Spy 100, #21: The Conversation

September 5, 2013

“I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.” So says Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) early in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), a quiet masterpiece about a surveillance expert whose conscience finally gets the best of him.

Caul is a private security contractor who conducts audio surveillance for a price. The film’s brilliant opening sequence depicts Caul’s operation to record the conversation of a young couple, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest), as they stroll through a crowded, noisy park. Caul and his team are recording the conversation from three different vantages, but ambient noise gives it a fractured, incomplete feel. Even as Caul syncs the recordings into a master track, however, he doesn’t really care about what they’re saying — it’s just a paycheck for him.

But clearly the nature of Caul’s business is getting to him. He lives an emotionally closed and paranoid life, one that keeps him at an arm’s length from his assistant Stan (John Cazale), his friends, and his girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr). The paranoia reaches a new level when he goes to deliver the recording to his employer, The Director, only to be confronted by a suspicious assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford). Caul refuses to deliver the tapes to Stett, and his interest in the content of the recording is piqued, drawing him into its dangerous mystery.

Movies like The Conversation don’t get made in Hollywood these days. It’s just pure filmmaking artistry. Coppola deploys effective audio-visual trickery to set up the central mystery and then slowly, gradually peels it away as Caul’s expertise and curiosity put the pieces together. Meanwhile, the unfolding plot reveals more and more about Caul’s tortured psyche, making this at once a gripping thriller and a fascinating character study. It’s not flawless: there is one flabby stretch in the middle, where Caul has an awkward party with other surveillance pros during a security conference, but even that contributes to the big picture. By and large, this is an outstanding film, a hidden classic I would have ranked much closer to the top of the list.

  • Philip Brewer September 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I tried to watch this 20 or 30 years ago, and was completely unable to get into it. I gave up about 15 minutes or so into it. (The image of a long static shot filmed at an odd angle up through a glass coffee table sticks with me, although I may be confusing it with another movie that I tried and failed to watch at about the same time.)

    It wasn’t as long ago as when it was new; it was probably when it first came out on VHS, which must have been in the mid-1980s, more or less.

    I think I must have been expecting an action thriller, rather than a psychological thriller, and was simply disappointed.

    I expect I’d like it a lot better now.

    • Chris East September 5, 2013 at 7:25 pm

      I would recommend giving it another try. It’s a subdued film, but classy and very intriguing. Plus it’s got the kind of twisty, ingenius plot I think you’ll really like (if I know your tastes at all!).

      • Philip Brewer September 7, 2013 at 1:25 pm

        Already on my NetFlix queue!

  • Philip Brewer September 9, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    And, having now watched it, I’m inclined to agree: It’s an excellent movie, although I understand why I didn’t appreciate it the first time I tried to watch it.

    Still, it’s a flawed piece.

    Trying to avoid spoilers here… The piece only works to the extent that the action causes you to reevaluate each bit of the conversation and come to a new understanding that makes as much sense as the earlier understanding. The filmmakers are very clever about guiding you to a correct understanding of the key phrase, where a tiny change in emphasis (as the viewpoint character remembers a bit of the dialog differently) makes clear what was happening. But one of the other important phrases suddenly seems rather unlikely. Who would say that, given what they were actually talking about?

    So: flawed, but still an excellent movie.

    • Chris East September 10, 2013 at 10:54 am

      I’ll have to rewatch it…I don’t recall taking issue with what you’ve pointed out, but knowing the plot now I suspect it will view differently. Glad you enjoyed it!