The Conversation is a dramatic thriller that was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The film was released in 1974 and centers on a surveillance contractor who becomes abnormally interested in one of his jobs, setting a mystery into motion as he attempts to learn more about the shadowy characters involved. This underrated film features excellent writing and acting and is highly recommended for those yearning for a great thriller.
Francis Ford Coppola’s story in The Conversation is both voyeuristic and intriguing. Harry Caul, the main surveillance expert, typically does not care about the topics discussed by the subjects in his contracts. His primary concern is on the quality of the audio. While working one job, Caul suspects the subjects he is surveilling are possible targets for a murder.
The situation is complicated and infused by mysterious twists when Caul attempts to exchange the tapes for his fee. Caul’s standard operating procedure is to physically make the exchange with the one who hired him. He eschews assistants or proxies. Despite this, his employer is nowhere to be found, and he has authorized his assistant to finalize the deal. Compounding this turn of events is the fact that the man who ordered Caul’s services is known only as “The Director.” This atypical sequence of events sets Caul on an even more confounding path of paranoia as he attempts uncover potentially nefarious activity linked to his job.
The film’s pacing is solid. As is common with a mystery or suspense film, its pace is a slow-burn. The opening features Caul surveilling his targets. From there the web of intrigue builds as one strange revelation after another occurs. The odd developments puts Caul on edge and results in his aberrant interest in the individuals being surveilled and those who hired him. The pacing and story beats will keep audiences intrigued right through the film’s conclusion, and, not surprisingly, will amount to viewers attempting to connect the dots as the narrative unfolds. Though there was a sequence in the second act with other surveillance experts that could have been slightly trimmed.
Tied closely with the pace is the film’s complex amalgam of dramatic, thrilling, psychological, and mysterious tonal elements. It becomes clear that this job is not an ordinary contract for Caul. As such, paranoia, voyeurism, and a possible conspiracy become the film’s underlying story and tonal elements. Coppola also briefly employs foreshadowing, which neatly blends with these motifs. It should be noted that while The Conversation is clearly a thriller, it is not a horror movie. If viewers are not fans of horror, but enjoy thrillers, then you will likely appreciate this film.
The Conversation has strong acting. Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is very convincing. Hackman’s disheveled appearance and distinct actions reflect Caul’s anti-social and paranoid behavior. My previous experience with Hackman’s roles have primarily been tough cops or sadistic villains, so his nuanced performance as Caul was quite refreshing, indeed. I was not a fan of Caul’s plastic coat, but it accurately reflected his character.
Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest offer captivating portrayals as Ann and Mark, Caul’s subjects. The way in which they deliver their lines augments the suspense and mystery of the film. Harrison Ford’s Martin Stett, the elusive director’s assistant, is terrific. Ford’s cool acting style and subtle delivery exacerbates the mystery surrounding Caul’s job and Stett’s boss, “The Director.” Ford also was afforded with a great wardrobe that is noticeable in a positive way.
John Cazale’s role as Stan, one of Caul’s surveillance teammates, is also well acted. Hackman and Cazale have good on-screen chemistry and Cazale provides great insight into the emotional weight and struggle that comes with working with Caul.
Bill Butler and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is great overall. During the surveillance sequences, the camera’s panning and zooms accurately resemble the nature of surveillance. The utilization of light and shadow, specifically in a church scene reflects Caul’s emotional turmoil. Symmetry, the area’s brutalist architecture, and the use of negative space are terrific touches. The color palette throughout the film is rather warm and matte, which correlates to the “grimy” nature of Caul’s work and his obsession with this job.
There was one sequence, the same part mentioned above that is a pacing problem, where character placement was incongruous between shots. This was noticeable enough that it stood out to me. It would have been nice if this would have been caught and corrected while shooting.
The film’s production design is very strong. The interesting – and sometimes scary – tools of surveillance are neatly created and highlighted. Obviously, the technology is synonymous with the 1970s, but it is fun to see the various tools of Caul’s trade. There is a heavy reliance on electronic surveillance in the twenty-first century, so it was nice to see technology that is not dependent on computers.
David Shire’s music features haunting piano compositions. His use of arpeggios, runs, and triplets contribute to the suspenseful aura of the movie. Hackman actually learned to play the saxophone for the film and his performances are great additions. Though it is unclear if Hackman performed the whole time or if it was mixed with pre-recorded tracks. Regarding audio and sound design, the use of overlays throughout the film convey the perspective of different listening devices and their positioning, and added to the authentic audio and surveillance feel and overall cinéma vérité style of the film.
Francis Ford Coppola’s directing, writing, and producing of The Conversation are purely masterful. The way in which Coppola takes a seemingly mundane, pedantic topic and molds it into a veritable, thrilling mystery positively speaks to Coppola’s directing, writing, and production abilities. The strong, nuanced, and memorable performances he is able to extract from his cast, adds to the great final product.
Further, Coppola’s management of the technical aspects of cinematography, sound and production design, and music illustrate how effectively he is able to create a cohesive film. The Conversation was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Writing, Original Screenplay, and Best Sound. Although it did not win these Oscars, the nominations succinctly illustrate Coppola’s filmmaking acumen and genius, as well as the film’s strong technical features.
Overall, The Conversation, is a criminally underrated film. If you have yet to see it, you should see it sooner rather than later. The notable, serpentine story, strong performances, and creative technicalities result in a tight, unforgettable, thrilling experience. I would not be surprised, if after viewing The Conversation, you are left thinking about it for several days. That is exactly what happened to me.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Production: The Directors Company; The Coppola Company; American Zoetrope; Paramount Pictures
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola
Director of Photography: Bill Butler; Haskell Wexler
Editor: Richard Chew
Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis
Music: David Shire
Costume Designer: Aggie Guerard Rodgers
Budget: ca. $1,600,000
Release Date: April 7, 1974 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1; 1.85:1
Copyright Holder: Paramount Pictures Corporation
Cast: Gene Hackman; John Cazale; Cindy Williams; Frederic Forrest; Harrison Ford; Allen Garfield; Michael Higgins; Mark Wheeler
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Rating: PG; Descriptors: N/A
Running Time: 1 hour and 53 minutes (113 mins.)