Before he did things which can only be marginally regarded as entertainment such as JACK (reputedly a favorite of HBS' own Slyder), Francis Ford Coppola was, for a time, maybe the most accomplished filmmaker on the planet. No one questions of the genius of THE GODFATHER and its sequel, and APOCALYPSE NOW is rightly canonized as the most profound exploration of the human condition filtered through wartime yet committed to film. So why, in this age where human identity and rights to privacy are more and more compromised, is THE CONVERSATION not dissected and praised with the same breaths as the former? Probably because it doesn't have a semi-"hunky" lead, as Sheen or Pacino COULD be described (but not by me, sheesh, I don't like men THAT way). It has Gene Hackman, an understated actor, in one of his most understated roles, but one so complex as to be absolutely chilling.Hackman's Harry Caul is the best damn Orkin man on the planet, meaning he can bug anybody, anytime, anywhere. He's also paranoid and desperately unhappy, recognizing, at least subconsciusly, how tenuous that privacy truly is since he takes it from people for money every day. His conscience begins to get the best of him, however, when he overhears a line said by his newest target..."He'd kill us if he got the chance." Determined to act to prevent his work from causing someone's death, Harry gets involved, destroying his professional code and his psychological stability.
"Coppola did this between THE GODFATHERs. So why doesn't anyone mention it?"
Hackman is dead-solid perfect as Caul, and the rest of the small cast (Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, the lamented John Cazale, and Teri Garr among them) hits every right note to counterpoint Hackman's pronounced silences. Harrison Ford strikes an imposing sense of impending menace in a rare bad guy turn, and the uncredited Robert Duvall is excellent and appropriately mysterious in his brief appearance. Since every film Coppola makes with Duvall is damn good, one has to wonder why Francis doesn't get Robert soused with the family wine and sneak a contract in front of Colonel Kilgore's alcohol-impaired writing hand every time the funding comes through.
Besides the deft plotting of Coppola's original screenplay and the excellent acting, Coppola puts this one over the top with an ingenious use of, appropriately enough, sound. Nat Boxer, Walter Murch, and Art Rochester, the production's sound team, reveal layers of meaning as sound is recorded, re-recorded, and understood during the course of the film. It's a skillful use of a technical narrative device to entrench the audience in the world of the protagonist, and it was nominated for an Oscar for its achievement.
After musing over this film for a short time, it's obvious how much Coppola owes Hitchcock (though to be fair, doesn't every thriller with ambiguous characterizations and adroit storytelling get labeled as "Hitchcockian"?).From the tortured anti-hero to the alluring femme fatale to the shockingly twisty climax and the cold, ironic denouement, THE CONVERSATION is a thriller of the first order and a horror film fit for our modern society. We're a codependent bunch, we are, and the sight of Harry Caul alone in his apartment should hackle a set of heebie jeebies up the spine of anyone prone to self-analysis. It could be that few people discuss THE CONVERSATION because it's so incisive in its view of our fears that, like an unpleasant thought, we ignore it and hope that the difficult questions it represents will fade away and do us no harm.This flick was later viewed by Jerry Bruckheimer, who thought, "If I added some explosions, wiseass hackers, and Will Smith running down the street in his underwear, it'd be SO money!"
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originally posted: 03/22/01 17:11:19