The Conversation: Coppola’s Undervalued Classic

Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoia classic The Conversation makes its way onto Blu-ray this week. Here’s what makes it so extraordinary.
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In the 1970’s Francis Ford Coppola made four quite brilliant films; the magnificent Godfather, the even-better Godfather part 2 and the legendary Apocalypse Now you already know about, but you may have missed a film that was easily the equal of these masterpieces - The Conversation. Made on a small budget between the Godfathers, it’s a film that was on the money in its day and still has a lot to say about spying, subterfuge, loss, regret, madness and decorating.

After the first Godfather film’s unexpected and unprecedented success writer/ director Coppola decided to flex his new-found muscle and bring a long-cherished project to fruition. He’d originally written The Conversation in the mid 60’s after seeing Antonioni’s Blow Up, which includes similar themes of illicit surveillance and terrible secrets revealed through obsessive scrutiny. Unlike Blow Up, though, The Conversation doesn’t feature photography but secret audio recording – a decision which was to prove startlingly prescient.

The film centres around Harry Caul (played with perfect restrain by Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert who lives a quiet, grey life only illuminated by his work and his sax, which he plays along to jazz records in his sparse bachelor flat. He’s revered by fellow ‘buggers’ and recognised as the best in his field, partly because of a job he undertook a few years earlier which colleagues believed impossible. This job lead to the deaths of three innocent people and Harry is still haunted by his (ostensibly innocent)) involvement with those events.

In the opening scene we witness a young couple wandering around Union Square in San Francisco engaged in a seemingly innocent conversation. It soon becomes clear that everything they are saying is being recorded by Harry and his team of heavily- equipped sound recordists. Over the next few days we follow Harry as he mixes the separate recordings of the conversation into a single, intelligible take; something he has been hired to do by his client, ‘the director’. We also meet Harry’s associates (including the very marvellous John Cazale playing Stan in one of only five films the actor made) and get a glimpse into his fairly dull, detached private life. Its clear Harry is obsessed with privacy and that his everyday paranoia level is calibrated slightly higher than most.

It’s an amazing film; very American but obviously in debt to European art house, slow and intense but never dull, brilliantly acted, cleverly shot and with sound design (by the legendary Walter Murch) that is as important to the plot and the characters development as any other element

As Harry pieces the conversation together and begins dealing with the director’s untrustworthy staff he runs the risk of breaking his own code of conduct and, as it becomes apparent that there may be malevolent forces at work, starts to become involved with the subject of his work. The more Harry learns, the deeper his paranoia becomes and eventually he embroils himself in another murder plot, which ends in a very different way than we or Harry are expecting. By the end Harry has lost everything; his integrity, his professional distance, his wallpaper, his floorboards and much of his mind. It’s a slow, shattering disintegration and the viewer feels absolute pity for a dignified man brought down both by disillusionment with his life’s work and the machinations of big business.

It’s an amazing film; very American but obviously in debt to European art house, slow and intense but never dull, brilliantly acted, cleverly shot and with sound design (by the legendary Walter Murch) that is as important to the plot and the characters development as any other element – something that is rarely the case. The music, too, is superb. The score was written in advance of filming by Davis Shire – composer of, among others, the under-acclaimed original Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three – and consists mainly of a lilting, melancholy piano piece. As the film progresses and Harry’s state of mind deteriorates the music matches Harry’s confusion by replacing the tinkling piano with of hammered keys and discordant sounds.

Remarkably, the film was released amid the ongoing Watergate affair but unlike other US paranoia films of the era (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Chinatown) wasn’t directly inspired by those events. Despite being about illegal bugging and corporate plotting, being set in a hotel for significant scenes and featuring exactly the same surveillance equipment as that used by the Watergate agents it was already in production by the time details of Watergate started emerging and was in cinemas by the time Nixon actually resigned. Coppola was just flukily on-the-money.

The Conversation was very well received on release, won several major awards and only lost out on an Oscar for best picture to Coppola’s own Godfather Part 2 but it seems not to be held in the same regard by today’s audience as the director’s other 70’s films. While, many will have unwittingly seen Hackman play a version of Caul to lesser effect in Tony Scott’s bombastic Enemy of the State (where he portrayed a character who could very well be what Caul became a quarter century after The Conversation) but only a fraction of that audience will have appreciated the character’s provenance. The film is re-issued this week on DVD and (for the first time) on Blu-Ray and if you’ve not seen it you really should make the effort, they rarely make ‘em like this anymore.

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