Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Five

#5 — The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Through this process, I’ve already confessed to being out of step with the critical consensus on Francis Ford Coppola. While The Godfather showed up in this tally, other likely contenders–including its sequel and Apocalypse Now, which jumped past the mafia epics to become Coppola’s highest ranking film in the most recent Sight & Sound poll–were bypassed. The clearest statement I can give about my overall view of the director’s films is that The Conversation is far and away my favorite film to bear his cinematic signature. It is everything that Coppola’s more celebrated films are not: quiet instead of cacophonous, insular rather than expansive, lean instead of overstuffed, focused instead of sprawling. I don’t deny the command over the mechanics of the medium that Coppola regularly exhibits in his work, but I greatly prefer it when that skill is brought to bear on something small and thoughtful rather than a floridly beautiful tapestry that has no discernible edges.

The Conversation is about Harry Caul, a withdrawn surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman, in one of the most exceptional performances that can be found on film. Harry is highly skilled in his field and therefore sought after, but exudes no apparent pleasure in his success or esteem. Instead, like a master doctor petrified of illness, Harry is defined by an intense desire for privacy. He knows from his own experience, his own expertise, how easily the world can intrude on a person, especially surreptitiously. That has made him tense and guarded. It’s tempting to describe him as paranoid, but that does the character a disservice. He’s not fabricating an outside threat. He’s concerned about an encroachment on the hidden that is piercingly real, and he has boxes full of reel-to-reel tape to prove it.

Harry’s services are secured by a shadowy figure to record a couple, an assignment he fulfills as they walk through a park. Uncertain of the larger import of their cryptic conversation, Harry becomes increasingly fascinated by and then worried about what may be going on, what danger the couple may find themselves in, due in part, no doubt, to his complicity in handing over the personal, private talk they reasonably believed to by unheard by any figures other than one another. With measured intensity and agonizing patience, Coppola draws out Harry’s dilemma, which is only compounded by an uncharacteristic opening of the doors he’s built against society. If the film is like a noose tightening, then it is happening so slowly that the inward progress of the rope is barely noticeable, at least until it starts to become oddly difficult to breathe. This continues right to very end, when Harry tears his own world apart, quite literally, in order to protect it.

There are few actors more consistently marvelous than Hackman, and there are several performances that can be reasonably be pointed to as career peaks. Yet, I think all the others can aspire to nothing better than runners-up to his work here. Harry is deliberately inscrutable, a distance he has cultivated. Hackman shows how well the man has constructed emotional and psychological barriers against outside eyes (and, more importantly, ears) while also allowing that it is ultimately a facade that can’t be reliably maintained. He may be fearful of human interaction, but he also can’t help but crave it at times. Even his extraneous interest in the couple he’s recording betrays a desire for some level of connection. These are the internal parts of Harry that are at war with each other, and Hackman conveys that with cards pinned against his chest. There are no easy entryways into a character like this, no manner of signaling the audience as to the inner conflicts without betraying the truth of the man. With his tools naturally limited, Hackman still conveys the entirety of the character. Watching Hackman in The Conversation is like studying the DNA of acting itself.