Gene Hackman stars as the introvert Harry Caul, a man obsessed with his work. A prominent surveillance expert, it’s not the content of the conversations he records that fascinates him, it is the means of capturing them that does. That is, of course, until he finds himself absorbed in one particular case. His slow realisation that those involved face untimely deaths begins to consume him and propels Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation from simple spy drama to a psychological thriller.
Harry’s work is renowned and his means of obtaining his recordings are both revered and excellent. His talents allow him to capture a particularly tricky conversation – made especially difficult by the conversation’s two participants avoiding being overheard by walking around a busy square. The case slowly moves from being a run-of-the-mill exercise when Harry’s conscience begins to eat away at him. Instead of ignoring the conversation’s contents, this time it completely consumes him as he realises that his involvement has given his clients enough information to warrant the murder of the couple whose conversation he has recorded.
The paranoia that eats away at him is palpable. Through this recording he discovers the blood that lingers on his hands from his years of work and sets about resolving his unspoken crimes. Gene Hackman is believably guilt-stricken and the dreams and nightmares Harry endures are engrossing. It is here, in his subconscious, that he truly reveals his true self – something he is incapable of doing with the people who care about him. His wants and his fears explode into being in these moments and we discover the man Harry really is.
In trying to repent for his involvement he takes it upon himself to investigate his client’s actions. The nightmares encroach on reality and soon he is plagued with visions of what may or may not happen to them. In the concluding moments of the film we are dealt with a delicious twist that challenges Harry’s motives and deductions as well as making the audience question their own perceptions of the world.
Director Francis Ford Coppola expertly uses the recorded conversation over and over again. This technique sheds light on the meticulous process Harry goes through as well as encouraging viewers to make their own conclusions. Coppola’s directorial style echoes Harry’s precision and he lets the story tell itself without any invasive momentum, allowing Harry’s descent into paranoia to flow organically.
Reality and paranoia are blurred in this perfectly timed piece of 1970’s cinema. If you’re a fan of Coppola you’ve probably already seen it but if not here’s your chance to re-evaluate your opinion.
Best line: ‘I’m not afraid of death. I am afraid of murder.’
Best performance: Gene Hackman.