The Conversation is one of the best movies I have ever seen. It is very similar to a film I reviewed earlier this year and also immensely admired: Antonioni’s Blowup. Like that film, a possible witness to a criminal act ends up questioning reality because of the technology that’s allowed him to see what he’s seen, or in the case of The Conversation, heard. While Hemmings’ character in Blowup can’t be sure what he’s seen because his photographs didn’t fully capture it, Hackman in The Conversation gets the line alright, but lacks the context in which to interpret it correctly. As you can probably tell from my brief analysis here, The Conversation gives you plenty to think about, and besides that it’s a detailed character study and an effective thriller.
The title of The Conversation refers to a conversation between two lovers in a park that wire tapper Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) and his partner Stan (John Cazale) have been hired to tape by the director of a large company (Robert Duvall). Caul is the very model of professional detachment, or at least aspires to be. He doesn’t believe in listening to the conversations he tapes, only making sure his clients are able to. However, he really can’t help himself, and based on something the woman says he begins to fear for her life (it probably helps that she reminds him of his girlfriend, played by Teri Garr). He is reluctant to turn over the tapes to the director’s assistant, Martin Stett (pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford), who eventually has them stolen. Meanwhile, Caul grows more concerned for the couple’s lives and more caught between guilt and professional detachment.
As in most of Coppola’s films (from what I’ve read at least), Catholicism plays a big role. Caul is a devout Catholic, and many of his actions can be understood through his Catholicism. When Caul goes to confession, we can see the dilemma he’s caught in. He expresses remorse for petty misdeeds such as stealing a newspaper but doesn’t claim responsibility for his involvement in three murders in New York because of his job. He tries to convince himself that he isn’t guilty but he can’t quite. Like Charlie in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Catholicism is a strong source of guilt for Caul. Later in the film when he believes he is being bugged, he tears up his apartment to make sure, and the last thing he smashes is a Virgin Mary statue, hesitating before he does so. He is constantly forbidding Stan to take the Lord’s name in vain.
Harry’s other side is his extreme professionalism and attention to technicalities. There is a key sequence in the middle of the film where he bring a few colleagues back to his office after a convention. A rival, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield), keeps baiting him all night about his hand in the murders in New York, and also challenges him about the titular conversation. It’s important that Caul only is draw in by Moran when questioned about how he was able to tape the conversation. The content and the meaning of the conversation don’t interest him as much as the fact that he was able to use his skills to record it perfectly. He is also more comfortable on this level; there is no moral dimension to worry about as long as he is talking about technical specifics.
We also see how private Harry is, which isn’t surprising given that he knows how much damage a simple wire tap can do. He refuses to tell his girlfriend (or anyone else for that matter) any personal details about his life, and breaks up with her when she asks. He keeps his door triple locked. It’s also interesting to note how ineffective these measures seem to be; his neighbor knows when his birthday is because she is able to steal his mail, and she is also able to open his door and leave him a bottle of wine as a gift. Harmless enough, but this has Caul very disturbed. He is also incredibly surprised that others have the same power he does, Moran is able to plant a bug on him at the convention by giving him a free pen and Stett is able to get his unlisted phone number quite easily.
The pacing in this movie is fantastic. It is a slow paced thriller, but still very thrilling. There are several points in the film where Coppola shows us scenes that appear to be in Caul’s imagination, and they are so real to Harry that he passes out a few times. The ending gets very nightmarish with Caul’s paranoid delusions mixing in with reality. The Conversation is known particularly for its sound editing, and very fittingly so considering the importance that sound recording has in the story. The conversation at the beginning is edited in at key points in the story, to show how preoccupied Harry is with it, and also how it keeps intruding into his consciousness even though he tries to reject it. As things get more crazy towards the end there are lot of bizarre sound effects that sound like they could be out of Eraserhead, though that film appeared three years later. They express Harry’s paranoid mindset perfectly and are pretty terrifying.
The Conversation is a great film, and I have no hesitation in declaring it as such. Hackman gives a great performance as Harry Caul, inviting us in and holding us off at the same time. It’s fun to see other Coppola regulars turn up, like Cazale and Duvall. The film draws from other films like Blowup and Psycho, while still retaining its integrity. It’s an engrossing thriller, and will keep you on the edge of your seat more and more as it continues, but is a deep character study as well. The Conversation is one of the few films I feel like I can recommend to just about anybody. Seriously, it’s that good.
“I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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