Lets get the definitive statements out of the way early. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is one of the finest thrillers ever made. In terms of thrills, in terms of originality, in terms of bravery, it stands on its own as a uniquely powerful film. Its premise is simple, concise and true and the craft employed in its making is truly masterful. Yet, as it currently stands the film is greatly unappreciated by most film enthusiasts. Sadly the film is a victim of circumstance, as it has the particularly difficult task of being the bridge on writer director Francis Ford Coppola’s filmography linking The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. As such, film historians have been so busy heralding Coppola’s exploits with the Corleones, that they allowed what is probably his best film slip them by. However, The Conversation is not a film of epic scale or grand thematic vision, it is an intense character study. Yet, it success is so considerable that it may even outshine all the other entries into the Coppola cannon.
This is the story of surveillance expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman. Amongst those in his field, Caul is legendary; a man notorious for his ability and his insistence on using all his own, home made equipment. Harry is a man of extreme secrecy, a snoop with a crippling fear of being snooped upon. He seems unable to make any deep personal or emotional connections, and he is the man we are about to spend two hours with.
His current assignment is to infiltrate the conversation of a young married woman and her lover. Harry picks up the audio, but when listening to it closely Caul hears something that frightens him, shakes him, sends into into a state of frenzied paranoia. He knows what he heard, but are his fears justified or a result of his seemingly compulsive paranoia? We as an audience follow Harry as he attempts to unravel the underlying plot to what seemed at first to be a mundane day’s work.
Coppola’s control of tension is relentless and thrilling. In terms of goals set and achieved, this may very well be his finest effort. He plays with reality and imagination in a particularly blunt and effective fashion, presenting scenes numerous times with varying outcomes. Coppola waits until we lose our footing on reality and then pulls the rug out from under us in a way which is devastating and effective. Yet, this is not a film of twists and turns, but rather of developments. No dues ex machina to be found here.
There is not a wasted frame of film in this one, and the sound design and editing are so intricate and precise that it digs deep under your skin. The emotions The Conversation inspires, the claustrophobia an the alienation, do not fade away with the end credits, they fester in your mind and stay with you.
This is not a jigsaw puzzle thriller, it is a trip into the psyche of a fairly disturbed individual. Hackman, one of the finest of all actors, gives a performance that is so well studied and quiet that you really lose the movie star beneath that bald head and those thick glasses. The film’s power relies on the character of Caul and the acting and writing cut deep, revealing a man uncomfortable even in his own skin.
The film is thrilling, heart stopping, frightening yes, all those things. But it operates more importantly as a meditation on personal privacy and psychological paranoia, right down to its haunting final image, which contains more sorrow, more anguish and more tortuous claustrophobia than any movie you’re likely to see.