Gene Hackman said it was his favorite film he ever acted in. Francis Ford Coppola called it his personal favorite of the films he directed. The Conversation came within the bookends of The Godfather 1 and 2, and might’ve been forgotten in the wake of such a powerful pairing of films, but Coppola has too much in mind for what might very well have been his pet project. He’d completed the script in the 1960s, and decided to ride the wave of good will from the first Godfather to try and get this film made. All of this would seem to indicate that his level of passion for the material would be boundless. If it is, the film certainly does a good job of hiding it; it is one of the most low-key, reserved, and introverted films I think I’ve ever seen. That doesn’t make it any less good, but, unfortunately, it does end up making it a little less watchable.
Hackman is Harry Caul, a surveillance man who is well known and regarded in his field for being able to record any conversation between any two people anywhere it may be, through pretty much any means. Indeed, the film opens on Caul at work, recording a conversation between a couple in a crowded park square, through the use of multiple mics at multiple vantage points. It is when he is splicing and remixing the audio to get a clear and consistent track of dialogue that he finally starts listening to what is being said, and there are small, almost imperceptible hints from the couple’s words that they may be in a similar situation as one of Caul’s previous jobs that ended up with three people killed. Naturally, his concern grows, as does his snooping, as well as the response from the company that hired him to record the initial conversation. I’ve said before that certain films pretty much exist as showcases for particular aspects; be it actors, the images themselves, or the script. The Conversation, however, is a showcase of mood. Paranoia is the name of the game, and I’m having a hard time coming up with a film that absolutely nails the feeling of living in paranoia the way that The Conversation does. It’s quiet, almost too quiet, as if something is about to happen simply because we’ve been conditioned to expect something to jump out at us when a film gets too quiet… and The Conversation knows this. So it keeps the tension ratcheted up, and then somehow finds a way to escalate it further, and rarely is there a moment in the film that serves as a release of that tension (and practically all of the moments that do come in the climax of the film). The film achieves this largely through its cinematography, with lots of slow, stoic, robotic movements of the camera, almost as if we are the voyeurs or “buggers” spying on Caul’s life and work as it goes on, and the acting, particularly from Hackman, who said this was one of his most challenging roles, but his work here in creating an internal, socially inept, paranoid character seems effortless. Add to this a genuinely complex and haunting piano score, with some audio distortion effects added in to increase the off-putting factor, and you’ve got yourself a real piece of art.
So, with all that said, why am I not giving this film a higher rating? Well, frankly, because it was a pain to get through. The film is just under two hours, but somehow feels longer, especially if you end up checking the clock and seeing only ten minutes have gone by, but that feels like twenty. Unfortunately, it’s because the film is so internalized, methodical, and deliberate that it ends up translating into that four-letter word of movie reviews: it’s slow. The rating is mostly for the fact that this is an excellently made film that achieves what it sets out to achieve in stellar fashion. The only problem is, what it sets out to achieve doesn’t really make for entertaining viewing. It’s compelling, I will definitely give it that, but given the subject matter and the mood the film cultivates, it ends up crossing that very delicate line between being tense and being unbearably so. Some people may want that from their film watching experience, and given another day and another mindset, I might be one of them. But it wasn’t to be today.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10