The Conversation (1974)    3 Stars

“Harry Caul is an invader of privacy. The best in the business. He can record any conversation between two people anywhere. So far, three people are dead because of him.”

The Conversation (1974)
The Conversation (1974)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield

Synopsis: A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple he is spying on will be murdered.

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Francis Ford Coppola could do no wrong back in the 1970s. With The Godfather behind him and its even highly acclaimed sequel ahead, he directed this small-scale but fascinating study of guilt and paranoia in an age when omniscience was no longer the preserve of God but of anyone with the technological know-how to create and install a bugging device. Gene Hackman (Bonnie and Clyde, Zandy’s Bride) plays Harry Caul a surveillance expert with a guilty secret in his past who is employed to record the conversation of a constantly moving young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) in a crowded park. Caul is a solitary man, socially awkward, who plays saxophone alone in his functionally-decorated apartment to records instead of with fellow musicians. He moved across country to hide from that guilty secret, but the past inevitably finds him, and the guilt he had managed to repress bubbles once more to the surface when he realises from the snatches of the couple’s conversation he’s able to decipher that someone is planning to murder them.

There’s a lot going on in The Conversation, but it’s one of those movies in which nothing of significance seems to be happening. That’s because everything in the story has a meaning and significance no matter how minor it might seem. Hackman gives a reserved performance in a difficult role which calls upon him to communicate the emotions of a man who spends all his time attempting to conceal any display of emotion from those who try to get close. The sorely missed John Cazale (The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter) plays Caul’s assistant, mistreated through omission and neglect, while Allen Garfield lends some punch as a resentful rival who grows vindictive when Caul dismisses his offer of a partnership. A young Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) has a small but important role as assistant to the man who employed Caul to obtain the recording (played by an uncredited Robert Duvall).

The Conversation has a killer twist at the end that arguably raises more questions than it answers. Some might find it a cheat because the movie fails to provide us with a clear-cut resolution to the twisting mystery that enfolds Caul, but it suggests that what we have seen has been filtered through Caul’s own misperceptions of what he has heard. Certainly, there are some scenes that don’t make a lot of sense unless we assume that we’re seeing what Caul is seeing – and that what he sees might not necessarily be real. It’s an enigma – and it’s one that grows increasingly complex the harder you try to figure it out…

(Reviewed 9th December 2014)

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