t get a directing nomination for the film. However, the Academy also limited directors to one directing nomination after the 11th Academy Awards. This rule has since been amended but I’m not sure when.
There’s a lot to be said about the fine line between privacy and technology but The Conversation is a timeless and provocative thriller. If you ask me, The Conversation is Francis Ford Coppola’s best film, perhaps even his masterpiece.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Francis Ford Coppola
CAST: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Michael Higgins, Elizabeth MacRae, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall
Paramount released The Conversation in theaters on April 7, 1974. Grade: 5/5
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