The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, which won multiple Academy Awards, broke box office records, and set a new standard for the comingling of popular entertainment and motion picture artistry. In between them, he made The Conversation, a quiet, personal picture with a distinctively European sensibility. Though it didn't win the Oscars or break the box office as the Godfather pictures bookending it had, The Conversation won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is held by many critics in the same high regard as its better-known brothers--and for good reason. It is a smaller and more low-key effort, but in its own way is as much a masterpiece as the films that, with it, constitute one of the most extraordinary bursts of creative activity in modern cinema history.
Paranoia infuses The Conversation, suffocates it from its opening shot, a long overhead view of San Francisco's Union Square. A couple walks and talks; we see an observer watching them from a high vantage point, Coppola's camera framing him like a sniper, allowing us to see his point-of-view through his gun sight. But he isn't framing them for assassination; he is pointing a high-powered dimensional microphone at the pair. Another man follows them closely, a microphone in his shopping bag. A third microphone completes the triangulation. Orchestrating it all is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert who has been hired to get a clean recording of their conversation in the noisy public square at lunch hour. His assistant Stan (John Cazale) complains that their chatter is dull. "I don't care what they're talking about," Harry snaps. "All I want is a nice, fat recording."
Harry plays things close to the vest, and Coppola doesn't go out of the way to toss us much in the way of exposition, but we start to get a picture of this protagonist. There is a woman, Amy (Terri Garr), whom he keeps hidden away in a small apartment; the exact nature of their arrangement isn't entirely clear ("You never used to ask a lot of questions," he notes, regretfully). He keeps his possessions, in his home and in his workshop, behind a series of locks. And he is haunted by an incident in his past, when his recordings led to a triple homicide--his guilt over that event (given extra weight by his Catholicism), and the fear that it could happen again, causes him to listen closer to what that couple is saying on the tape.
He does so in a pair of sequences so masterful as to rank amongst Coppola's finest. I'm a sucker for movies about process, directors that have the patience to show us how something is done. In an early scene, we see Harry assembling his master tape from the three reels of raw materials. But Coppola (and his editors, Richard Chew and Walter Murch) are doing something else here: they're marrying each tape with corresponding images, creating a visual map for the audio mix that Harry is creating. The filmmakers use the sight and sound in concert with each other--which is invaluable later, when Harry goes back to the tapes, burrowing deeper into the chatter and music and distortion and discovering something horrible underneath.
Watch how urgently Hackman is listening in that scene. He is an actor for whom gregariousness is often second nature, but this is a tightly packed portrait of withdrawn, frightened stubbornness, resulting in one of his most intensely internalized performances. Sporting a cheeseball mustache and perpetually clad in a flimsy, transparent raincoat, Harry Caul is a closed book; the most he lets his guard down is with a hooker (Elizabeth MacRae), and he is quickly made to regret it. This is a man who has compartmentalized his life solely into a vehicle for his work--and his work isn't even all that good anymore. The recording is beautifully executed, but he gets too attached to it. His apartment is penetrated by his landlady, who reads his mail. He gets burned by Amy; she suspects him of spying and eavesdropping on her. His tapes are stolen. He gets bugged himself, more than once. These failures must prove distressing; if he's no longer good at what he does, then what is he?
Hackman is the featured soloist, but occasionally the other supporting players get to play a verse or two. The wonderful John Cazale is so good as to almost blend into the background, but he and Hackman share a scene at the big surveillance tradeshow that is deftly, brilliantly underplayed. Garr puts a whole lifetime of disappointment and exploitation into her one, small scene. Allen Garfield plays Harry's East Coast competitor with a seething inferiority complex worn almost as a badge of honor; this is the kind of guy who can only prove his worth by knocking someone else down a couple of notches. And David Shire's moody, elegant score almost serves as another character--it's 180 degrees from his equally memorable music for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, but just as inseparable from the film it inhabits.
In several scenes of The Conversation, Coppola and cinematographers Bill Butler and Haskell Wexler borrow the crude visual language of the surveillance camera, shooting Harry's apartment or his hotel room with pans that ape the chunky, mechanical moves of the equipment on that trade show floor. Certain dialogue passages also have a subtle echo, as if being recorded themselves by some unknown party. Harry Caul is supposed to be the impassionate ear on the other end of the wire. But the question Coppola asks, quietly but intently, is a compelling one: if Harry's on this side, then who is listening? And why?
"The Conversation" debuts on Blu-ray tomorrow. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.