Blindspot 2017: The Conversation (1974)

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who can bug people at anytime and anywhere. Living in a isolated world, his business is his work. One day, he records a young couple, having a conversation in a park in San Francisco. When he finally is able to pierced together the entire recording, he soon realizes that there’s something definitely with this couple’s conversation, Fearing that they are being targeted by someone who wants them dead, Caul races against time to figured out the truth before the couple get assassinated by whoever is behind this murder plot. As his investigation leads him deeper to the revelation, his relationship with fellow colleague, who he works for, and his closest friends started to deteriorate. Soon, Caul find himself entrapped in a world where the truth is far more deceiving than what it seems to be. (source)

The first thing you need to know about The Conversation (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) is that it’s a real slow burner. Some may describe the first third of the film as just plain slow without the burn. But it’s an interesting one, because even in the film’s slower, perhaps more repetitive moments, as a viewer you do get the sense that the film is building up to something excellent. And it definitely does. This is an understated thriller that is not to be missed, and if it’s on your Blindspot list too, then I would suggest checking it out post haste.

We start the film with a fairly simple premise – our protagonist is a private surveillance expert who is listening in to a conversation for an as yet unknown purpose. But the details around this change and shift, and motivations change over time, resulting in quite an unexpected finish. The film’s intention unravels over time at its own pace, and it is highly recommended that you pay attention throughout. In particular, the quiet and measured performance by Gene Hackman is excellent. John Cazale’s performance was also understated and simple, and as a result, effortlessly good. Cazale, whose unfortunately short career consisted of only excellent films (Godfather III doesn’t count as he appears in archive footage), has such a memorable manner of performing that it almost seems like he’s in this film for longer than he actually is. Watch out for a very young Harrison Ford as well.

Above and beyond Francis Ford Coppola’s typically fantastic direction, The Conversation is an exercise in masterful sound design. Which makes sense, for a film where there is a real emphasis on listening and sorting out the finer details of what our main character is monitoring. Perhaps the film is well known for its glitchy auditory aesthetic, particularly as our protagonist is struggling to hear parts of his recordings. At the beginning this was a bit confusing, but as we realise that it’s intentional, the overall effect is very impressive indeed. One interesting tidbit is that the score by David Shire was also composed and recorded before the film was made, setting the tone for the film and the performances within. Cinematography by Bill Butler (who also cinematographed Grease and Jaws, and many other excellent films) is quite wonderful, making use of all the gorgeous textures available to him on screen. The editing by Walter Murch and Richard Chew must also be mentioned, as from about the midpoint onwards, we are treated to some of the best editing that a thriller about covert surveillance can offer.

Perhaps the film’s initial slow burn could be a criticism, but as aforementioned, you still get the sense that this slow burn is for a purpose. With a clever script and some fantastic performances, not to mention some near perfect creative elements such as sound design and editing, The Conversation is one of those films on my Blindspot list that I can’t believe I hadn’t already seen. The film is particularly culturally significant also, since the film was released prior to the classic Watergate scandal of the 1970s making breaking news, yet it unintentionally contained a lot of the same surveillance technology that Nixon and his pals used. Very interesting indeed. The Conversation is a must see.

4.5/5
Watch the trailer here.

3 comments

  1. […] The Conversation (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) […]

  2. Great review of a great film, haven’t seen it in a while so will have to give it a revisit! Hackman is brilliant…have you seen the French Connection and it’s sequel? Highly recommended if not!

    1. Thanks heaps Chris! I’ve actually never seen The French Connection. I think that’s on the next Blindspot list for sure!

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