1974: Francis Ford Coppola
Rated PG – 113 minutes
Vault Rating: 8
“The Conversation” is a very tight, very nice character study about a very private man who makes his living violating other people’s privacy.
This central hypocrisy is embodied by Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, who is the best there is at eavesdropping. He’s a sort of high-tech snoop, circa 1974, who can bug a conversation even in the most public of places.
To further the irony, Caul is a devout Catholic, adding profound layers of guilt to the equation. The viewer watches “The Conversation” with quiet awe as the tectonic plates of Caul’s personal and professional ethics grind against each other.
The pressure has to give somehow, especially when he begins to suspect that his work may be endangering someone’s life, at once bringing to the surface a dark secret for Caul and plunging him into the depths of paranoia.
The world of professional snoops is entered into gently at first, as we watch the covert taping of the central conversation of the film. We observe Caul in his batcave-like warehouse that has been converted to his very specific uses. We watch him at his unadorned apartment as his phone rings and he cautiously takes it out of a desk drawer.
We’re given a glimpse of dark humor as Caul attends a wire tapping conference, where we find that, in this shadowy world, Caul is a real somebody as rivals try to wheedle his secrets out of him.
Caul, a good professional, and his team would normally have little inclination to wonder about their subjects. They are hired to provide a tape, receive payment and walk away. But Caul, and we, are drawn in.
The content of that conversation, revealed in puzzle pieces throughout, leads us like voyeurs to wonder about the people being taped. We wonder who they are and who would pay such a large sum of money to eavesdrop on them.
The fresh-faced Cindy Williams is conversant No. 1, Ann, and she’s met in a noisy public square to discus things with conversant No. 2, Mark (Frederic Forrest) who appears to be her lover. Based on snippets of talk that we catch, they appear to be victims in waiting.
“He’d kill us if he got the chance,” we overhear Mark saying.
Caul goes to deliver his finished tape to the mysterious “director” who hired him and is instead met by an intermediary, a perfectly menacing young Harrison Ford as Martin Stett, who makes it crystal clear that Harry should simply walk away.
Coppola makes a nice gesture, indeed he makes a great film, by letting us inside Caul’s heart, which may be as sparsely apportioned as his dreary apartment. He is lonely in the world and is so guarded that he cannot relax, even for a love that might save him. The only outlet we see is Caul, alone in his apartment at night, playing sax along with his records of the jazz greats.
Harry Caul might be the best, most completely drawn character in cinema history. His story and where Coppola takes it, probably wouldn’t shake out the way it does if it were made these days. If released today, I’m sure there would be some good guy versus bad guy resolution that required a shoot out. In that movie, Harry Caul would be some kind of hero who wins out in the end and puts everything right.
Happily, we get a mature drama rather than an action/thriller and the conflict plays out misshapenly, terrifyingly inside the heart and mind of Harry Caul.