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When people think of Francis Ford Coppola, many immediately think of The Godfather, that critically acclaimed, wildly commercially successful behemoth. While The Godfather seems to get so much of the spotlight — it’s considered the best film of the ’70s by some — I’ve always felt it overshadowed some of Coppola’s less flashy, more cerebral, yet no less masterful work.
Less flashy and more cerebral is something that could be said of the protagonist in The Conversation, Coppola’s understated masterpiece about repression and surveillance.
Coppola made The Conversation (from a script he’d actually written in the 1960s) on the heels of his Godfather success. That success enabled him to produce the kind of personal films he’d always most wanted to make.
The Conversation actually won the Palme d’Or — the top prize at Cannes — in 1974, yet I suspect this more introspective film is still overshadowed in people’s minds by the cultural phenomenon The Godfather was, like a David fighting a Goliath for its own place in cinema history. It deserves to stand there on its own merits.
While The Godfather is more overtly violent and action oriented from its outset, The Conversation has the more subtle emotional violence of a self-contained man who is quietly imploding
Coppola’s original idea for The Conversation was of a puzzle where we hear the same repeating conversation and more and more is gradually revealed through its repetition about what its content might actually mean. So he initially constructed the movie around a concept rather than something that was character based. Yet interestingly the end result feels at its heart like a character study.
The movie’s obsession and paranoia very much reside in the soul of its protagonist, Harry Caul, the surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman.
Caul’s apartment feels barren and desolate and has many locks. He is totally obsessed with his own privacy – to the point that early on he becomes angry at his landlady for leaving a birthday gift in his home because that reveals that she has a second key. Caul seems to be more interested in his privacy than he is in his own life. The irony that he makes his very living by invading the privacy of others makes him something akin to a cheating spouse who becomes obsessed with whether or not their own partner is being faithful.
According to Coppola, Gene Hackman hated playing Harry Caul — he felt miserable and cranky inside that character’s skin. But in a way that quality lends itself so beautifully to his execution of the character. Harry Caul is uncomfortable in Harry Caul’s skin!
Caul’s ultra-paranoid reaction to the world seems to be coming from a place of emotional paralysis. The more he tries to carefully control every aspect of his life to keep himself and others safe, the more things seem to spin away from him. His lack of trust in the universe — in part because he himself is doing the surveilling he lives in fear of — makes him a prisoner inside himself. He also carries the emotional burdens of his past so heavily that they start to drive and color his present. (For all the guilt he carries around, the fact that he’s a practicing Catholic seems no accident.) It’s a restrained, tragic performance.
When you hear the looping conversation between the couple that’s referred to in the film’s title as they walk past a homeless man sleeping on a bench in broad daylight, “He was once somebody’s baby boy and he had a mother and a father who loved him and now there he is…” you start to feel this could just as easily describe Caul.
It’s a film that feels more human, more relatable in some ways than Coppola’s bigger, flashier work. Maybe not all of us have organized a mob hit, but who can’t relate to the subject of loneliness? In our modern era loneliness, isolation, surveillance and a lack of privacy seem to be more relevant than ever. This movie in turn plays with the way technology can capture reality while at the same time distorting it and misleading us. In our increasingly polarized and tech addicted society, this concept also feels quite relevant.
Coppola wanted his film camera to appear to function as an automated eavesdropping device might: one where characters walk out of frame and the camera would mechanically pan over at them after a delay, as though no live human were operating it. He creates a situation where we as an audience are eavesdropping on the professional eavesdropper. (Which serves to remind us: isn’t the experience of eavesdropping in some ways what it means to be a cinemagoer?)
While Coppola admits The Conversation was inspired by, among other things, Antonioni’s Blowup (just as DePalma’s Blow Out was), and the Hermann Hesse novel Steppenwolf, people wrongly assumed it was a reaction to Watergate because of the timing of its release combined with its subject matter. (As previously mentioned, it was actually written years before that scandal.)
The soundscape by Walter Murch, who was also the movie’s editor, feels like a master class in sound for film. This is appropriate considering what an active and important role sound itself plays in the film. Some of the horror movie-like elements that come later on are emotionally effective in part because they are so sound driven.
Then there is the beautiful score created by Coppola’s then brother-in-law David Shire, a haunting piano that was meant to underline Caul’s loneliness with that single solitary instrument.
I think The Conversation succeeds in being an American version of some of the European art films that Coppola was so inspired by as a young man, in terms of its sensibilities. If The Godfather is like a fireworks display at the end of a Rolling Stones concert, then perhaps The Conversation is more like a virtuoso playing a saxophone solo in a canoe floating slowly across a lake under a full moon. Both of these things have beauty and merit, just as both films hold an important place in the annals of cinema history.