The Conversation represents Coppola at his finest, and also at his most subtle. I love Apocalypse Now and both of the first two Godfather films – they’re goddamn masterpieces – but there’s no arguing the fact that they’re pretty in-your-face, epic and big. By way of comparison, The Conversation is a downright small film, with just a few characters, just a few set pieces, and a very simple premise. And yet, it is just as much a masterwork as those other three films.
The Conversation stars the great Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a representational figure of great dramatic irony: Here is a man so obsessed with his own privacy that he lives alone, refuses to own a phone, and pays for his girlfriend to have her own apartment separate from him; and yet, he is, by trade, the preeminent local surveillance expert. Hackman’s performance here is one of great detail and nuance; he conveys Harry’s loneliness, his sense of Catholic guilt, his difficulties in social situations, with the most minor of details.
Harry is commissioned to spy on a couple, and we see the recording of the titular conversation at the outset of the film; we watch as the complicated surveillance equipment is used, as Harry uses his great expertise to assemble an audio tape of this conversation. With the conversation on tape and recorded, Harry now begins to obsess over the meaning; he obsesses over words and details, and it causes him to become more and more paranoid and crazy. What is the meaning of the conversation? Who are they talking about? Harry’s spycraft caused the death of a family before, and he begins to think that history is repeating itself.
The twist of the film isn’t all that surprising, but that is ultimately inessential to the result: The Conversation has one of the most memorable, depressingly chilling endings of a film, an indelible image that will remain sketched in your brain forever after.
It’s also worth pointing out that there may be no other film that is more a beneficiary of convenient timing than The Conversation. The Conversation was initially written in the 1960s and was already done filming before the Watergate scandal truly came to light, so the timing of its release was incredibly lucky coincidence. On its own, this is a powerful film, but in direct perspective with the events of the Watergate scandal, this film takes on new power as a real commentary on modern events of the time. Though many films came out in the 1970s about surveillance and conspiracy and paranoia, few were as relevant or timely as The Conversation.
In some senses, The Conversation has an almost quaint aspect to its discussion of paranoia and surveillance; after all, we live in an era of increased transparency, of Facebook and Twitter and cellphones and cameras at every street corner, an era where we’ve become quasi-comfortable with the idea of the National Security Agency, or some other surveillance agency monitoring our every word and action. There’s certainly a case to be made that these topics haven’t aged as well as maybe they should; and yet, The Conversation has aged quite well. I couldn’t put a finger onto why this film has lasted the test of time, but it feels to me like it has.
I also wanted to apportion some credit to David Shire for his fantastic score to this film; the main theme of the film, a looping piano score filled with off-kilter scales, is the perfect, memorable accompaniment to the film.
In the 1970s, Coppola was an indisputable master at his craft; the four films he directed in this decade on par with any four film stretch from any director ever. In reflecting on these four films, I find that whichever is freshest in my memory is often my favorite of the four – after a recent re-watch of Apocalypse Now, for instance, I found myself assured in my belief that that was the greatest of all war films, and Coppola’s masterpiece. Here, I once again find myself in the resolute belief that The Conversation is Coppola’s masterpiece, and one of the finest films about paranoia ever made.