Looking back at my Netflix history, the first time I saw Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation was almost four years ago exactly. For those that have seen my Paused features, this was actually the first film that gave me the idea to do such a feature. In fact, four years ago I took the above screen capture and today was the first time I’ve used it. Hackman in the shadows and the blue light in the background. I think it’s a beautiful shot.
While Coppola’s first two Godfather films are rightly considering his masterpieces, there is a lot to be said for The Conversation and Gene Hackman‘s complicated performance.
Hackman stars here as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert whom we first meet as he and his team are capturing the audio of a conversation between a young couple as they walk circles around Union Square. The conversation, to our ears, is rather innocent, though occasionally disrupted with frequent tears in the wavelength. Brief bits of paranoia come through. “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” is heard. What they’re talking about, however, is of little-to-not-importance to Harry… at first.
Harry’s past, what he hears on the recordings and his brief conversations over the phone with those for whom the recording was made has him paranoid. Surveillance he did in the past resulted in death and since then he’s shown no interest in what he records — an out of sight (or ear in this case) out of mind approach. But he can’t escape what he’s heard already and he doesn’t want blood on his hands again.
It would seem his conscience will only let him suppress his personal guilt so far. The moral quandary causes all sorts of inner turmoil to the point Harry finds himself on the other end of the stick and Hackman nails every nook and cranny of Harry’s emotional meltdown.
I don’t believe I’ve seen a better performance out of Hackman. At once he’s powerful and confident and, in a flash, as innocent and scared as a ten-year-old boy, and he does it without having to ham it up. His face tells the story.
The scene in which Harry learns a peer of his, Moran (Alan Garfield), has placed a bug on him is excellent. Only minutes earlier he was bathing in their praise, boasting about his equipment like a teenager with a new toy no one else on the block could afford. Then, he realizes he’s been had. He feels he’s been made to look a fool and acts out like a child.
Only minutes later Harry has a dream in which he may as well be a little boy. He sees the woman he was surveying in the beginning of the film, tells her how he almost died as a child. The fog soon envelops her and he’s lost and on his own. If his guilt was ever in question, it seems he’s come to the verdict on his own. His growing, paranoid responsibility for his actions takes hold and Hackman and Coppola sell it to no end.
Coppola also has some fantastic directorial moments in this feature from the opening sequence, towering from a bird’s eye view, to the overheard murder and the Harry’s absolute meltdown concluding with him sitting in a chair playing a saxophone. The floorboards have been removed and the camera pans from left to right, soaking in the carnage.
Walter Murch’s sound design is excellent. I love the minimal use of a score and Bill Butler’s cinematography has plenty moments of great visuals such as the shot above and the bloody hand on the glass near the end being two of my favorites.
I truly loved this film the first time I saw it and was just as won over this time. It seems it’s a film that’s occasionally forgotten given the success of Coppola’s Godfather films (he was shooting The Godfather Part II before this was even finished) and Hackman seems often mentioned in connection with The French Connection or The Royal Tenenbaums nowadays. Understandable on all accounts, but The Conversation is not a film that should be forgotten. On top of telling a fantastically gripping story, the question over public vs. private concerns and the hypocrisy at its core is fascinating and I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on it.
SIDE NOTE: Hackman would return to a similar role in Tony Scott‘s Enemy of the State, a film I also enjoy immensely and may have to now go revisit it as well as it has been a long, long time since I’ve seen it.
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