Most of us know at least one person who can compartmentalize her or his life, separating business from pleasure, career from family, etc. Such people have exceptional focus and determination. Brilliantly portrayed by Gene Hackman, Harry Caul is such a person. (Even his girlfriend Amy, played by Teri Garr, does not know where he lives.) Harry is an expert technician who is retained to conduct electronic surveillance of those identified by his clients. In effect, he is a high-tech private investigator. What he records becomes evidence of illegal, unethical, or immoral behavior. Harry has no personal interest in the private lives he invades surreptitiously. But then he accepts an assignment and begins to suspect that the subjects of his surveillance will be murdered. The "compartments" in his life which Harry has so carefully separated begin to merge (albeit gradually) and he begins to have second thoughts about how he earns a living. Of course, he is better qualified than any other character in the film to understand (if not yet fully appreciate) the implications of an invasion of privacy. Under Francis Ford Coppola's brilliant direction, Harry begins to feel paranoid.
I view The Conversation as a dark film because its raises so many questions which seem even more relevant today than they were in 1974. How secure can any life be? Who is accumulating personal as well as professional data about whom? Why? Satellites can take photographs of a license plate. All of the data on computer hard drives can be recovered. DNA tests can determine whether or not a monarch was poisoned hundreds of years ago. In so many ways, "there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide" from modern technologies. What intrigues me most about Harry Caul is his growing sense of dislocation and vulnerability as the conflict between his personal conscience and professional objectivity intensifies. The assignment for The Director (Robert Duvall) to conduct surveillance on Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forest) serves as a trigger which activates self-doubts and insecurities which Harry has presumably suppressed and denied for many years.
For me, the final scene is most memorable because it's so ambiguous. To what extent has Harry invaded his own privacy? What has he learned? How will he now proceed with his personal life and career? For whatever reasons, only in recent years has this film received the praise it deserved but was denied when it first appeared almost 20 years ago. It seems to get even better each time it is seen again, especially in the DVD format which offers clearer image and sound as well as several excellent supplementary items such as commentaries by Coppola and his supervising editor Walter Murch as well as a "Close-Up on the Conversation" featurette.
on February 14, 2001
"The Conversation" is one of those great little masterpieces of the 1970s that just so happens to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola. "The Conversation" tells the tale of Harry Caul, (geniously played by Gene Hackman) a surveillance expert who makes the mistake of getting personally involved in a disturbing assignment. Gene Hackman's performance is so subtle, underplayed, and finely-tuned that it alone makes the film worthwhile. The script is fabulous, with a twist that makes "The Sixth Sense" look like kid's stuff.
The DVD of "The Conversation" is great. To start off, it has good, animated menus. The theatrical trailer is nice, just for nostalgic purposes. There is also a featurette, "Close-Up on The Conversation". It makes for a nice, brief look at the making of the film, and it's fun to see Coppola so young. What really makes this DVD great though, are the two commentary tracks. The first is by the director himself, Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola's commentary is one of the most comprehensive I've ever heard. If you don't appreciate this movie now, you will after you've heard his commentary. The second commentary is by editor Walter Murch, which is also very good, especially if you are specifically interested in the editing process.
If you like Coppola, Hackman, or are just a sucker for a clever script, this DVD is for your collection.
on November 22, 2000
The 70s were the heyday of conspiracy paranoia in popular entertainment: 1974 The Conversation, 1975 The Three Days Of The Condor, 1975 The Parallax View, 1976 All The President's Men ...
The worldview advanced in those films, was that a Cold War mindset had infected American domestic life ... powerful, mysterious forces were foisting a secret spy game on the unsuspecting public. Those jaded messages resonated with Americans, who had lost their innocence to political assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate.
The Conversation is perfectly representative of those times. Gene Hackman is ideally cast as a lonely electronic surveillance professional, whose carefully detached world cracks apart when a routine assignment goes wrong and drives him over the moral edge.
Deprived of a human support system, Hackman's intelligence turns on itself and leads him into a series of dangerous mistakes. In the end Hackman finds himself no longer the safe detached observer, but instead, a vulnerable pawn in a cruel conspiracy plot.
The film's direction is masterful in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola at his restrained best. The style is European noirish: spare, cerebral, brooding, enhanced by masterful photography and intellectual jazz music. Though the film is shot in color, you may find that you remember it in black and white.
Viewers beware: The Conversation is not for action lovers, it moves slowly and requires a love of introspection.
For my money, this is the best movie Francis Ford Coppola ever made.
Say what you will about the imitated-to-the-point-of-parody "Godfather" movies, or the often brilliant piece of film madness that is "Apocalypse Now." I'd still rather talk about "The Conversation."
Ostensibly a thriller about a professional wiretapper and his surveilance of a single conversation in what appears to be an adulterous relationship, "The Conversation" is also a a thought-provoking masterwork about secrets, lies, spies and power in Watergate-era America, and an excellent character study about the interplay between conscience and professionalism in one profoundly real, profoundly fascinating man.
The man in question, Harry Caul, is obsessed with secrets--keeping his own, and finding out other people's. Gene Hackman's riveting portrayal of Caul--a dramatic change of pace from iron-willed characters like "The French Connection"'s Popeye Doyle--shows us a man riven by conflicting emotions. Pride, obsessiveness, professionalism, lust, and good old Catholic guilt are all at war in Harry's tortured soul, pulling him in a multitude of different directions as the movie unfolds.
At the film's outset, we see him overseeing the surveilance of the conversation in question, a perplexing, half-heard dialogue between a young couple out for a lunchtime stroll in a public park in San Francisco. Snippets of this conversation loop through Harry's mind and through the movie, playing and re-playing, but he--and we--only gradually uncover its true meaning.
Gradually, Harry begins to suspect that, if he does his job right, the couple in question may be killed. In a mesmerizing drunken dream sequence, he walks after the woman on a foggy night, trying to clear his own conscience about what he has done and what he might do. To the women in his life, Harry is maddeningly tight-lipped--not mentioning his birthday until the day of, lying about his age for no apparent reason, saying nothing about his professional or personal life--but to this dream-apparition, he is willing to say everything, from his oldest memories to his darkest fears.
Haunted by those fears, and by the consequences of his past behavior in a similar situation (just like Jack Nicholson's Jake Geddes in 1974's also-excellent "Chinatown"), Harry tries to make things turn out better this time. But events soon rocket out of control on their way to an unforgettable, poetic, haunting ending.
If you don't own this movie, buy it--putting it in your Netflix queue or hopping over to Blockbuster and watching it only once will leave you cheated, though you won't know it at the time. For even if (like me) you can figure out the exact mechanics of the plot on the first run-through, added viewings reveal deeper themes and fuller layers of meaning behind seemingly insignificant snippets of dialogue. Like the conversation that loops and skips throughout the film, "The Conversation" can't be fully comprehended in just one take.
I wasn't alive in 1974, but I can't imagine how strange and alluring "The Conversation" must've felt to those who witnessed it when it was first released. Was the surveillance technology advanced for its time? Was the culture paranoid of being watched? Did audiences fully understand the film's undertones at the time? Did people expect our culture would become even more monitored in the future?
I don't really know the answers to those questions, and in a way, I prefer not to when I think about "The Conversation". To Harry Caul, those questions are irrelevant when the story begins. He truly dedicates his surveillance to making a clear and well-produced record, and tries not to listen to the content. He sees his work as a way to record "sound", without any attention to its meaning. Only when Caul begins to ponder the consequences of his actions does his life begin to unravel.
Fans of "The Conversation" love to wonder how technology has impacted our culture. Other fans are simply engrossed in the characters and plot developments. What's great about this movie is that you ignore one of those angles and still be mesmerized. If your attention is solely on Harry Caul and how his latest job has affected his life, then "The Conversation" is a terrific thriller. And if your attention wanders towards how our lives have been changed forever by technology, specifically surveillance, then "The Conversation" will give you plenty to think about. You can be as isolated as Caul is when the story begins, and you can be as involved as Caul is when the story ends.
The premise sounds simple when you talk about plot. In short, Harry Caul (played with great restraint and insecurity by Gene Hackman) is an expert on spying on people for different clients. His latest job requires some tweaking because his targets' conversation is cluttered with all sorts of sounds from the San Francisco streets. As he tunes his recording, he begins to suspect something terrible is about to happen.
Like all great stories, "The Conversation" is effective because of the telling. Seeing a technician tune an audio recording sounds boring, but it works because since Harry Caul seems to lack interest in a social life, we want to see what he IS passionate about: His work. Or how about those annoying scenes in movies when a bunch of characters are being unpleasant drunks? In "The Conversation", there's a lengthy sequence where Harry has allowed some fellow surveillance experts into his workplace. Rather than be a bunch of idiots behave foolishly, there's a hotshot East Coast expert named Bernie (Allen Garfield) whose made a name for himself, but is borderline-obsessed with how Harry pulled off a couple of tricky jobs. His cockiness is equalled only by his jealousy, which results in some very cruel tricks as the evening goes on.
The supporting cast is top-notch, because we remember the faces we need to, and forget the faces that Coppola wants us to forget. The targets of Harry's latest job are shown just enough so that we remember their faces and voices, but don't know too much about their personalities...just like Harry does. On the other hand, Harrison Ford delivers an unforgettably creepy turn as the assistant to Harry's client. There's a scene where Harry is obviously being followed, and when Harry finally confronts the assistant, Ford slyly replies:
"I haven't been 'FOLLOWING' you. I've been 'LOOKING' for you." It's clear that it's the former.
It's not often that the sound effects of a movie make headlines, however Walter Murch's work on the sound is more crucial to the piece than most movies (Ben Burtt's work on "WALL-E" comes to mind). I have yet to watch the DVD extras with Walter Murch, but the way the conversation between Harry's targets (hence the title) fades in and out is superb. During the opening credits, the camera slowly zooms in on a town square, filled with distant music and chatter. But then a soft electronic distortion fades in and out. As the camera approaches closer to the ground, the garbled noise is even more noticable. When we get closer to the conversation and the targets, their sentences are periodically interrupted with low clarity. Sometimes what we miss is inconcequential chit-chat; other times, we miss crucial pieces to the puzzle that will change Harry's life forever.
If there's any weakness in this movie, it's one early scene where Harry visits a woman in the middle of the night. It's a sad scene where Harry confuses his ladyfriend's questions for an interrogation. She simply wants to know more about his life, and he's still shaken that someone managed to leave a present in his apartment when he thought he had the only key. The reason this scene doesn't quite work for me is because it never made sense to me how someone as lonely as Harry Caul managed to meet this woman in the first place, let alone how they managed to have a physical relationship. If this scene had been removed, the later courtship between Harry and one of the alluring partygoers still would've worked. However, that's a minor quibble that quickly resolves itself early in the movie, letting the story quickly regain its momentum.
And once "The Conversation" picks up momentum, it maintains its grip through the end of the picture, from the details of Harry's investigation to the troubling aftermath of a shocking, violent turn-of-events. To be sure, "The Conversation" has one of the most unforgettable endings (and camera shots) in motion picture history.
"The Conversation" is my favorite film from the 1970s. There is so much more I want to share with you, the sign of any great film, I think. "The Conversation" is not only filled with complexities and subtleties, you can enjoy the film as simply or as deeply as you want to. Francis Ford Coppola and Gene Hackman have stated in separate interviews that "The Conversation" is probably the favorite of their respective film careers. I couldn't agree more.
on March 11, 2006
Francis Ford Coppola's masterful insight into the clandestine world of surveillance "The Conversation" was appropriately released at the time of the Watergate scandal. The venerable Gene Hackman taciturnly plays Harry Caul an intensely private world renowned surveillance expert who lives in a world sheltered from personal interactions.
Hackman is hired to record a conversation between a young couple walking through a park by a man known as the Director, played in a cameo by Robert Duvall. He ingeniously orchestrates a scheme using a four man team to record the dialogue between Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest playing the couple. While analyzing the tapes he realizes that the couple may be getting set up for execution. In his past a previous surveillance job of Hackman's resulted in the murder of three people.
Hackman suddenly comes to grips with his conscience and has misgivings about relinquishing the tapes to the Director's assistant Martin Stett played by a very youthful Harrison Ford. Hackman is set up and the tapes are stolen from him. Determined to short circuit the possible execution he sets himself up in a hotel room adjoining a room mentioned in the recorded conversation. Using a listening device he hears a violent crime being committed but not the one he expected.
Back in the safety of his supposedly bug proof apartment, Hackman gets a phone call from Ford threatening him to forget what happened. Hackman is also made aware that his fortress of solitude apartment has been wiretapped, his worst possible hellish nightmare.
As the film concludes we see Hackman sitting is his apartment which in a paranoid frenzy he has totally torn apart in search of the planted surveillance equipment.
on February 10, 2001
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, THE CONVERSATION is presented with a featurette, a trailer and two separate commentaries of Francis Coppola and editor Walter Murch. Sound and images are excellent for a 1974 movie.
Gene Hackman is a private spy hired for his ability to record conversations that should have been kept secret. We can imagine that jealous husbands or big corporations are his main clients. The first 15 minutes of THE CONVERSATION are magistral, describing how Gene Hackman, with the help of his assistants, try to record a conversation between Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest who are strolling in a public park.
Gene Hackman is described as a solitary man becoming more and more paranoiac as he tries to recreate the conversation he has recorded through three different microphones. He soon loses his girlfriend and his longtime assistant played by Teri Garr and John Cazale, two Coppola favorite actors, and must confront Robert Duvall and Harrison Ford whom he suspects to plot the murder of Duvall's lovely wife, Cindy Williams.
THE CONVERSATION is a great thriller with suspense and twists as the director adopts the subjective point of view of Gene Hackman, it's also a drama involving a man tortured by his conscience and slowly closing his mind to the world. Gene Hackman recreating the reality by mixing recorded tapes is without a doubt a metaphor of the film director at work but Gene Hackman trying to recreate famous saxophone jazz solos alone in front of his record player is nothing less than one of the most tragic figures a director has ever created on screen.
A DVD for your library.
on February 12, 2002
This is not a movie that you might expect from Francis Ford Coppola. That is, not unless you've seen something by him besides the Godfathers and Apocalypse Now. It is a very Hitchcockian tale of a paranoid man's descent into madness.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the world's greatest serveilance expert. It is through one of his "jobs" for someone that he makes his descent. I don't really want to say more than that about the plot, because it is way better if you see it without knowing anything about it (and if you intend to do that, stop reading reviews after mine, because the ones below mine reveal spoilers).
That said, this movie has a great cast. Gene Hackman is brilliant. He is not his usual, overly energetic, constantly yelling self in this movie. He plays the role subtlely, which is perfect to show Harry's shy, inward personality. Harry is, because of his paranioa, very much the loner, and Hackman's usual acting just wouldn't fit in here. He positively nails this role.
Let's not forget the supporting actors. John Cazale (an underrated actor and one of my person favorites)plays Harry's employee in the serveilance firm, Robert Duvall plays the guy who hires Harry for the job that eventually sends him into madness, Harrison Ford (I love the way he acts in FFC's movies (see Apocalypse Now), he is completely different from all his other roles. He is cold and ruthless in this-none of that sarcastic wit and quick grin here) plays Duvall's employee, and Cindy Williams plays one of the people who Harry is hired to watch. They are all excellent. I thought that it would be hard believing Cindy Williams in a role such as this because of her days on Laverne and Shirley, but she pulls it off wonderfully.
Francis Ford Coppola is a brilliant writer. Almost every movie that he has written has been a masterpiece. This oft-overlooked gem is no exception. His script (like Hackman's acting) has a subtlety that perfectly fits with the main character's personality. He really is showing his talent with this movie. Why Francis felt that he should stop making good movies in the 90's (e.g. Jack, The Rainmaker (a good movie, but nothing of this caliber), Peggy Sue Got Married, etc) is beyond me. Maybe he (God forbid) lost his touch or something. I sure hope not. Francis, make something good again! Your "good" is the equivalent of everyone else's "once in a lifetime masterpiece". Maybe it's because everytime he tries to make something good, he gets screwed (e.g. Apocalypse Now (money trouble) and the Godfather (studio trouble)). Oh well, who knows.
I got a little off track there, but my mind often wonders... Anyway, this movie is definately one of those that you can't miss. If you like Taxi Driver, this is a less violent version. That's the closest comparision I can think of to give you an idea of what this movie's about. Even though saying this won't convince you (yeah, I read your "rules" Mike Stone, and if you're allowed to break them, I'm allowed to break them), I must say it anyway: Highly recommended. Buy it!!
on August 15, 2003
Realy one of Coppola's best works.Starring Gene Hackman as
the surveillance expert Harry Caul.Harry is a very complex
character,because of his lonley weird life.I think this is
the greatest performance by Hackman.
The supporting cast is well chosen [Including The late John
Cazale,Allen Garfield,Cindy Williams,Harrsion ford and a small
role played by Robert Duvall].
Written,produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola who
was inspired by the British movie Blow Up .
Also the music score by David Shire is wonderfull.The
Conversation is one of the greatest movies ever made and lies
beside great movies like [The godfather and Once upon a time
on April 26, 2000
Francis Ford Coppola made four masterpieces in a row in the 70's beginning with "The Godfather". The film was followed by "The Conversation", one of the best films of the decade. It was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and lost to "The Godfather Part II".
The film stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert from San Francisco. One day, he records a conversation between two lovers which ends with the crucial words: "He would kill us if he could". Since Harry Caul doesn't know the whole background of these words, he fataly misinterpretes them. The film shows in a subtle and fascinating way that everything small is linked with a larger whole and things depend on each other more than we think. Another hint for that is also given during the conversation of the couple when the man says that when the newspapers went on strike, many homeless people died because it was too cold and they didn't have newspapers to cover themselves at night. "The Conversation" also works as a brillaint character study of a man whose live turned into a great sadness because of his profession. When he returns home on his birthday, Harry finds a present on the table by the owner of his appartment, but the only thing that bothers him is how she managed to get in there. He doesn't want anybody to know much about him, not even his girlfriend.
Everything in this picture is just perfect. Coppola's direction and his original screenplay are both fantastic, as is Gene Hackman in the lead. Another standout is the sound by Walter Murch. Hackman somewhat reprised this role 24 years later in Tony Scott's "Enemy of the state".