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Francis Ford Coppola’s provoking mystery-thriller stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, an expert surveillance man. A routine wiretapping job turns into a nightmare when Harry hears something disturbing in his recording of a young couple in a park. His investigation of the tape and how it might be used sends Harry spiraling into a web of secrecy, murder and paranoia. Set against the backdrop of San Francisco, THE CONVERSATION is a harrowing psychological thriller that costars Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest and Harrison Ford and symbolizes the uneasy line where technology and privacy cross.
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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.
I actually don't have a lot to say. The film was very good at almost every level including the music. I would say that perhaps some of the dialogue was clever while contrived at the same time. I like the effect of having the main character cherish his privacy while monitoring the private lives of others. This gives the audience a sense of experience of having privacy invaded while also giving the character a past, like he had witnessed so much personal intrusion he began to covet his own. As a moral point I think the concept of privacy is a powerful one although Coppola didn't play with that very much in "The Conversation." I have only seen a few of his films but they are all incredible so far and this one fits in with the others I have experienced. I am also a big Hackman fan and he was great as usual.
-well directed, some very interesting camera shots
-great and appropriate music that sets the mood well but also reflects what you see
-some dialogue was a little contrived
-the pacing was somewhat slow at times keeping this from the masterpiece I otherwise thought it was.