The next time somebody says to you, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” know that they’re likely talking about “The Conversation.” Nobody observes time and space while fully exploiting all the great elements of film quite like Francis Ford Coppola did.
“The Conversation” deserves to be known as one of the great, defining films in the greatest era of filmmaking: The 1970s. “The Conversation” is set in San Francisco and, like any captivating film, captures the life of a person we never wanted to see.
Coppola follows the life of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). Caul is an expert private surveillance technician. Despite making a living off spying on others, he is extremely protective of his own privacy. Caul has been hired by a mysterious and very wealthy man to spy on what we presume is a very happy couple. This case mirrors one that has haunted Caul and he believes what he has seen is a recipe for disaster, and that he can stop it.
“The Conversation” prevails because it is top-notch at everything it tries to do: it has superb performances, a nail-biting story, and thrills that are actually thrilling. It’s hard to expect anything less from Francis Ford Coppola who also pioneered such other masterworks as “The Godfather” series and “Apocalypse Now.”
Despite the fact that the running time of “The Conversation” is significantly shorter than the running times of his other aforementioned masterpieces, it feels just as lengthy. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
While any other director would normally try and cram as many events as possible into under two hours, “The Conversation” basically only has a few scenes that go on for long amounts of time. In fact, nothing extremely thrilling happens in the film until its last half hour. The rest of the film serves as character buildup. We are given an understanding of Caul’s twisted psyche. Coppola allows the viewer to view him the way a detective would view someone he’s secretly listening to. In this manner, the detective here’s candid conversation up close and thinks he can figure everything out from there. However, the detective is not that person, and doesn’t know the full truth. This is both how Caul seems to view other people and a pretty brilliant mind trick that leaves us totally unprepared for the shocking finale.
Despite the fascination around the central mystery, this is not just a film about a story, but about a person. Hackman, always the dependable performer, brings even more life to Harry Caul. His performance here reminds me of his performance as Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection.” Caul and Doyle are very similar; they both seem to believe they’ve been put on this earth to rid evil in anyway they can.
Caul also has the added dimension of being a walking contradiction: he spies on people, yet will barely share anything of his own life with others. This may be a byproduct of having to remain in hiding for a living. Or, it could just be the work of a raging sociopath. Hackman plays Caul as being a mixture of both of these. This adds to one of the film’s eventual themes of how the world of work often spills over into the world of pleasure and that in the end, every person is vulnerable to being consumed by their job.
This film mainly showcases why Coppola, despite a less prominent future career, deserves to be known as one of the great auteurs of all time. He understands how time and place can be used to forward a story. He understands what type of music to use to jolt the viewer out of their seat. He knows when to place the light in one place and when to place it in another. Most importantly, he knows how to take a story that anybody else could’ve told wrong and figures out how to tell it right.
“The Conversation” is such an exemplary American thriller of the 1970s for many reasons. The film often reminded me of “Chinatown,” “Taxi Driver,” and “The French Connection” for its use of taut camera angles and brilliant use of light and shadows. Also, its musical score is both classical and jazzy, suggesting the great era of Film Noir. The hero of “The Conversation,” like in these other two films, also contains the characteristics of an anti-hero. Basically, the lives of others are being put in the hands of someone with a past too haunted to ever be trusted in a conventional Hollywood thriller.
All of the tense buildup of “The Conversation” is worth it. We get a mystery well worth the wait and a few scenes that simply remind us of the pure magic of good filmmaking. I guarantee the final scene of this film is one that will stay with you. It is a scene that fully respects the idea of image being more powerful then word as Caul rips apart the very floor he stands on and then smashes a statue of the Virgin Mary, suggesting a world that is not only empty of morality, but too paranoid to even care what morality is.