I wrote this post for Film Ignorance several weeks ago (you can tell by how long it is; I've made a conscious choice to write shorter posts). After I'd written it, a happy surprise: The Conversation is the Large Associations of Movie Blog's Movie of the Month! Head on over to The LAMB to see what other film bloggers think of this movie (if they don't like it, be sure to leave them irrational hate comments)
Film: The Conversation
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford
Reason for Ignorance: Shame Spiral
Ignorance Rating: Pending
For a considerable amount of time, I believed that Francis Ford Coppola was the greatest American director of all time. Although he made only four films that were considered great, their greatness was so unquestioned that I didn't think it was an indefensible statement: The Godfather, The Godfather pt. II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now.
The only problem was my hidden film ignorance: I hadn't seen the third masterpiece. I don't know why I never got around to it. It wasn't even in my queue. And one reason why I started arguing for John Ford or Orson Welles instead of Coppola was the shame of not having seen The Conversation.
Now that I've seen it, my shame is multiplied many times. The Conversation is a masterpiece. Although it's a small picture, nothing like Coppola's three epics, it stands worthily along side of them as a picture that is not only excellent, but pushed the entire world of filmmaking forward.
The film opens with a man and a woman having a furtive, awkward, fearful conversation in a busy public square, while Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) runs a little surveillance group recording their conversation. Later, in his loft office/safe-house, Caul takes the three different low-quality tapes his team obtained and melds them into a single high-quality recording. And, in an obvious reference to Antonioni's Blow-Up, he hears something: the man says "He'd kill us if he had the chance."
From there, it's downhill for Harry Caul. His life is all about compartmentalization, locked doors, sealed-off spaces. He becomes upset when he learns his landlady has a key to his apartment - she used the key to leave him a birthday gift. He refuses to give his girlfriend his number, but only drops in on her unexpectedly late at night. He won't tell his sidekick (John Cazale) anything about their projects or technology. And above all, he wants to seal himself off from the potentially dangerous consequences of his surveillance subjects could suffer. So when confronted with the direct knowledge that this tape could get his subjects killed, Caul goes into a downward spiral, unable to break through his compartments and take action but equally unable to resume his normal, compartmentalized life. He's caught between his professional ethics and his personal morals, and the film becomes a creepy, suspenseful thriller as the events continue to play out and Caul haunts them like a ghost.
The film, as is to be expected, is a technical marvel. The minimalist score, containing both diagetic and nondiagetic elements, is haunting. The sound editing is perfect. The film editing is inspired, serving the storytelling by working with and against the sound editing to leave the viewer, like Caul, uncertain of what's coming next. And there's a bathroom scene that's even tenser and scarier than the classic one in Psycho.
The acting, of course, is superb. Caul is one of Hackman's best and most subtle performances, and 70s super-supporting actor Cazale is, as always, the perfect second-fiddle. Harrison Ford plays a rare heavy as Caul's employer's emissary, and Allen Garfield practically made my skin crawl as Caul's chief competitor, an overly friendly man obsessed with one-upping and disorienting Harry.
If you can believe it, The Conversation came out the same year as The Godfather Part II. Coppola was nominated for both best picture and best screenwriter for both pictures, winning both awards for The Godfather. This is the strongest praise I can give The Conversation: I can't tell you whether or not the Academy made the right choice.