The Conversation (1974)

Written & Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

This is not a comedy film, but let me start with a story about a night I had a comedy club a few years back. It’s relevant, I promise. So I used to go to a comedy club once a week, no matter who the act was, known or unknown, it was always good for a laugh at least. One such night of unknowns, one of the opening acts brought grave news to the crowd in attendance that night: Gene Hackman had passed away. Now before you go Googling away, worry not, he is still very much alive (though he hasn’t done a film since 2004). But I, along with many in the crowd that night, quickly realized just how much Gene Hackman actually meant to us. Thus the punchline: “I’m just kidding, but I just made you realize how much you like Gene Hackman.” Why on earth would he have chose Hackman as the example? Well, because he is the perfect example. An actor who has shown us so much, yet is an afterthought for the most part, especially having been away from film for nearly a decade now. And that was how I felt about the man before I saw this film.

I considered writing a one word review of the film. It would have been quite easy and honestly all my thoughts on the film could quite easily be summed up in one word. If I had done that, it would have gone something like: “Brilliant!” But I did want to at least say a few words to perhaps urge someone who has not seen it to seek it out. Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance specialist who has lived his life making money by eavesdropping. But his secret to his sanity is to not pay attention to what he is recording. It is none of his business. That is, until he begins to realize that his latest job may have graver consequences than are desirable to the religious, and morally conscience Caul. His life and psyche begins to unravel under a series of paranoid encounters that stretch his concepts of reality and duty.

Writer/Director Francis Ford Coppola is so often recognized for films like the Godfather’s and Apocalypse Now, and rightfully so, but I never heard much about this film, released the same year as The Godfather Part II. Certainly it is held in high regard as well, but it seems to sit the bench in the discussion of Coppola’s career. I am not sure it should after my viewing. It is a remarkable achievement that weaves brilliance of creating atmosphere, drawing a full and complete character, and mixing in some amazing directorial choices and technical achievements. It is masked as a simple film, but Coppola digs into the depths of what is there and really fully develop the character of Harry Caul as a lonely, paranoid man who is a master of his craft, but broken and troubled from the inside out. His journey is engaging from start to finish and is handled marvelously by Coppola.

The atmosphere of the film may be what I found most impressive about the film, as it mixed in a jazzy score and soundtrack that aided the stellar sound work to create a mood of melancholy and even dread as Caul begins to consider his sins and his responsibilities in his duty. There are few films that manage to create such an atmosphere where, despite the impending doom and ominous mystery, you kind of want to just live in there. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is another example that jumps quickly to mind. But, with all of the greatness of the cinematography, score, direction, etc., it all forms together and works around the brilliant central performance by Gene Hackman. The best of his career that I have seen. The nuance here, and throughout the film, make me realize that this is a film that will more than likely be cherished for years to come, and undoubtedly grow in my appreciation upon each examination of its greatness.

**** – Masterpiece

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