Directed By Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr
Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) values his personal privacy and anonymity above all else. When he and his partner Stan (John Cazale) are hired by a mysterious client, known only as the director (Robert Duvall), to follow a young couple, Harry deduces that the woman, Mary, is the director’s wife, and the man is an employee with whom she is conducting an affair. Harry becomes convinced that the director intends to murder the pair. Haunted by guilt from a previous assignment where the information provided resulted in a loss of human life, sets out to prevent the killing himself.
When people talk about Francis Ford Coppola, they tend to talk about the Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now. But, if talk turns to The Conversation, there tends to be some blank faces. For a movie that won Coppola the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and three Academy award nominations, and features Gene Hackman in arguably his best role, it’s a crime that The Conversation isn’t better known.
The reason why is probably self-evident; the movie is bereft of obvious action scenes. It’s a character piece where the action is driven by the circumstances, dialogue, and revelation. The Conversation owes more to the spy genre, but is more a study in guilt than paranoia.
How many times have you seen a performance by Gene Hackman, conscious that it’s Gene Hackman? The Conversation brought out a career defining performance in Hackman that is my favourite of all his roles. As enjoyable as many of them have been, I’ve mainly been aware that Hackman is in his comfort zone. The character of Harry Caul is complex and troubled. Hackman does a great job of selling us this very private character that ends up being a victim of his own business.
Caul is not a likeable character. He is a loner that spends far too much time immersed in his work. He is supposed to be the best in the business but this seems more by chance than by skill alone, as Coppola reveals to the audience a number of reasons why Caul is actually quite sloppy. Whilst he might come up with innovative ideas and equipment to fulfill his client’s wishes, his approach to his private life is haphazard and puts his life in danger. The best example is how easily a pen, containing a sophisticated listening device, is placed in Caul’s top jacket pocket.
Caul gains sympathy from the audience purely because he is fallible and is seen to be trying to do the right thing, but he seems to spend so much time observing others that he hasn’t fully developed his own identity. He admits to not having any real possessions of any value, for example.
This is another movie full of performances. Coppola must have known that any weak link in the acting chain and the movie would fall apart. Even the smallest role required the right actor and the casting process got it right.
John Cazale plays Harry’s under appreciated colleague that is pushed into working for the opposition.
Allen Garfield is superb as the pushy, irritating, rival of Harry’s. A few years before he shot to mega-stardom in Star Wars, Harrison Ford turned in a great performance as the Director’s shady assistant.
There are those that will tell you to switch on the subtitles to get more of an idea of what is being said during the recordings. No! Don’t do it! The whole point of the movie is how Caul is interpreting the conversation. That’s why the movie is called The Conversation. It’s the most important part of the plot. Harry bases his whole theory about the Director looking to terminate an affair with extreme prejudice on what he hears and upon his guilt from the outcome of previous submissions.
The Conversation focuses on how much of our own beliefs and experience we bring to interpreting what is said and what is seen. The movie can offer a lot to those who enjoy a thriller and drama that requires a certain amount of intellectual input, such as the TV drama The West Wing, where conversations drove the drama along, coupled with top drawer acting.
The Conversation is out on Monday 31st October 2011, from Studio Canal and is available from all good stockists.