Sometimes, it’s simply just hard to put things into words. Which, I know, is silly, as I clack-clackity-clack away here at my computer. But sometimes, things are really too brilliant to try and justify – it feels disrespectful to do so to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, say. So forgive me if I feel that way now. I’ll try my best to put The Conversation into my incomparable text, but films like these just make me feel… overwhelmed. I guess it’s why I started writing about them in the first place. But then certain flicks come along and make it feel almost pointless. I don’t know, maybe I’m going through an existential crisis, but boy oh boy. Ladies and gentlemen, can we have a round of applause? The Conversation deserves to take a bow.
A little bit about the 1974 film for the layman: private surveillance expert, devout Catholic and jazz musician Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired by a mysterious client’s aide (Harrison Ford) to tail and record a young couple, but the resulting tape torments Caul, scarred by a previous case which ended in bloodshed. Obsessing over whether the young couple are in danger, he spirals out of control.
Before I start: wow. I have to just take a moment to praise Francis Ford Coppola, because the direction here is simply jaw dropping. Some of the shots here take your breath away. It’s a beautiful film, and I recommend you watch it in the best quality definition because it truly deserves it. Everything from the cinematography to the effortless sound design, all provoking a tangible sense of paranoia. Coppola’s direction feels different in The Conversation from some of his work in the same period (The Godfather 1 and 2, Apocalypse Now) because it is, after all, a very different film. It’s a sumptuous, imaginative and masterful story in every single shot.
It’s one of the many brilliant seventies films. It amazes me how stark the contrast is from the early days of the decade, with true films about the art, such as The French Connection or The Conversation, and the later blockbusters – Star Wars, Jaws, Alien. While the rest of his seventies paragons walk a fine line between the two, it seems like Coppola doesn’t aim for an equilibrium between both, but simply takes some of the best in the game and births pure cinematic proficiency.
In a way, that decision to minimise the appeals of the blockbuster in The Conversation backfired, because however stunning a film this is, it’ll never the same acclaim, popularity or recognition of some of its counterparts. Everyone knows about The Godfather – only people who take interest in film know about The Conversation, Chinatown, hell, even Taxi Driver. And that’s a sorry sight. Does it say more about humanity, or our films? It’s pretty clear to me, but I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader.
The pool of actors Coppola had to work with were simply incredible. The great Gene Hackman, with a career best performance, the great John Cazale, appearing in five films, all nominated for Best Picture, in a far too short career, and the great Harrison Ford, an icon if there ever was one as Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Rick Deckard. There’s even a cameo from the great (nay, legendary) Robert Duvall – what more could a man ask for? Despite my love for Cazale and his incredible feats, it’s clear his chemistry between Hackman isn’t as graceful as Doyle and Russo’s in The French Connection, for example. But that, I believe, is because it isn’t supposed to be. It really leads me onto my next point:
The tragedy of the introvert. The loner.
Harry Caul is a fascinating character for a number of reasons: his unceasing paranoia; his social abrasiveness; his ravaging turbulence. Something that’s so tragic about Caul is his extreme introversion, and how that so clearly directly clashes with his job. When you’re a genius at spying on people, unfortunately, who have to listen to disturbing interactions that can end up haunting your conscience, when all he wants to do is be private and keep himself to himself – take a pious vow of silence.
I’m not afraid of death. But I am afraid of murder.Harry Caul
Caul is very different from your typical loner at this time, like a Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin. Yes, he’s clearly not in the healthiest state of mind, caught up in a fevered sound of his tape repeating, an all consuming feeling of guilt and regret, but we sympathise with him. He’s driven everyone away from him building up a wall of privacy, until it’s the only thing he’s really got left. As he tears his house apart at the end of the film, in a scene which inspired Better Call Saul’s Chuck, we begin to realise that that wall has eventually crumbled too. He has nothing. He is a broken, destroyed man, and it’s all self inflicted. So what else is there to do then play the loneliest instrument, the saxophone, with no idea if there’s an audience or not. Who cares? See, Caul’s just one of God’s lonely men, walking the streets of ’70s cinema.
The twist ending is what takes this cerebral film from one level to the next. He’s a flawed man who has everything at the flick of a switch, yet he horribly misreads it all. And only then can he truly begin to realise his mistakes. At that point, it feels like he truly repents for his misdeeds. I can guarantee you won’t see it coming, and it’s all the better for it.
At the beginning of The Conversation, Caul claims he cares only for the recording and the quality of it. By the end of The Conversation, he comes to realise that all he cares about is what is on the tape, what is being said. Because of that, he self destructs. He loses everything: his religion, his renowned surveilling ability, his own mind. Caul is a God with the endless amount of information available to him, and he’s punished for it. The question we’re left asking ourselves is:
Does God ever feel lonely, up there in heaven, with only the blues?
The Conversation – 8.5 out of 10