Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) – which stars Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Robert Duvall, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford, and Frederic Forrest – has taken on something of a cult status since its release almost 38 years ago. Having been shot between two Godfathers, and with Apocalypse Now (1979) making its appearance shortly afterwards, it’s no wonder that this film almost went under the radar. Yet it returns this week in a fantastic Blu-ray Special Edition rerelease, courtesy of StudioCanal.
With The Godfather series and Apocalypse Now representing some of cinema’s most epic and iconic moments, The Conversation is a marked departure from Coppola’s more famous accomplishments. As a low-key character study, themes of privacy, loneliness, paranoia and surveillance come to the fore, the story focusing upon Harry Caul (Hackman) an expert in bugging people’s conversations for various mysterious clients. However, it soon becomes clear that the key focus of the drama at hand lies not with the couple Caul is currently trying to bug, nor the faceless corporation hiring his services, but with Caul himself.
In one of the most complex roles of his career, Hackman’s performance is one of expert subtlety, as his portrayal of this most difficult and private protagonist is ultimately what holds The Conversation together. The manner by which we see Caul gradually unravel throughout the course of the movie is precision-perfect and a genuine testament to Hackman’s unquestionable talent.
However, Hackman’s performance aside, The Conversation is a flawed piece of work. The pace of proceedings can be far too laborious for some, with the story concerning the couple at the centre of Caul’s surveillance rather protracted and, above all else, not that interesting. While it is certainly responsible for influencing a number of future films tackling similar concerns – namely Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998) which also features Hackman in a role that gives a clear nod towards the character of Caul – it regularly feels as though the US actor is carrying the full weight of the film.
By the very definition of the term character study, it is a given that films of this kind are going to be heavily-focused upon one performer, yet The Conversation takes this element to extremes. In the same way that a movie such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is based around the performance of Robert De Niro and his gradual psychological disintegration, there are also additional performances from the likes of Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel which provide a greater sense of balance. The Conversation, however, feels rather more like watching a an acting masterclass than a true movie masterpiece.