Between his celebrated and sprawling gangster epics The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola released The Conversation. A small scale, tense and slow-burning thriller, it’s the work of a director at the top of his game.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a leading freelance surveillance expert and private investigator, is hired by the director of an anonymous corporation. For Caul it’s just another job, $15,000 to track a young couple and record a conversation between them. He doesn’t know the reasons behind the job, and he doesn’t want to. But as Caul pieces together more and more of the conversation he begins to struggle with his belief that the recordings will result in the murder of the young couple. As he wrestles with his own conscience, Caul is drawn into a murder conspiracy that leads all the way to the top of the corporate ladder.
At the centre of the film is Cauls internal struggle as he begins to question his own responsibilities. Hackman is outstanding in his portrayal of a character coming apart at the seams as he battles with his own conscience and begins to contemplate the fact that his work may directly lead to the murder of his targets. His personal struggle and confusion is perfectly encapsulated by his visit to the confessional, where he states;
“I’ve been involved in some work that I think will be used to hurt these two young people. It’s happened to me before. People were hurt because of my work, and I’m afraid it could happen again and I’m . . . I was in no way responsible. I’m not responsible. For these and all my sins of my past life, I am heartily sorry.”
As well as a study of a man slowly unravelling, The Conversation also works as an intriguing and intelligent thriller. As the film progresses and Caul becomes increasingly caught-up in the potential murder plot, we see him playing and replaying the tapes almost obsessively, and are gradually fed more and more of the couples conversation. As the story unravels and we hear more of the recordings, our understanding of the conversation and its implications slowly change and the intrigue and tension slowly build. In a similar fashion to Chinatown, the story is told from Cauls perspective and at no point do we know anymore than he does. We have the same suspicions, make the same assumptions and it brings us closer to the character.
The direction, pacing and sound are superb throughout. If this film was made in Hollywood today, it would likely be paced totally differently, involve a lot of running about, a car-chase or two and a couple of eureka moments where the character suddenly has a dramatic realisation and tells us all about it. Here though, the tension and suspense is built up slowly, the pace is consistent and we are left to piece it together all by ourselves.
With themes of paranoia, the invasion of privacy and surveillance prevalent throughout, The Conversation is arguably more relevant now than it was on release. Too often overlooked due its release between the much celebrated Godfather films, this is a powerful study of guilt, responsibility and paranoia, as well as a gripping thriller. I should probably whisper it, but this is my favourite Coppola film.