As a result of my continuing effort to see every single film ever nominated for best picture, I’ve been lucky enough to both discover and rediscover a handful of excellent films that, for whatever reason, have ended up forgotten and neglected in the years since they scored their nominations. One of the more recent of these films was Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece of a paranoia, the 1974 Best Picture nominee The Conversation.*
The Conversation tells the story of Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert who, along with his colleague Stan (played by the great John Cazale), is hired by a businessman (Robert Duvall) to bug a conversation between Duvall’s much younger wife (played by Cindy Williams) and a man who might be her lover (played by Fredric Forrest). Harry, we quickly discover, is a man who values his privacy and who manages to find a balance between his unsavory job and his devout religious faith by maintaining an impenetrable shield of detachment from the rest of humanity. He is a man who hides from the world inside of his apartment, only allowing himself to show the slightest hint of emotion when playing his saxophone. In one of the film’s best scenes, Harry finds himself awkwardly socializing with a far more sleazy acquaintance (played by Alan Garfield, one of the great character actors of the 70s) and it becomes apparent that Harry may be the best in the business but he’s still the ultimate outsider.
However, Harry is forced to confront the contradictions of his own lifestyle when he listens to the conversation between Forrest and Williams and believes that he might have found evidence that both Forrest and Williams are in fear for their lives. With Duvall’s operatives demanding the surveillance tapes, Harry Caul soon finds himself becoming more and more paranoid and unstable as he finds it more and more difficult to justify his detachment. Harry finds himself obsessively listening to the conversation over and over again, going over every possible nuance and emphasis to try to figure out what’s actually being said. Of course, by the end of the film, it’s obvious to both Harry and the audience that nothing is as simple as it sounds.
Compared to the Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, the Conversation is a surprisingly low-key and rather muted film. A lot of this is because, as opposed to the Corleones and Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is a complete and total introvert, a man who makes his living by observing a world that he refuses to be a part of. Though the film works quite well as a thriller, it works best when viewed as a sympathetic character study of a paranoid and anti-social human being. Hackman full inhabits the role, bringing Harry — with all of his frustrating contradictions and conflicted actions — to oddly vibrant life. The film ultimately serves as a sad-eyed look at how a good person can justify doing bad things and how the inevitable consequences of those bad things can only be delayed for so long.
On a final note, an impossibly young Harrison Ford shows up here as Duvall’s sinister assistant. He plays the role with just the right amount of prissy arrogance and he has a great scene where he asks Harry is he wants to try a homemade cookie. “They’re good,” Ford assures him.
So is The Conversation.
* Of course, another Coppola film — The Godfather, Part II — beat the Conversation for best picture. However, The Conversation did win the Palme D’Or at Cannes that year. It was a good year to be Francis Ford Coppola.