Most people agree the 70’s was THE era for cinema. Director Francis Ford Coppola was at the very top of the explosion of craft and vision of whence, serving the world with more than his fair share of transcendent films with The Godfather setting the tone for that decade. As lauded and mainstream as The Godfather Saga is, Coppola’s The Conversation is my favourite from that era. It also presents probably my favourite ever coda to a film.
The coda starts with our central character, Harry Caul played by Gene Hackman at his immaculate best, receiving an ominous phone call which leads to him meticulously ripping through his apartment in a fit of paranoia that ends with his solitary figure settled and playing on a saxophone culminating a sequence that fittingly rounds of Coppola’s dissection of loneliness, solitude and borderline neurotic mistrust.
Harry Caul is a surveillance expert in San Fransisco and one of the best in the business. He acknowledges his esteemed standing in surveillance community as he is tagged a “notable” for an upcoming surveillance convention but scoffs at a certain Detroit operative being regarded as eminent in the field when his assistant, Stan, played by the late John Cahazle, reads out some details for the event. We don’t really doubt Harry’s prowess and skill as he skillfully coordinates a surveillance job in complicated circumstances early on. But as the film progresses Coppola goes beyond the regular paradox of the ultra-secretive man who makes a living spying on others and plays on the fallacy of Harry being as water tight as he thinks he is. Harry is considered a genius at surveillance by many but we watch him lose the tapes of a key job. He favours over the top security (for the 70’s I think) with three locks on his door and a screaming security system but his landlord still gains access to his room – Harry is not as secure as he thinks. We get more details to back this including a terrific Allen Garfield playing Moran, the operative from Detroit, who makes light work of bugging Harry, to our protagonist’s humiliation.
As the film rolls on you begin to wonder why Harry is as lauded as he is because he comes off as extremely sloppy but Coppola is very deliberate in using all this detail to reinforce the audacious illusion of security Harry felt he operated in. For one, there is no plausible way the landlord had all 3 keys to Harry’s apartment locks and the combination to his alarm system and Harry is indeed shocked to find that his landlord entered his apartment, knows it’s his birthday, and even knows his age. On another level, the insecurities arising from his latest job contribute to his unravelling arch. Harry and his team are surveilling a young couple for a corporate director played by Robert Duvall and it soon becomes clear the lady at the centre of the investigation is the director’s wife and that some infidelity is involved. What isn’t clear are this director’s intentions after receiving this information as we hear the two lovers on tape express concern for their lives; “he’d kill us if he got the chance”.
Harry’s realisation of this fact is quickly followed by a trip to confession and he starts by revealing petty misdemeanours like stealing some newspapers to his priest but ends by expressing fears some people may be hurt because of his recent work. We later learn his work may have led to the deaths of woman and child earlier in life and he fears his engagement in this particular triangle will lead to the death of more people. Noticeably, he is keen to note he is not directly responsible for deaths but his presence in the dimly lit confessional presents another paradox as he still feels he has sinned and is ridden with guilt. Another illusion, perhaps like that of his delusion of security but all the same. Hackman is in supreme form in an excellently controlled performance anchoring this film as he fully conveys this sad portrait of discontent, guilt and excruciating isolation. Harry lives alone, has no friends and the only tangible interaction he as outside work is with his girlfriend, who is more of the side chick to his isolation. He has removed himself from any meaningful interactions thinking the barriers he erects will protect him on an emotional and physical level but we watch on sadly as the only real thing in his life is probably his love for jazz.
With the emphasis on character it’s easy to forget this film is an ingenious thriller with lives at stake. What happens at the end of the devious journey Harry starts in that plaza? Will his fears be realized and guilt justified with a death or two? Coppola navigates this film expertly and keeps the plot moving alongside the gloomy character study that is Harry Caul and thriller thread ends in a hotel room rendezvous between the couple at the centre of the tape. This film attacks audiences with a richness of craft from Bill Butler’s grainy cinematography to the sophisticated soundtrack and score that begins to give genuine chills as the film draws to a close and then there’s the voyeur type shots that subtly ramp up the paranoia engulfing our central character.
Utterly riveting and overflowing with detail, The Conversation truly defines the term “masterpiece” and showcases the talents of a director orchestrating near flawless vision on a script and directorial level.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana