Of Guilt and Paranoia
Coming off the first two “Godfather” movies it seemed that Francis Ford Coppola could do no wrong. He further reinforced this sentiment when he delivered “The Conversation”, a small character focused paranoia thriller. So this is a film that is nothing like Coppola’s great crime saga and apart from the first person character narrative and presentation it is a film that primarily plays with tension and suspense, and a bit with the audience’s head.
The film follows Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who is a surveillance expert, a bug man. He is basically hired by corporations or whoever to listen in on other people and record their private conversations. And that’s where we meet him for the first time, on a job where he and his team are tracking and recording a couple as they have what seems to be the most mundane of conversations. However when Harry goes to deliver the tape to his client things start going wrong, the client’s assistant is there to pick up the tapes, and as Harry was specified to deliver the tapes to the client only he refuses to deliver.
But the trouble for Harry started well before this failed exchange because it is clear from the first minute of the film that Harry is a strange guy. He is secretive and paranoid and throughout the film we discover that Harry was on a similar job before and the people he was listening to turned out dead. So Harry doubts if he should even deliver these tapes.
This all sounds like an excellent setup for a fantastic genre thriller but “The Conversation” is more than that. Like I said it’s about this central character first and foremost and about his state of mind. As he is a surveillance expert he is very well aware that no conversation is safe, that anyone can be listening anytime, and this starts playing with Harry’s head as well as the head of the audience. His paranoia becomes infectious. This makes “The Conversation” a sublime exercise in tension and suspense cinema, but the interesting thing about the design of this film is that it builds up tension throughout only to be released at a single point, the climax of the film.
And that climax is unforgettable and haunting because at that point the whole film feels like it’s converging in on itself, the plot that was seems reversed, and the reasoning that leads to this point seems doubtful. Even Harry’s sanity becomes doubtful as well as what he bears witness to.
“The Conversation” is like a Swiss watch, it’s precise, it has a singular purpose and it executes it with perfection. Gene Hackman is maybe in his best outing in this film, which is a high praise indeed and he is joined by a wonderful cast that includes the great John Cazale and a young Harrison Ford. And this sense of excellence only further extends on the breathtaking cinematography of the film as well as the great score and sound design. I always loved the works of Francis Ford Coppola, both his great films as well as most of his misses, and I think that with “The Conversation” he came closest to perfection, because there doesn’t seem to be a false or questionable note about this film.
Gene Hackman - Harry Caul
John Cazale - Stan
Harrison Ford - Martin Stett
Frederick Forrest - Mark
Cindy Williams - Amy
The Conversation on IMDb