The art of ‘The Conversation’


Watched The Conversation this morning. Had forgotten just how great it is, and forgotten the twist too, which helps.

Francis Ford Coppola squeezes in a top little flick in between The Godfather and its sequel, with stalwart character actor Gene Hackman again showing his oats where better paid, bigger name stars would be tying themselves up in clichés. As troubled surveillance expert Harry Caul, who slowly comes to believe that doing his job well and to a high professional standard just might not be enough, he draws just enough interest in the character from the audience, but without drowning him in ‘quirkiness’ or ‘lovability’. Harry Caul isn’t necessarily a likable character, he’s no hero, but nor is he a villain. He’s a technician, a craftsman, a man who keeps himself to himself, doesn’t boast (but who also clearly takes silent pride in his talents being recognised), someone who finds relationships difficult to maintain and trust hard to come by. And Hackman nails him.

The supporting cast is also very good – John Cazale, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr, Elizabeth MacRae, Allen Garfield, Harrison Ford and the rest all perform faultlessly, and all are excellently served by the technical side of the production, such as Walter Murch and the rest of the sound department, and the cinematography team. I didn’t realise that the opening scene on the square had been photographed by Haskell Medium Cool Wexler – but it makes sense, given how natural and unchoreographed all the action down there feels as the focus of camera slowly creeps down, just sucking in whatever unfolds, and somehow tricking the viewer’s eye into spotting things that are seemingly random. The rest of the cinematography, by Bill Butler, is no less well crafted, and there are some memorable visual moments, such as the sequence in the bathroom of the Jack Tar Hotel, pulling in closer and closer to Harry Caul as he listens intently to what is happening next door, desperate for both vindication of his worst fears and to be proven wrong, reflecting the very opening scene. And of course there is the famous ‘security camera pan’ shot which closes the movie. Definitely a film which demonstrates there’s more to Bill Butler than his journeyman CV might otherwise suggest (Rocky II/Rocky III/Rocky IV, Flipper, Beethoven’s 2nd, Cop And ½, Hot Shots!, Anaconda…).

In all, a punchy and tight little flick that easily slides into the atmosphere of its day – paranoia, mistrust of institutions, corporations and politicians, Watergate, technocracy – but it also stands tall as a work of art on its own terms too.

Six Of The Best

Some more films with similar themes or tone

  1. Klute
  2. The Parallax View
  3. All The President’s Men
  4. The Ipress File
  5. Defence Of The Realm
  6. Three Days Of The Condor

Mo Links


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