The genius of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 existential thriller.
The Conversation, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, available to rent on iTunes and to stream on Amazon Prime Video
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Editor’s note: A new 35mm print of The Conversation was scheduled to open on March 20, 2020, at Film Forum in New York City; as of this writing, that cinema is now closed (as all movie theaters in the city currently are) through March 31 owing to COVID-19 concerns. Film Forum is planning to play The Conversation at a later date.
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Francis Ford Coppola has been on a tear recently, shoring up his reputation as a principal architect of New Hollywood by rereleasing, last August, his serpentine, grandiose Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now (1979) in a third “final cut” and restoring The Cotton Club (1984) to its original length. The Cotton Club Encore, which premiered in October, revealed a new film, one much better than the studio-cut version that bombed on release, with subplots featuring its Black cast and musical numbers led by Gregory Hines allowed to play at length. Then last fall, fresh from those successes, the eighty-year-old director, à la Scorsese, went on record to describe today’s blockbuster superhero movies as “despicable,” “not cinema,” and “the same movie over and over.”
Perhaps energized by his defiance, Coppola has now turned his attention to The Conversation, which debuted in 1974, won the top prize at Cannes, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, losing to The Godfather Part II, which he also directed. The Conversation didn’t need restoring, just new 35mm prints, one of which was scheduled to be projected at Film Forum. It’s the most uncompromising movie of Coppola’s career, a summation and proof of New Hollywood aesthetics before Jaws washed them out in the tide. Filmed and edited in San Francisco under the aegis of Coppola’s American Zoetrope film studio, The Conversation made no accommodations to the box office. As surveillance expert Harry (Gene Hackman) asks his assistant, Stan (John Cazale), early in the film, “Are you here to be entertained?”
Hackman’s nuanced, self-effacing performance as a soul-sick, uneasy man burrows into crevices and bores through brutalist architecture. In the lobby of an Embarcadero building where his client, a CEO played by Robert Duvall, has his offices, a receptionist instructs Harry to make himself comfortable. The heavy, blocky concrete of the interior was designed to deny comfort to anyone, not least someone who exists at Harry’s level of dread.
His discomfort is a twin aspect of his lack of identity. Finding a surprise birthday gift in his apartment, Harry calls his landlord to tell him he doesn’t want him to have an extra key. “I would be perfectly happy to have all my personal things burn up in a fire,” he explains, “because I don’t have anything personal.” Hackman wanders through The Conversation in a semi-transparent raincoat, head down, on an uncertain mission, but his signature posture in the film is folded and cramped under a sink next to a toilet in a hotel room, drilling holes in the wall to hear into the room next door.
Coppola’s starting point in this ultimate existential thriller was to remove a layer. He changed the focus from the people who would be the leads in a routine crime film: the adulterous couple under surveillance, here played by Cindy Williams (later of the sitcom Laverne & Shirley) and Frederic Forrest (who would star in Coppola’s One from the Heart in 1982). As he told fellow New Hollywood director Brian De Palma in an interview a month after The Conversation premiered, Coppola wanted “to do a film about eavesdropping and privacy” but make it about a professional listener, not the people he surveils and records. All Harry wants is “a nice, fat recording,” but every encounter threatens him, just as every space he enters is a challenge or a dare.
The film begins with the couple as they weave in and out of a crowd in the city’s Union Square, where a jazz band plays “I Found a New Baby,” a drummer beats bongos, a mime accosts them, and a homeless man sleeps on a bench. Harry and his hired team of freelance spies, ex-cops, and weird dudes (one of them is Michael Higgins, the bank robber from Barbara Loden’s Wanda) observe the pair through long lenses and from a van with tinted windows, recording the couple’s conversation from several vantage points. Their seemingly banal exchange will, in due time, reveal itself as foreboding. Harry listens to it again and again, a process that recalls the way the photograph in Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), an obvious inspiration here, becomes more ominous but less understandable the more closely it is examined.
To Harry’s chagrin, Stan leers at two young women outside the van who use the vehicle’s windows to fix their lipstick, unable to see the men inches from their faces. Coppola cuts between the hidden and the seen throughout the film, putting Hackman behind and in front of translucent screens and sheer curtains as he goes about his business. He prefers to be unseen when not at work, too, spying on his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend (Teri Garr, who would costar with Forrest in One from the Heart). She’s seen him watching her from her staircase “for a whole hour.” Too paranoid to reveal his phone number, Harry conducts business from a payphone on the street, trying to ignore people waiting for their turn who tap on the glass: Harry is a cinematic embodiment of Camus’s absurd man, enclosed in a phone booth and gesticulating and moving his mouth, unheard by the queue outside.
At a wiretapper’s convention, Harry meets his main rival in the biz, Bernie Moran, an aggressive, short, heavyset loudmouth played by Allen Garfield, who, as he always does, brings menace and vigor to his role as a pest. Things begin to unravel for Harry as he tries to evade his peers and placate them at the same time. When he confronts Duvall’s corporate henchman, a handsome, quiet thug played by a young Harrison Ford, their mutual coiled passivity comes to a blank standstill.
The Conversation is also Walter Murch’s sound-design manifesto. Murch emphasizes repeated tape loops of the same exchange multiple times, in this film in which no one else is ever quite able to have an actual conversation. He combines this loop with musique-concrète blipping and manipulated electronic dialogue, crowd noise, and competing music. His sound design counterpoints David Shire’s moody, Satie-like piano score and the live jazz records Harry listens to and plays along with on his tenor sax, another form of one-way communication. By the time Harry ends up in the hotel room’s bathroom, every kind of sound that water can make in an enclosed space has been explored and catalogued, from troubling dribble to whoosh and flush.
The film itself appears and disappears in this water, like a code in invisible ink. All movies disappear after you’ve seen them, until you see them again, yet somehow The Conversation remains at once hauntingly indelible and just beyond consciousness, coming and going like sounds from the street at night. And more than overt political-conspiracy thrillers from the same time period, such as Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, which depend on star performances from Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, standard leading men, The Conversation survives as the coldest, most alienated Hollywood film from the post-1960s era of suspicion and anxiety, a time in American life when we first realized that ordinary discourse had to be decoded, that the unseen forces controlling our lives were sinister, and knowledge was fragmentary.
“There is no moment between human beings that I cannot record,” Moran brags to Harry. As in today’s world of data collection and machine learning, there are also none he can understand. Harry can try to figure it all out, but he can’t stop anything from happening. When the tape decks are turned and the mic is pointed at him, his interior deconstruction begins, isolating him even more.
A. S. Hamrah is the author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018 (n+1 books), the film critic at the Baffler, and a member of the National Society of Film Critics.