The Conversation - Review
In 1974 Francis Ford Coppola had two films up for best picture: The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation.
Godfather II was the rightful winner, but in the Oscar frenzy of that year, The Conversation was lost. It’s an immersive, deeply troubling film that couldn’t be more different than The Godfather. Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is plagued by a surveillance job that could lead to the murder of those he recorded, and the curiosity sends him into dangerous territory. It is a self-contained story that wraps up quickly at two hours, and it is a perfect film.
For one, the editing in The Conversation is bar none. Even by the standard of 70s cinema it is a uniquely organized film, specifically its final third. As Caul gets deeper into the situation he begins to hallucinate, so we think, in a sudden and effective sequence that involves heavy use of screams, blood, and jump cuts. This scene shakes, and comes across like good horror, unexpected and completely malicious. Of course the film progresses and a brilliant twist on the recorded conversation changes Caul’s perception, but it is the sequence itself that is so memorable. The film spends its first hour digging us into Caul’s life, trying towards a place of total immersion. Coppola accomplishes this through seemingly constant replay of the conversation that sets the film in motion and a subdued performance from Gene Hackman. The feeling that we can’t get out of Caul’s head is infuriating, and when he is surrounded by people it only worsens. Friends and success-minded associates either want his attention or his secrets, but he can supply neither. As we know, his mind is too focused to think of anything but the couple, and the film explains early on that he has no intention of letting people in on his system. Caul is secretive and effective, ultimately his downfall. The film’s final scene is a stirring example of what secrecy does to a mind, especially when that mind is paranoid.
The sound in The Conversation is truly a marvel; distant pianos break up the often quiet picture’s most intimate moments without feeling intrusive, and the well arranged TV static and screams in Caul’s hallucination create a nightmare. This is all contrasted by the silence on Hackman’s face, the almost numb expression that lasts until his dream of chasing the woman up stairs. It is the first time we hear him speak above a normal volume, and certainly with the most exuberance. His yells of past traumas indicate his fears for the woman; he knows his recording of her could lead to her death, so he feels guilt. Guilt that translates into him telling her secrets, life altering moments in his childhood that could maybe equal the secrets he took from her. It’s in vain, of course, but that doesn’t stop Caul from trying to fix his unknowing mistake with everything he can.
This is his dream, often representing an alter ego, someone he will never be. For the rest of the film his actions fluctuate from repressed fear to drastic overreaction, such as his fight with the guard in the company building. Like a classic Shakespearean character, he is imbalanced, spending too much time in his head and emotions and not enough in logical action. It boils over in the film’s final scene as Caul tears away the boards of his new apartment and rips the paint from the walls, trying desperately to cleanse himself of the deed he performed at the start of the film. Yet there is nothing to be done, and as he resolves to sit in the corner of his now demolished lodging there is a palpable sadness to him that was not there before. Caul has given up trying to repay the evil with good, and accepted that some things in life cannot be fixed.