The Conversation (1974)

13 Jan

Before his epochal sequel to ‘The Godfather’ and setting off into the heart of darkness, Francis Ford Coppola had the financial clout to get this self-penned labour of love to the screen. Rewarding their New Hollywood wunderkinds for a string of monster hits, Paramount arranged a distribution deal with Coppola, William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich under the name ‘The Directors Company’ – which proved to be a disaster; read Peter Biskind’s book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ for the full story.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a guarded surveillance expert whose absorption in his work comes at the expense of his personal life; he is unable to have a proper relationship with his nominal girlfriend, Amy (Terri Garr), and lives alone in a sparsely decorated apartment. Caul is employed by the Director (Robert Duvall) to track two of his employees, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest). In the course of what appears to be just another job, Caul unearths a murky plot with dire implications. He is faced with a moral quandary; to maintain a professional distance and hand over the tape of Ann and Mark’s conversation to the Director as scheduled, or heed his conscience and intervene.

The complexity of Coppola’s taut screenplay is brought to life by Bill Butler’s chilly, clinical photography; matching the austerity of Caul’s demeanour. David Shire’s plaintive, foreboding score is equally effective in this regard, its haunting piano spirals reverberating through the empty spaces that Caul haunts. Walter Murch’s dense, overlapping sound editing is put to splendid use in the scenes where Caul slowly assembles the tape, expertly mimicking the alchemy of his craft. Coppola’s direction has a focus and restraint that is absent from much of his subsequent work, his shot selections completely in keeping with the tenor of the piece. Caul is seldom seen in the foreground; a conscious decision is made to shoot him in an array of medium and longs shots, to underline his anonymity by submerging him in his surroundings – as well as remind us that we are voyeurs by choice, not profession.

Hackman is the film’s lynchpin, turning in a compelling, nuanced performance as far away from the foul-mouthed swagger of ‘Popeye’ Doyle as it’s possible to get; an important stage in his development that dispelled once and for all the nagging suspicion he was little more than a brawny everyman. While propagating the image of a coldly rational loner who ‘doesn’t know anything about human nature’, Caul is in fact an emotionally fraught, short-tempered, thin-skinned man beset by self-loathing, envy and guilt. Hackman perfectly captures this dichotomy, depicting the flawed, tortured Caul’s inner turmoil and transformation with a subtlety that is so often absent from the trite Hollywood third-act ‘epiphany’. ‘The Conversation’ features a glut of adept supporting performances from some of the finest character actors of their generation: John Cazale as the uncouth, lackadaisical Stan, Allan Garfield as Bernie, Caul’s cocksure, combative rival; typically accomplished turns from Coppola regulars Duvall and Forrest and even a brief appearance by a pre-Han Solo Harrison Ford as the Director’s arrogant underling.

Coppola’s fascination with Catholic ritual is in evidence throughout; but where those sacraments were used in ‘The Godfather’ as a trope to juxtapose virtuous words with murderous deeds, they are invoked in ‘The Conversation’ to grapple with notions of culpability and absolution. Caul’s outward piety is central to his self-perception; the last vestige of a humanity that has been stripped away by years of subservience to his career. He sees saving Ann and Mark from the nefarious designs of the Director as the ultimate act of expiation, the only thing that can atone for his past misdeeds, and sets about doing so with a recklessness that goes against his instincts. But as with every assignment he takes, he is only privy to one side of the story, lending an uncharacteristic degree of credence to what is captured in the recordings.

Metaphor abounds in ‘The Conversation’. The saxophone Caul plays on his own each evening hints at a side that is hidden from the exterior world; a more expansive, emotional self he has been forced to suppress in order to survive in his chosen field, a thwarted ambition he can never fully abandon. The empty warehouse where Caul works symbolises the single-minded, ascetic shell of an existence he leads; the bus where the lights begin to flicker then plunge him into darkness indicative of a life lived in the shadows. Caul’s intrinsic nature is defined in the scene where the Director’s underling leaves him alone in his office and he immediately makes for the telescope by the window; he is someone who is empowered by watching life from a comfortable distance.

‘The Conversation’ remains an enigmatic, uncompromising highlight of Coppola’s oeuvre; an enduring work of maturity and intricacy; as much a study of spiritual redemption as an exploration of post-Watergate paranoia in the vein of Alan J. Pakula. The film was conceived as the Watergate scandal was raging and released just months before Richard Nixon’s resignation. Of course, it is informed by this unfolding national infamy, but only in an abstract sense, embodying the feelings of cynicism and dread that characterized the Zeitgeist. We can only speculate what could have been if Coppola hadn’t squandered a fortune and succumbed to madness in the wilds of the Philippines shooting ‘Apocalypse Now’; he may have still had the means and the desire to produce films of this calibre on a regular basis.

Just another quiet night in for Harry Caul.

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