The 1970s brought Francis Ford Coppola to the Oscars many times, most notably for the Godfather films and Apocalypse Now. Alongside this trio of recognizable masterpieces, however, lay another quieter Oscar nominated Coppola outing: The Conversation.
The Conversation invites the viewer into an eerily prescient look at world where expert surveillance teams work for both private and governmental sectors to monitor conversation with the latest technology. Anyone with the cash can acquire expert surveillance, regardless of the morality behind the practice. Within this world stands Harry Caul (Gene Hackman in a career-best performance) as a highly secretive loner, who has made a name for himself as one of the best in the business. When Caul’s assignment leads him to believe he has provided recordings that will lead to a murder, however, he must confront his long-dormant conscience and decide whether he can live with his constant passivity, or if he must get involved.
The Conversation typically pops up in conversations regarding Walter Murch’s sound design. Though Murch is best known for his flashier sound design in Apocalypse Now, his work in the Conversation may stand as his crowning achievement. Utterly immersive and groundbreaking, Murch’s mix becomes a character itself within the film, slowly beckoning the viewer in through choppy, difficult to decipher audio recorded in the opening conversation, and gradually revealing more information as time goes on, not unlike the film itself. The squeak of rewinding tape serves to transition scenes as well as provide tension, while the overall audio warps and distorts as the film descends into surreal dream-like sequences. Much plays with the tone of recorded line deliveries on replays, showing how the same phrase can mean two very different things depending on one’s preconceptions. Even without the film’s other merits, Murch’s work alone would warrant a viewing.
Fortunately, The Conversation boasts many other positive attributes. Cinematographer, Bill Butler opts to capture much of the film through wide lenses ominously peering in, offering the film an appropriately voyeuristic feel. His framing incorporates a recurring motif of walls, to show Caul’s separation from the rest of the people in his world, as well as depicting Caul all alone in numerous wides. The lifting is gritty and dirty, in keeping with the seedy world at the film’s center.
David Shire’s score proves to be somehow innocuous to the point of uncomfortable (an intentional choice), lending an even greater sense of unease to the film.
It is Hackman, however, who truly makes the film soar. Often, characters drive the story, but here, Hackman’s character is the story. He deftly manages to imbue an almost autistic man with palpable sorrow, yet also believable madness. Caul is not an inherently sympathetic character, yet through Hackman, he is fully realized. It is the rare performance that appears to be a pure synthesis of actor and character, one is not discernible from the other. Although Hackman’s Popeye Doyle won him the Oscar and is regarded as his crowning performance of the ’70s, it is Harry Caul that reminds the world just what a gem Hackman at his prime was.
The film is certainly a slow burner, but its payoff, as well as a fascinating central character make it more than worth watching. The Conversation may not be remembered in the same way Coppola’s other 70’s efforts are, but it certainly marks an impressive entry in the Coppola canon.