Retro Review: ‘The Conversation’

Do you feel comfortable that the last private conversation you had remained that way? Once you watch this mystery-thriller you may never have that comfort again. You may be wondering who could be listening to you, and worse, who wants them to listen. Directed by France Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, the 1974 film The Conversation is a suspenseful masterpiece about a man who hears what we do not want anyone to hear and the consequences he faces because of it.

When you need to eavesdrop on unsuspecting people, Harry Caul is who you turn to. A paranoid surveillance expert, Caul is hired to listen in on a couple in the middle of a crowded San Francisco park. While this should be just another shady job for Caul, he suspects the couple is in grave life-or-death danger. While his client’s assistant is firm in telling him to stay out of it, Harry is haunted by the fact that someone could be killed as a result of his work.

In order to enhance the atmosphere of paranoia in this film, Francis Ford Coppola directs this film at a slow but deliberate pace. He subjects the audience to long lingering voyeuristic shots, which after a while lead that audience to wonder who is watching or listening. This hits especially hard towards the end of the movie where Harry picks up his ringing phone only to hear nobody on the other end, once he hangs up and walks off the focus remains on the phone. In this moment we flashback to the scene at the tradeshow when a seemingly ordinary phone is used as a bugging device. Considering the movie was released a mere two years following Watergate and the exposure of Richard Nixon’s crimes, the Conversation takes on a completely new dimension. In fact, much of the advanced bugging technology utilized by characters in this film were used in real life by the former president’s goons.

According to the great movie critic Roger Ebert, the Conversation is the career peak of Gene Hackman, and whether you agree or disagree, you can not deny he has a point. The French Connection star disappears into this compelling yet tragic character. Harry Caul is a master and waiting patiently for others to spill their secrets oblivious to the fact that he is listening. His peers in this field hold him in the highest regards and he brings in big money clients. But behind his closed door secured by multiple locks, he is a tormented man. Above all, he clings to his privacy, but a nosey landlady easily gains entry into his place and even discovers when his birthday is. A job he conducted, regarded as a masterpiece by industry insiders, led to the brutal deaths of three people that haunts him and serves as a driving influence on his actions throughout the film.

Despite all of the suspense and conspiracies, the Conversation at its core is a character study of one of cinema’s most interesting characters. He is a cold man who profits off the private lives of others, while at the same time, he is tortured by this and the pressure of the job is finally getting to him. Once we reach the end, Harry finally realizes that he is not the only one who can listen to others.