Some films date badly, while others still seem topical, however long ago they were made. The Conversation is one of the latter. Made at a time when electronic surveillance was just beginning, it shows the start of the world we now live in: you know, the world with security cameras on every corner, and where more people live alone than ever before.
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation concerns Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a loner and freelance surveillance expert, who listens in on others, but is paranoid about anyone knowing anything about him. He records the conversation of a man and a woman, but becomes increasingly uneasy about what the shadowy company Director who has paid for his work intends to do with the tapes. A throwaway comment by the man on the recording that 'he would kill us if he could' makes Caul remember a previous bugging operation where a man and his family ended up being murdered, because of the information Caul provided. Feeling guilty, Caul takes the hotel room next door to the couple. But there's more going on than he realizes.
The Conversation is basically a character piece, with everything that happens shedding light on the central character of Caul. He goes to a surveillance convention, where we see that everyone holds Caul in high esteem, the best in his job. He is casually amoral: his whole motivation is to clean up the recordings, but he doesn't care what the people on them are saying. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, he's not someone you'd want to meet, but he can stand in as a cool loser everyman onscreen. He probably leaves female viewers cold, but men can relate to him, feel grateful they're not him, whilst almost envying him.
The atmosphere of the film is very European. Made in 1974, and it seems very much like a homage to Michel Antonioni's Blow Up, but using sound instead of vision. The conversation of the title is heard at the start of the film, and seems banal. It is then replayed throughout the film over and over, appearing in the background to several scenes. Cleverly, the dialogue in these scenes interlinks with the tape, to make the tape answer, and shed light on, what's happening. So when Caul asks the Director, 'will you hurt them?' the tape answers 'he'd kill us if he could.'
The Conversation isn't a feel good rollercoaster film. It's often slow, especially at the start, and while there are a lot of incidents, and even occasional humour, it's dominated by silent scenes of Caul alone with his recording machines. The machines are hopelessly outdated, and the difficulty he has recording the couple is now presumably easily possible. But yet, the film hasn't dated at all. Because it speaks to a fear that's become more relevant since it was made. 8/10
Adrian Horrocks (March 2005)
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