“We’ll be listening to you.”
Harry Caul, a lonely and secretive surveillance expert who is haunted by his past, has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple he is spying on will soon be murdered.
The Conversation is a tour de force in its blending of a powerful character drama with a slow burning conspiracy thriller. As vibrant and pertinent today as when it was made – this luminous masterpiece is one the most significant American films of the 1970’s.
The Conversation captures the zeitgeist of a time when American society was grappling with the horrors of the Vietnam War and the American Dream-souring revelations of the Watergate scandal. Here is a deeply ambiguous world where ethics are build on shifting sands and behind every ideal might lie a infesting wound. The film draws heavily on this atmosphere of high anxiety to construct a mesmerising tale with an edgy yet masterfully simplistic execution. The Conversation focuses on the moral issues arising from the emergence of the surveillance state with its all pervasive voyeurism and annihilation of privacy, and its subsequent questions of perception versus reality. The film clearly suggests that moral disintegration, on both a personal and social level, begins with the abnegation of responsibility. So when Harry Caul, dismissively says at one point in the film, “I don’t know about human nature”, he seems to sum up the moral disorder of an entire society as well as his own. Considered to be his most personal work, Coppola cites Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Blowup as a major influence and this seems reflected in the film’s deliberate pacing. A subtle ambiance develops, perhaps more European than American in style, in which there is ample space to reflect on this psychologically acute, visually striking modernist work. Francis Ford Coppola‘s writing and direction is stylish and incisive, and never lets the levels of tension subside or the complicated plot get muddled. Walter Murch‘s editing and inspired sound collage – including taped conversations, stifled voices, background and other mechanically-generated noises, are absolute outstanding features of the film. David Shire‘s reoccurring piano inhabits the film with a haunting atmosphere and the cinematography by Bill Butler is marvelously mechanical like a piece of surveillance equipment. The acting too is superbly crafted – Gene Hackman, at the height of his powers, is assisted by brilliant contributions from John Cazale and Allen Garfield and others.
Engrossing from the very first memorable frame to the last –The Conversation is multi-layered, intelligent and…haunting.