The Conversation (1974)

Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
Gene HackmanJohn CazaleAllen Garfield

Plot:  A paranoid and personally-secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple he is spying on will be murdered.

Genre:  Crime / Drama / Mystery
Awards:  Won Palme d'Or (Cannes).  Nom. for 3 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound.
Runtime:  113min
Rating:  PG for some disturbing scenes. 

The most personal of Francis Ford Coppola’s works, The Conversation was made in between two legendary epics The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974).  In a way representing a breather for Coppola, The Conversation has over the years built a solid group of appreciators.  The film won the prestigious Golden Palm at Cannes and is considered by film historians to be one of the best American pictures of the 1970s.

The film stars Gene Hackman in an exceptional performance in the leading role as Harry Caul, an expert surveillance man who has a passionate affection for the saxophone and jazz music.  He often cuts a lonely figure, is inexpressive at love, and has few friends.  His job demands discipline, patience and stealth - attributes he have in abundance.  One day, a routine wire-tapping job becomes more than an intrusion to privacy; he stumbles across a potential murder plan after hearing something disturbing in his recordings.

Harry Caul has always stuck by his moral code: Listen and record.  Don’t get involved.  But haunted by his past in which he was indirectly responsible for the brutal murder of a family, he finds himself unable to just simply do his job.  Thinking he can atone for his sins in an already sinful job by attempting to disrupt a possible murder, Caul becomes dragged into a labyrinth of secrecy, and discovers that not only his privacy is threatened; his life may be at stake too. 

With The Conversation, Coppola has old-fashioned a provocative mystery-drama that questions the morality of privacy and the ethics of spying.  And he does this with confident direction and a well-written script that offers few revelations, leaving viewers in the same maze that Caul finds himself lost in.  Most parts of the film move slowly, focusing on character development rather than the story.  I admit that I had to struggle through some parts. 

However, the final quarter of the film shows the artistry of Coppola’s filmmaking; he incorporates elements of surrealism and shock cuts to bring about nightmarish scenarios that could either be real or are only figments of imagination by Caul.

The final scene is haunting. The camera pans right to left continuously, revealing a desolate Caul seeking solace in his saxophone after wrecking his apartment in a desperate attempt to uncover a bugging device.  The Conversation is sometimes considered Coppola’s magnum opus despite having made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now (1979).  Although not a masterpiece, The Conversation remains to be his most important and relevant film to date.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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