The Conversation is one of the best films of the 1970s that you’ve never heard about. And I happen to believe it showcases CoppoIa at his best, too. Its purely original characterization, simmering plot development and pace, cinematography and sound design, all of which form pieces of a very odd puzzle: a look inside the world of a professional eavesdropper.
Made on a small budget (today it would be called “indie”), and in between Coppola’s prodigious work on the first two Godfather films, The Conversation at first seems a dated cultural artifact, a creature of its time: in the ground-zero year 1974, with its white-hot controversy of Watergate and Nixon. Vietnam and dirty tricks. Paranoia cut deeply then.
However, this film resonates even more today. I’m not talking because of the Patriot Act or the War on Terrorism, but rather the internet. Specifically, the technology available to just about anyone to find out more that perhaps we should about each other.
Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul hides behind his technology; he uses it to listen to, but not connect with, people. His one “friend”—the colleague played by the late John “Fredo Corleone” Cazale—he fails to relate to, unless it’s strictly shop talk. Even a furtive affair with a young woman is couched in secrecy, despite the fact that Caul is a lifelong bachelor.
In the end, Harry’s isolation becomes complete when the technology he uses becomes his prison. The final panning shot of this film is worth the entire DVD alone, but the commentary tracks provide priceless insight into the mind of Coppola at the time when he was still an outsider himself, trying to preseve his integrity under the demanding glare of Hollywood.