Catching Up: The Conversation

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge. If we confess our ignorance of some of these films, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be stunning, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

In between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola directed this considerably less-remembered, though still quite well-regarded, film. Released the same year as Godfather IIThe Conversation was pretty well overshadowed by the former film, including lost the Best Picture Oscar to it. It made a tidy profit at the box office, but was light-years away from the smash success of the seminal mobster movies which bookend it in Coppola’s oeuvre. It’s received more than its fair share of critical attention over the years, though, and is included in the National Film Registry. On the spectrum from “enduring classic” to “unjustly forgotten gem,” this film lies somewhere in the middle.

I had no particular reason in choosing this as the subject for this installment of Catching Up. In fact, the decision process consisted of browsing the “Classics” section of Netflix until I found something that piqued my interest. I’ve had The Conversation on my radar for years, and simply decided that now was the time to fill in that particular gap. And now I wish that I filled it sooner.

I haven’t seen Godfather II (That’s an epic Catching Up in the making right there), but I actually found that I prefer this movie to The Godfather. By a significant margin, in fact.* Really, though, the fact that Coppola directed four movies that aren’t just good, aren’t just great, but are truly absolute classics, in a row, demonstrate just how on the man was during the 70’s. Is there any kind of comparable run in cinema? It’s just gobsmacking.

And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to count The Conversation in the same company as the Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now. It’s certainly a very different beast from those companions. Whereas the others are epic, this one is very, very small and specific in scope. It’s shorter, features a tiny cast, and features few convolutions of plot. But it’s no less heavy in character or mood, and the ideas that it’s entertaining are not just enthralling, but still incredibly relevant to the world we live in.

Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who is hired to record the conversation of a young couple walking through a park. The nature of his job means that Harry studiously avoids entangling himself in any of the reasons that a client might have in hiring his services. That’s how he justifies this work to himself, although it doesn’t really work. Harry is still tormented over the fact that information he obtained led to the murder of three people several years back. Now, he fears that history may repeat itself. As he pieces together the tapes of the conversation into a coherent whole, an increasing feeling of unease swells within him. He begins to suspect that his client intends to murder the couple, and soon finds himself in a passive-aggressive game of cat-and-mouse, as the client leans more and more pressure on him to hand over the recording.

This film thrives on ambiguity. The only reason Harry has to suspect anything might turn murderous comes from the changes in the inflections of the man and woman’s voices as they speak. Is he right to suspect something, or is he just paranoid? Has his guilt utterly warped his sense of judgment, which is normally so spot-on? Harry is a consummate professional, almost an archetype of the professional, in fact. He’ almost divinely inspired in the way he can merge multiple muffly tape recordings into one clear sound. But doubt is gnawing at him, and it slowly causes his personal life to disintegrate.

If nothing else, its marvelous use of sound would mark The Conversation as a true classic. Done by legendary editor Walter Murch (who literally wrote the book (In the Blink of an Eye) on the craft), the soundtrack makes brilliant, frequent use of overlapping dialogue at crucial points in the story. It’s disorienting without being impenetrable, and puts you right inside Caul’s frame of mind. Just as important is the methodical use of silence to draw out all the mundane noises of the environment, thus heightening tension in the viewer. Case Study #4568 why you shouldn’t care about the Oscars: this film lost the Oscar for Best Sound to The Earthquake.

The Conversation is a thriller without any overt thrills. There are few traditional scares and even fewer moments where there’s any indication that we should feel scared. And yet it’s a very scary movie. It builds a pervading sense of dread, as Harry’s torment slowly becomes all-encompassing. Is that person following him? Or is it just a pedestrian?

Hackman is a dynamo here, playing a role extremely unlike most other things he’s done. Whereas the typical Hackman is a confident, even arrogant buster, Harry Caul is a nebbish, socially awkward loner. To call his lifestyle “Spartan” wouldn’t feel appropriate, even a Spartan might tell him to lighten up and buy a few more things for himself. His work has made him so wracked with fear over who might be watching him that he vents on the landlord for dropping off a birthday card at his apartment. Hackman is a mass of neuroses roiling under a subdued exterior, and that energy is palpable in every scene. Caul is a study in the alienating effects of technology, a man whose microphones and playback devices have estranged him from all humanity.

The Watergate story broke the year before this movie was released, though it had been written long before anyone had any inkling of what Nixon’s underlings had done in that hotel. The parallels are absolutely eerie, though – the wiretap that the campaign ran on the DNC used the exact same equipment that Caul does in the film. In many respects, then, it was prophetic. And Watergate was just the beginning. Look at the world we live in today. How many Harry Caul’s are out there, listening to us? Listening to you, even?

Actually, there might not be many Harry Cauls at all, since the whole point of his character is the conflict he suffers over the morality of his actions. Surveillance today is so widespread that it seems far fewer people have such compunctions. Which is a hundred times more terrifying, especially when taking into account the other big theme of the film: ambiguity. At the climax, Harry faces a stunning revelation over the accuracy and, more importantly, the lack of accuracy in his assumptions. The way it recontextualizes everything we’ve seen up to that point is mind-boggling. Harry knows nothing; he’s been stumbling through an impossibly convoluted labyrinth of intrigue. That’s the true nature of the “intelligence community.” The slightest misunderstanding can have catastrophic consequences, and with the subjective human element involved, the potential for a slight misunderstanding is horrifically high.

The Conversation is the father of Blow Out, The Lives of Others, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, among many more movies that revel in deliberation and murky ethics. It really is a masterpiece, and it should be considered a must-see for film fans alongside Coppola’s other three efforts of the 70’s. If nothing else, check it out to see Harrison Ford in one of his early roles, playing a henchman, no less! But no, it’s worth it for way more than just that.

*Of course, there’s not much value to be found in the debate over which out of any two or more movies is “better.” Is The Conversation a better film than The Godfather? They aim for such different things that the comparison is nigh-useless.

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About Dan Schindel

Born and raised in rural Maryland, Dan Schindel now lives and works in LA, hoping to one day soon trick someone into paying him to write about film. He loves all the movies equally, no matter what genre or pedigree. He spent last year watching and writing about a documentary every day, so now he knows everything. Besides CBR, he also writes for ScreenPicks, We Are Movie Geeks, Who Got the Role?, Off to See the Elephant, and more.