IMDB #211 The Conversation

Do you ever feel like someone is listening in on you? That's because they probably are. And as today's entry The Conversation will demonstrate, it was possible to listen to people talking virtually anywhere at anytime in 1974 using equipment that appears comically outdated to our iPhone and Blackberry adjusted eyes. Just imagine all the various wiretaps, microchips, satellites, and other indicators of the coming robot war that could be monitoring your every word these days!

The Key Players:

Our director is a gent named Francis Ford Coppola, who made this film in between two other films that are about the father of god or some nonsense like that. I'll let you know when we get to them in a long, long time.

Gene Hackman is of course a star of the silver screen that will State your Enemies, Burn your Mississippis, Tide your Crimsons, Royal any Tenenbaums you may have, and give you a good Hoosiering any day of the week. He's got two Oscars gathering dust on his mantle for The French Connection and Unforgiven.

The only other real notable in the cast is a very young Harrison Ford.

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The Story:

Our story centers nearly entirely on the life and mind of Harry Caul (Hackman) a fastidious and reserved surveillance expert. The films opens with Caul and some hired help recording everything a couple says while walking around a crowded park square- they accomplish this by means of long distance microphones and handheld recording devices right next to them.

The job, which only Caul could've had the wherewithal to accomplish, is done, and Caul goes to hand the tape over to the CEO that commissioned it, only to find the man out and his aggresively polite assistant (Ford) all-too willing to take the tape meant for the CEO's eyes only.

Caul decides to return later, but obsesses about the tape. The girl, clearly the CEO's wife, seems to be having an affair with the man walking in the park with her. Caul fiddles with the three audio sources until he hears the man say: "He'd kill us if he had the chance."

Caul goes to a local security convention as a featured guest (where he brings some associates back to his workshop, basking in his relative celebrity among surveillance specialists). He reveals to a groupie (apparently there were surveillance groupies in 1974- who knew?) that he once made a tape that led to a man and his wife and child being killed.

Clearly the weight of that has led to his reticence and perfectionism, and the connection to the current case is clear. If he turns the tape over, will the couple be killed as well?

Alas, the floozie seduces him (apparently his balding, nearly incommunicative magnetism was irresistable) and when he awakes the tapes have been stolen!

He goes to receive his payment from the clearly irate CEO, as the assistant ambiguously looks on. That afternoon, knowing that the couple mention a meeting at a hotel on the tape, he rents the room next door and listens in. He hears yelling! And the tape being played! Then crashes!

He goes to the balcony and sees a hand smear blood on the window, and begns hyperventillating in fear- clearly his nightmare is replaying itself and he's caused more deaths.

Or has he?

The Artistry:

The Conversation is a very slow, deliberate film, made by a director clearly in epic film mode, even for a more fleeting thriller plot. It opens with a minutes-long aerial shot of the park, unclear initially where our focus is meant to be placed until it follows Hackman.

For a slow, silent movie, it delves into Caul's psyche more than I expected, showing us his absolute devotion to privacy and method- he plays the saxophone along to jazz recors in perfect sync, and only makes calls on pay phones (despite owning a phone). David Shire's atonal piano score helps underscore Caul's isolation from the world.

Coppola, inspired by the themes of Antonioni's Blowup, wanted to make a film about observation versus particpation and perception versus reality- it was just dumb luck, as it turned out, that the Watergate scandal and revelations of illegal wiretapping very similar to the film broke months before its release. Many people saw The Convesation as a reaction to the Nixon Administration's transgressions, but the script was completed in the mid-sixties.


Caul wakes up, and breaks into the next room to find no blood on the window, no bodies, nothing. But then the toilet backs up and blood comes spilling out, and he flees in a panic.

He goes to confront the CEO, only to have his entire perception flipped- it's CEO who is now dead, the wife who inherits control of the company, and the man from the park by her side.

Caul rapidly rethinks what he has seen and heard- the blood on the window could have been the CEO's as the man killed him, the line on the tape could have been "He'd kill us if he had the chance."

He gets a call from the assistant (who may or may not have been in on it the entire time) on his home phone somehow, and he ominously warns Caul not to tell anyone what he knows- he then proves that Caul's impenetrable apartment has been bugged by replaying Caul's own saxophone practice over the line, and says "We'll be listening."

Caul then systematically destroys his entire apartment, furniture, floorboards, mini-statue of the madonna and all, looking for bugs, but finds nothing. The film ends with Caul playing his saxphone, unaccompanied, in his stripped bare apartment.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

It seems properly placed to me, in the low 200s- a good film with some timeless (if technologically dated) motifs, but not quite the engaging story of brilliant performances to push it to the top.

The Legacy:

In addition to three Oscar nominations (for Sound, Screenplay, and Picture), it won the Golden Palm at Cannes that year, and has been preserved in the NFR.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Not much to choose from, but here's the ending with Hackman ripping up his apartment. Spoilers, I guess:

Leftover Thoughts:

-Caul also has a mistress (or something) that he pays to put up in her own apartment (I think) but visits only sporadically and never opens up to. It was hard to get jazzed about it, since he's not a terribly engaging character to begin with.

-Here's a confession: Coppola's rhythm puts me to sleep. I can't watch his films when I'm tired, it's bad news (even those films about those Italian dudes in suits).

Coming Up...

Thursday, September 10th: Ed Wood

Tuesday, September 15th: Letters From Iwo Jima

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