Archive Review: The Conversation (1974)


Anyone could market or even direct “The Conversation” as a mystery, but Francis Ford Coppola manages to reveal some of our human tendencies in his film just as well as he holds us in suspense. Voyeurism, like it or not, is a human characteristic. Modern day reality television simultaneously proves both this point alone and that “The Conversation” is an excellent film because it has only ripened over the years.

Coppola’s character Harry Caul, portrayed by Gene Hackman in one of his finest performances, is the embodiment of this guilty pleasure of spying on others whether covertly or casually. He’s a professional wire-tapper, one of the best in the business, seemingly able to capture the most pristine recordings for all his clients even though he is rarely enlightened as to the purpose of his jobs. It’s not too long before we learn that Harry is a devout Catholic who harbors a bit of guilt because his career founds itself on the don’t ask, don’t tell principle.

The film opens with what its title promises: a conversation. Harry has been hired to record a discussion between a man and a woman on their work break. The conversation seems inconspicuous, but the more Harry deals with his mysterious client and goes back to listen to the tapes, the more he begins to hear and infer from the conversation. He eventually comes to the conclusion he might have recorded a death warrant and begins to grow paranoid.

Harry’s complexity is the finest element of Coppola’s script. The story develops slowly but Harry becomes a more peculiar figure in the viewer’s mind as time wears on. At first it seems like he isolates himself for protection purposes, but his loneliness becomes more and more apparent. He constantly feels threatened and there feels like a layer of ice between him and his relationships in the film, especially two memorable scenes where he interacts with women.

Coppola’s elegant framing and precision pacing do the rest of the work drawing us further in as the story progresses, highlighting our own preoccupation with the truth behind this couple’s conversation. We’re made aware of our own tendency to twist words and misinterpret what someone is saying, not to mention how easy and commonplace it really is to essentially spy on someone and invade his or her privacy entirely.

“The Conversation” properly mixes drama with mystery while offering a complete character portrait and subtle social commentary. Most films don’t have that many tools working for them but Coppola’s masterful script does. No single element is consummate or overrides the rest, but together they make for a fine film.

4/5 Stars

The Conversation
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppolla
Starring: Gene Hackman, Teri Garr, John Cazale


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