The Conversation (1974)

D: Francis Ford Coppola
S: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Robert Duvall

One of the American cinema's best kept secrets, The Conversation is probably the most absorbing film directed by the illustrious Francis Ford Coppola. Sandwiched between The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) in the director's filmography, it admittedly lacks the large-scale mythos of a cinema classic. But if the appearance of leading man Gene Hackman in a supporting role in the big-budget 1990s action thriller Enemy of the State (1999) in a part not dissimilar to the one he plays here is anything to go by (amusingly, an NSA security photo of the character in Enemy of the State is actually a production still from The Conversation), it is not without influence.

The film is as affecting as a portrait of loneliness and alienation as it is as a thriller. The central character is a freelance surveillance technician who records a snippet of conversation which may hold the key to a pending murder. He begins to investigate from a sense of moral obligation despite the fact that his career and his profession depend on a dispassionate amorality. As his enquiries progress, he finds himself sinking deeper and deeper in a moral and personal quagmire from which there seems ultimately little chance of escape or redemption. His isolation is both social and personal in origin, and though a dream sequence clues us into the character's hidden inner life, his anonymous manner, shabby dress, and attitude of quiet desperation marks him out as a lost soul from the very beginning.

The film is also an excellent illustration of cinematic technique, both in terms of Coppola's subtle direction of his own script and, particularly, Walter Murch's Oscar-nominated sound. The film revolves around sound, and around the relationship between listening and hearing. From the opening scenes where strange, ethereal noises become comprehensible words to the finale where Harry sits alone in his apartment playing his saxophone, cinematic sound is as expressive as images. The question is constantly raised whether one can, or should, listen to things which one has no business hearing, and if, in hearing them, one is able to understand what they actually mean. A similar symbolic superstructure served as the basis of Antonioni's Blowup (1966) and Pakula's The Parallax View (1974), except that in those films, images were paramount. Coppola here proves that cinema is both a visual and an aural medium.

Sound is also important for other reasons. It is no co-incidence that the film opened just as the Watergate scandal was reaching its apex. The ethical questions raised on the subject of surveillance and wire-tapping threw current events into dramatic relief without sacrificing the moral and psychological integrity of the film. It is as much a rooted, contemporary paranoid conspiracy thriller as All the President's Men (1976), yet its core is personal and emotional rather than social and political.

At the heart of the film is a brilliant performance from Hackman, recent Oscar winner for The French Connection (1971) and nominated again for this film. His delicate, introverted characterisation is as effective as his blustering and bullying in William Friedkin's strident policier of three years earlier. Like the film around him, Hackman is quietly understated. This thespian nuance interacts with other aural and visual elements to produce a distinctive and coherent work of cinema which lingers in the mind like the strains of Harry's saxophone. Also effective are Godfather star John Cazale and an uncredited Robert Duvall. Of interest is an early appearence from Harrison Ford as a corporate aide. His casting was probably the direct result of appearing in George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973), which Coppola co-produced.

As a Hollywood film, The Conversation is probably closest in tone among its peers to the European 'art house' cinema which had partly inspired it, and which had led, indirectly, to the rebirth of American cinema on the whole. It is no surprise therefore that it scooped the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and that though it won numerous European film awards including British Academy of Film and Television recognition, it failed to win any Oscars despite three nominations.

Note: The Region 1 DVD comes with audio commentaries by Coppola and, more importantly Murch.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.