Highly respected in his field, intensely-private surveillance expert Harry Caul (Hackman) is hired by a mysterious client to record a secret meeting between a young couple. Though normally unconcerned with the content of his recordings, Harry feels increasingly uneasy while piecing together the fragmented conversation, realising that the couple’s life may be in danger once the client hears their discussion. Stirring guilt from a previous assignment where his work resulted in murder, Harry resolves to stop the same thing from happening again…
Understandably, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola will forever be remembered for his iconic first two Godfather movies (nobody mention the third), followed by his Vietnam classic Apocalypse Now. Overshadowed by these three celebrated masterpieces, The Conversation is subsequently far less recognised and nearly always overlooked, despite the fact that many would argue that it deserves a place alongside the director’s more well-known contributions to cinema. Cerebral, introverted and intimate, it’s a quietly compelling psychological thriller which perfectly captures the eavesdropping paranoia of the Watergate era while remaining, arguably, more relevant than ever in today’s technology-obsessed age. Like conspiracy theory contemporaries The Parallax View, Three Days Of The Condor and All The President’s Men, nothing is what it initially seems (even simple writing instruments can’t be trusted), as Coppola and Caul return to the titular conversation again and again.
A restrained slow-burner with minimalistic dialogue, it’s perhaps important for prospective viewers to note that The Conversation isn’t interested in actiony spectacle or easy thrills. But while it requires patience to begin with during a somewhat uneventful opening (or, what seems to be a somewhat uneventful opening), as the story gradually unravels Coppola’s measured paranoia piece proves increasingly absorbing. Both Coppola’s direction and Walter Murch’s sound design are masterful, but ultimately it’s Gene Hackman’s against-type performance as the haunted, perpetually buttoned-up Harry Caul which really draws us in. A precise, nuanced portrait of introversion (which is still very much a misunderstood personality orientation), it remains one of Hackman’s very best roles. Given the way everything is presented, a climactic sting hits us just as hard as it does him, while the late John Cazale, an unfeasibly young Harrison Ford and a disappointingly underused Robert Duval also pop up in support.
While understandably overshadowed by Francis Ford Coppola’s more famous works, The Conversation remains a masterful psychological thriller which boasts one of Gene Hackman’s very best performances.