The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE CONVERSATION | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE CONVERSATION

The Conversation review
A surveillance expert believes the couple he's been hired to spy on are in mortal danger.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford

The Conversation poster

Few things are more thrilling in cinema than being plunged into a richly detailed yet unfamiliar world. The portrayal of that world doesn't have to be accurate; it just needs to be convincing. Who knows how accurate Francis Ford Coppola's depiction of the world of surveillance experts in The Conversation really is, but it's certainly convincing. Coppola takes what is usually thought of as a glamorous and thrilling profession and makes it relatably mundane. He builds a world of unremarkable middle-aged men with bad hair and worse fashion, who geek out over new tech developments, who hail their colleagues as legends in the field while secretly envying their positions.

Coppola has acknowledged Antonioni's Blow-up as a chief inspiration for the downbeat thriller he made in between the first two Godfather movies. The Conversation shares essentially the same premise as Blow-up, but it swaps out photography for audio surveillance (as De Palma would later do with Blow Out) and replaces David Hemmings' fast-living twentysomething shutterbug with an introverted 44-year-old wiretapper, Gene Hackman's Harry Caul. Coppola apes Antonioni's trademark images of human figures dwarfed by imposing architecture here, but his film's stripped down, quotidian approach to its subject seems just as influenced by those gritty British spy thrillers that emerged as a reaction to James Bond in the mid-60s: films like The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, whose protagonists were unremarkable men in raincoats who kept their heads down and did their jobs until a point where they find their conscience tested. Unlike the Union Jack waving 007 series, such movies questioned whether Her Majesty was really worth serving in secret.

The Conversation review

Thanks to Nixon and the ongoing Vietnam war, America was experiencing a similar cynicism in the early '70s, giving rise to a slew of paranoid thrillers, the best of which is Coppola's film. The Conversation makes its political point (which amounts to a warning to examine all evidence and question everything you see and hear) by presenting us with a resolutely apolitical protagonist. Harry is the west coast's top surveillance man, possibly the best in the whole US. He prides himself on his work, which is all-consuming, and his professional philosophy is to never ask questions of those who hire his services, and to never get personally involved with a case.

Harry's professional and personal ethics come into conflict when he's hired by a shady corporate figure known only as "The Director" (Robert Duvall) to spy on Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest), two young people who appear to be engaged in an affair. Listening back to his tapes of a conversation recorded between Ann and Mark, Harry becomes fixated on a line spoken by Mark - "He'd kill us if he had the chance" - which leads him to believe the couple are in mortal danger. Refusing to hand over the tapes, Harry finds himself followed by The Director's shady assistant (a supremely sinister Harrison Ford) and grows increasingly paranoid that he may be the victim of surveillance himself.

The Conversation review

Coppola couples Harry's professional downfall with an unravelling of his personal life. Harry has an unlikely lover in Amy (Teri Garr), a younger woman whose apartment he visits while never allowing her access to his own home. Harry's refusal to open up to Amy leads her to finally give up on him, even changing her telephone number to avoid him (it's hinted that Harry may have bugged her previous number). At a surveillance industry convention, Harry is goaded and manipulated by a rival, Bernie (Allen Garfield), who manages to humiliate Harry with the aid of a flirtatious woman (Elizabeth MacRae).

What makes The Conversation so gripping is how it readily pauses its thriller plot to allow us to spend time with Harry outside of his work. The taciturn Harry doesn't like to tell anyone anything about himself, but the film tells us plenty on his behalf. Coppola surrounds Harry with banal settings that externalise his emotional emptiness, giving the usually glamorous San Francisco the appearance of some bland rust belt city, all empty warehouses, overgrown railroad tracks and sparsely decorated office blocks. For Coppola, who has always leaned into the image of the Italian patriarch who loves to surround himself with family and friends, making a movie about the insular Irish Harry must have been akin to studying an alien species.

The Conversation review

The extroverted Hackman famously struggled to get into the character of Harry, but his discomfort in Harry's skin only adds an extra layer to the character, creating the impression that deep down Harry wants to be more open but relies on keeping himself closed off for the sake of his profession. We're given a hint of this internal conflict in how Harry plays a saxophone along to Jazz records, ironic that a man so given to order should indulge in that most improvisational music form. David Shire's wonderful score - which sounds like a ghost playing a piano in an abandoned music hall - floats around Harry like the Bay Area fog.

When Coppola returns to his film's thriller elements it's all the more powerful for how well developed his protagonist is. Unlike most conspiracy thrillers the threat here isn't so much to Harry's life but rather to his pride and his professionalism. The idea that Harry might be spied upon doesn't bother him for what a potential listener might uncover, because his life is so empty there's nothing to find. It's the notion that someone might have turned his own weapons against him, that someone might outsmart him with his own tricks, that gets under Harry's skin, leading to the film's famously maniacal denouement. In an age when we happily give up our privacy in order to play Tetris on our phones, Harry's paranoia now almost seems quaint. What would he make of today's world, where even a fridge can be hacked to spy on its owner? Ironically, the Harry Cauls of the world have won while simultaneously realising their greatest fear. They're listening right now.

The Conversation
 is in UK/ROI cinemas from July 5th and on 4K UHD/bluray and VOD from July 15th.