Published on March 24th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Conversation 
Summary: Coppola's project between Godfathers is as intimate a thriller as you'll ever see. Hackman is perfect as an eccentric surveillance expert and the picture builds very slowly to a stunning finish.
PG | 113 min.
Director & Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford
Distribution: Paramount Pictures | Box Office: $4,420,000
Following up a masterpiece is hardly an enviable task but don’t tell that to Francis Ford Coppola. After The Godfather made him an icon in 1972, the director’s next three pictures were just as good, if not better, than the “second greatest” movie of all-time.
Everyone talks about 1974’s The Godfather Part II and 1979’s Apocalypse Now, and for good reason, but the movie he nestled between his odes to “the family” is an overlooked gem that’s virtually flawless.
The Conversation is a slow-burning thriller that centers on a character who is difficult in every way. Coppola’s script brings us in tight on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), giving us a full-blown character study on this unlikely protagonist. There’s nothing particularly likable about Caul, in fact he seems to go out of his way to be disagreeable, but his unique job and skills for it are what pique our interest at first.
Caul is a San Francisco-based surveillance whiz who only takes projects from the highest bidders. When we meet him, he and his team are running an elaborate job, listening in on a pair of apparent lovers as they wander around a crowded public park. We can see the couple is extremely paranoid of being eavesdropped on, telling us they are likely doing something forbidden. The conversation they have that day is recorded on a series of hidden microphones planted on several of Caul’s associates throughout the park. As the conversation’s details are revealed slowly throughout the film, Caul begins to seriously regret taking this job and worries about the grim consequences it may bring to the two marks.
From the start of The Conversation, it’s clear Caul has his share of demons. His job of invading people’s privacy has made him a fortune but has taken a heavy toll on his own psyche; it makes him an intensely private person, withdrawn from social life. There are a number of moments in the picture when someone violates his privacy in some way, leading Caul to become incensed and on the verge of violence. His outbursts are unleashed on several of the small cast’s characters, including his right-hand man Stan (the immortal John Cazale), his mysterious client “The Director” (Robert Duvall) and a rival bugger named Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield).
Moran is a sneaky character who’s motives are not easy to discern, like most of the action in this movie. He comes off as a simple source of tension and competition for our lead but its hard to tell whether Moran admires Harry or despises him. He’s constantly trying to peer behind the curtain and discover the magician’s secrets. However, Caul doesn’t seem at all interested in competition, he spends too much time inside his own head to worry about the flashy new gadgets his competitors are getting rich on. He’s like the master craftsman that puts his entire soul into each job while the factory next door cranks out millions of pieces everyday.
Hackman’s performance should have won him an Oscar, instead he wasn’t even nominated. You won’t find an off note in his entire take as he embodies this meek, introverted character; unlike the usual swinging-dick confidence we get from a Hackman persona. Like its main character, there’s not much flash to The Conversation. Save a bloody and surreal scene at the climax (maybe the most intense toilet sequence I’ve witnessed this side of Dumb & Dumber), this is a very subdued picture that’s enjoyed best with the subtitles on, so as not to miss a line.
The guys at the center of this movie are nerds, pure and simple. These are AV club kids that made it big by building smaller, better microphones that they use to listen to the private moments of unsuspecting average people–as I said before, not very likable. The Conversation has a very European feel to it, borrowing heavily from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 thriller Blow-Up. It also feels non-American due to the fact that it features full-frontal nudity with a PG rating attached! Today’s equivalent would be like if Princess Anna dropped her dress during a musical number in Frozen.
As Caul’s obsession with the couple’s private conversation grows, his guilt does likewise. Coppola reveals small bits of the exchange in spurts and until we get the full dialogue at the end, the viewers nor Harry know exactly what is going on. He builds The Conversation to a surprising and satisfying reveal that doesn’t feel at all gimmicky or forced. The movie continues for another 15 minutes after the twist, giving us a final glimpse at the effects the job has had on Caul, with our final image of him showing a broken man surrounded by an apartment he destroyed in a paranoid fit.
This is the most subtle picture Coppola directed in a perfect decade for him. No American filmmaker did as much quality and diverse work in the 1970s, a run that he hasn’t replicated since. Coppola’s 1974 in particular might be the greatest single year for any director since Victor Fleming in 1939. That year may have also represented the peak of the Hollywood thriller as Roman Polanski’s tour de force Chinatown hit theaters as well. The Conversation would win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, it was nominated for three Oscars, losing Best Picture to Coppola’s The Godfather Part II.