Watch This Movie: “The Conversation”

The Conversation poster 02

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale and Harrison Ford. Fun Fact: it lost the Best Picture Oscar to Coppola’s The Godfather Part II. Unpopular Opinion: it should have won. (But I also think Ordinary People deserved to beat Raging Bull, so there.)

4.5 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

Private, paranoid Harry Caul is the best surveillance man in the country. He fears that his latest job – recording a couple’s conversation – may get someone killed.

I am not a Coppola fan; The Godfather is good, but you can keep the rest. Except The Conversation. It is a nearly perfect film, belonging to that wonderful genre of “did-I-inadvertently-record-a-murder?”, which also includes Blow-Up, Blow Out, and Berberian Sound Studio (all good in their own ways, but The Conversation is the best).

There’s a feel of a stage play (I have a weakness for this style): actor- and dialogue-focused, limited sets, long takes. The small cast gives effortlessly natural performances and we know all we need to about them and their relationships through movement, expression, tone and costume. Yes, this is Acting 101, but you rarely see such competence across the board. The cast is Bergman-level perfect, as though these actors have worked together and been living inside these characters for years.

And any chance you have to see John Cazale, you’ve got to take. He was incredible.


 

[1] Your reaction to the three-minute opening shot will determine your enjoyment level of the whole thing. If you find it boring, drop out now.

[2]

“He’s not hurting anyone.”

“Neither are we.”

[3] The score sets the tone: jazzy, morose, and a little… off. It mirrors the film by varying the theme (speeding up, emphasizing different aspects) to increase tension, the same way we hear the same dialogue with different emphasis multiple times.

[4] The camera almost always remains static while Caul is in his apartment, as though we’re spying on him from a surveillance camera.

[5] I love secret Christmas movies where there are decorations and trees but the holiday is incidental to the events (see also: Eyes Wide Shut. I will defend that movie all my life).

[6] After Caul discovers someone in his building has a key to his apartment (supposedly in case of emergency) he tells her:

“I would be perfectly happy to have all my personal things burned up in a fire because I don’t have anything personal. Except my keys, you see.”

While his attitude could add to the reading of Caul as stodgy and standoffish, Hackman’s inherent charisma puts us on Caul’s side. There’s a decent, likable man underneath the frigid exterior and you feel that Caul wasn’t always like this; that something changed him. The movie gives us the answers we want.

[7] The satisfying thing about this genre (Blow-up, Blowout, etc), is the pleasure of watching people work through a mystery by physical means. The main characters run tape through machines, enlarge photographs – we get to follow their thought process and see/hear what they are seeing/hearing instead of watching a Holmsian type musing in a chair.

[8] Caul continually lies. Sometimes it’s a practical move to protect his privacy, like telling employers he doesn’t have a home phone. But sometimes it seems he does it simply because he can’t allow anyone to know anything real about him, like telling his girlfriend his age is 42 when we’ve seen a card saying he has just turned 44. We see his relationship quietly fall apart, because, as he says, “I don’t like people asking me a lot of questions.”

He doesn’t like anyone asking any questions.

[9] Teri Garr is a goddamned treasure. Imagine a woman who can be both Buffy and Willow and deliver half-cheesy lines like this with heartbreaking sincerity:

“Harry, I was so happy when you came over tonight. When I heard you open up the door, my toes were dancing under the covers. But I don’t think I’m gonna wait for you anymore.”

[10] There’s something very proto-Kubrick going on here: similar camera set-ups and visual symmetries to The Shining (and a bonus scene of blood pouring out of a place in a hotel where blood should not be), and Eyes Wide Shut‘s previously mentioned Christmas-setting (note [5]), contained timeline, and a man’s increasing paranoia at his own possible involvement in a murder.

Kubrick wins in the visuals department (of course), but Coppola’s casting and direction of actors is miles above Kubrick. While watching The Conversation, I dreamed of an alternate universe where Harrison Ford played Jack Torrance in The Shining. Imagine the beauty of that world, folks.

[11] Caul in a confession booth:

“I’ve been involved in some work that I think could be used to hurt these two young people. This happened to me before. People were hurt because of my work. I’m afraid it could happen again. And I – I was in no way responsible. I’m not responsible.” 

The extent of his inner conflict becomes clear with these lines – how can he ask forgiveness for something if he won’t allow himself to acknowledge it was his fault?

[12]

“Somebody’s following me.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know.”

[13]

“I’m not afraid of death. I am afraid of murder, though.”

[14] Apparently, hotel rooms haven’t changed since the early seventies. I feel like this should be depressing.

[15] The climax shifts your perspective on everything that’s come before but doesn’t seem like a left-field betrayal. It’s a successful magic trick.

[16] For people who have seen The Conversation, a common debate is: Where is the bug in Caul’s apartment?

Earlier in the film, the narrative seems to stop while Caul’s competitor Moran describes a method of recording someone through their phone. It sounds like absolute bullshit – even Caul calls it trash – but it could perfectly explain how Caul is recorded at the end of the film. Since The Conversation is a movie where every scene, every line, has ramifications, I assume there is a reason to give so much time to Moran and his methods. My read is that he helped set Caul up in the end.


The Conversation is quiet and steady and attention-rewarding in a way that mainstream films have shied away from since the late seventies. Style-wise, if you like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now, and The Shining, check The Conversation out. Outwardly, it doesn’t seem like a horror film, but there’s something scuttling just below the surface that will stick with you if you stick with it.

If you have an Amazon Prime account, you can watch it now. Otherwise, it’s worth the two or three dollars to rent.

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