The Conversation (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is one of those films that, at first, appears to be deceptively simple.  Slow, even.  What emerges, however, is an incredibly nuanced portrait of a man, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), racked by guilt and conscience over the latest entry in his career as a professional surveillance man.

The conversation: Ann (Cindy Williams) and Paul (Michael Higgins)Coppola takes his time in revealing the character of a man who does not wish to be known, or for that matter, understood.  Harry’s assignment is to tape record the conversation of a young man and woman, Paul (Michael Higgins) and Ann (Cindy Williams), who are apparently engaging in an affair.  They circle a public park, trying very desperately to appear nonchalant, calm, natural.  What Harry hears, however, is a startling indication of imminent danger: “He would kill us if he had the chance.”  Harry is clearly shaken by this revelation, but maintains the utmost secrecy regarding his clients.  He won’t even share details with his partner, beyond the technicalities of the surveillance setup.  Harry comes to the realization that, ethically, he can’t hand over the tapes.  The risk of murder is too real, and he is haunted by the deaths resulting from an operation he undertook some years before.  He steels himself for a confrontation with his client (Ann’s husband), the mysterious “Director” (Robert Duvall), but ends up dealing with his henchman, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford in an early, uncharacteristically villainous role).

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), surveilling Ann's murderHarry’s desire for privacy overwhelms into his social life, and destroys his partnership with Stan (John Cazale) as well as his sexual relationship with Amy (Teri Garr).  His isolation starts to crack, however, at a party following a convention for surveillance professionals.  Meredith, a model (Elizabeth MacRae), extends a sympathy that is too much for Harry to resist, and he reaches out to her, however limitedly.  Upon waking from their sexual encounter, he realizes his betrayal: the tapes have been stolen and Meredith is nowhere to be found.  Harry’s desperate attempt to recover the tapes ultimately proves its futility, and he collects the $15,000 for his work.  All he can do is follow the couple to their arranged rendezvous at a hotel, where he takes an ajoining room in order to hear (if not visually witness) the impending murder that has frozen him in fearful anguish.  Coppola throws the bloody violence at his audience in flashes and explosions, giving just enough to imply the brutality of Ann’s death.

What seems like a cut-and-dry case of jealous revenge takes an astonishing turn when Harry sees Ann, very much alive, in the back seat of a town car.  The pieces of the murder begin to take on a new shape, and Harry realizes that the Director was in fact the victim, not Ann.  Ann and Paul’s conversation from the beginning of the film replays, but this time with a different emphasis: “He would kill us if he had the chance.”

Harry (Gene Hackman), beaten and aloneThe subjectivity of The Conversation creates an atmosphere of violent vulnerability.  As much as Harry has guarded himself, he is ultimately ruined by the trust he has placed in not only himself but his accepted notions of the world.  We are left with the picture of Harry, very much alone in his apartment, playing a melancholy jazz tune on his saxophone.  His telephone rings, and after answering, he finds himself at the mercy of Martin Stett.  “We know you know,” he breathes.  Harry, the watcher, is now the watched.  In a final fit of self-preservation, he tears his apartment apart, from the hardwood floors to the papered walls.  He can’t find the bug.  The best of the best has been beaten, and now, Harry finds that he is more alone than ever.


7 Responses to “The Conversation (1974)”

  1. Of course, the only item in his home he does not destroy in his search for the bug is his saxaphone, which he keep intact, even after smashing apart a plastic Virgin Mary.

  2. This is also one of the five films starring John Cazale, one of the three directed by Francis Coppola. Cazale died at age 42 of bone cancer, cutting short a remarkable career. All six films in which he starred were nominated for Best Picture (a sixth, The Godfather 3, used archival footage of Cazale).

  3. Coincidentally, I posted a bit on this same film today. It certainly is “deceptively simple.” I’m wondering if there isn’t something inherent to the nature of jazz music that Coppola is intentionally employing in the film, filling us in on the person of Harry Caul. Jazz music is stream-of-consciousness, in a sense “aimless,” a method requiring education but also improvisation. More than other styles of music, it directs the listener into the consciousness of the musician. But maybe not, I don’t know. Interesting, narrative-style review.

  4. leclisse Says:

    Matt — I wonder if that’s ever been matched by another actor: to start on top like that, and to stay on top until the end of his career (five films later). I guess it’s probably not quite fair to judge, since he has such a condensed body of work. Still, though, I think it’s quite remarkable.

    ZC — That’s a great point to make about the jazz music employed throughout the film. It’s obviously an outlet of some kind for Harry, but it would be harder to say exactly what appeals to him about it. Perhaps it is the contrast of that aimlessness with the control he must employ not only in his work, but also in maintaining his own privacy.

  5. John Greco Says:

    Coppola had such a great decade in the 1970’s with this film, the two Godfather films and Apocalypse Now. Harry Caul is such a fascinating character and one of Gene Hackman’s greatest roles. A terrific review!

    BTW – I added your blog as a link to mine

  6. leclisse Says:

    The more I see of Gene Hackman, I realize that I have never been disappointed. His turns in BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE CONVERSATION, and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN are all top notch. And Coppola, of course, is undisputably one of the greatest directors to emerge within the past 40 years. As you said, he was really on a roll there in the 70’s.

    Thanks for the link! I have also added yours to my Blogroll. 🙂

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