THE CONVERSATION was always a blind spot for me. I knew it was out there, but I just never got around to watching it. After watching THE FRENCH CONNECTION last month which was on TCM for their 31 days of Oscar and FXM nearly once a week, I wanted more Gene Hackman. Also, with a lot of talk about the 50TH Anniversary of THE GODFATHER, it felt like time to dive in. I don’t know why I waited so long.
This is likely the best of the 1970’s Paranoid Thrillers, a list that includes THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE PARALLAX VIEW and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL among many others. For me it’s close between this and CONDOR, but the way Robert Redford forces himself on Faye Dunaway in one scene tips the scales toward THE CONVERSATION. I’m not going to get into the sexual politics of 1970’s auteur filmmaking. That’s for another time.
Brief plot summary time. Hackman is Harry Caul, a surveillance and security expert who is considered the best in his field. At the start of the film, he and his team are trying to listen into a conversation between Cindy Williams and Fredrick Forrest. They are using high tech microphones from three different locations and later Hackman will piece together a full conversation. He’s been hired by what appears to be a government agency. Harry doesn’t care what they are talking about at first, he just wants a clean recording. But as we follow Harry, we all learn there may be a lot more going on here. And Harry is having second thoughts because after a previous job, his work product was used to wipe out an entire family. He tries to keep an emotional distance on the job, but the more he hears the more worried he becomes.
Hackman is so wonderful at playing this kind of role. His physical presence gives an air of authority and confidence as does his no nonsense attitude. But you can tell there is more going on there. He plays these layered characters so well. It is similar to what he does with Popeye Doyle in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. The more paranoid he becomes, the more paranoid we become. It’s a fantastic performance.
The supporting case is stellar. Very early Harrsion Ford as the assistant to the director of the mysterious agency. You can see where his star power begins. Williams is very good as the woman being spied on. A very different role than Laverne & Shirley. Robert Duval has an uncredited role as The Director… it’s small but memorable considering he brings similar energy to his part in NETWORK just a few years later.
Just a moment for an appreciation of John Cazale and what might have been. Cazale died of cancer at 42. He only appeared in five theatrical films, but what a resume. The first two GODFATHER movies, THE CONVERSATION, DOG DAY AFTERNOON and THE DEER HUNTER. Holy cow that’s an impressive run and he is spectacular in every one of those films.
The film was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. He famously cared much more about this movie than THE GODFATHER. You can see the love and care that went into this. Every shot is purposeful. From the way Harry’s apartment and workplace are laid out, to the wardrobe to the twist I did not see coming at all. It is masterful. THE CONVERSATION was nominated for Best Picture but lost to another of Coppola’s films.. THE GODFATHER PART II. Can you imagine that? Being nominated for two Oscars in the same year? Amazing. Legend.
Coppola has said this was his favorite of all the movies he’s made. I can see why. Not much can top both GODFATHER films. But this comes close. And sometimes close is good enough. If you are like me and have yet to watch THE CONVERSATION, fire up Paramount+ or Epix and give it a try. And if you don’t like it, that’s ok. I won’t take it personally. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.