“The Conversation” is the best of a Coppola hot streak

The Conversation Gene Hackman in The Conversation (Paramount Pictures)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For April, we revisit both the game changing hits and low point misses of Francis Ford Coppola. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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Not many artists have stretches of greatness so profound that they transcend their medium. They’re not looked at as just a musician or athlete or director, but part of the fabric of modern pop culture at a particular time. What The Beatles meant to the 1960s, or what Michael Jordan meant to the 1990s, is how Francis Ford Coppola defined the 1970s. 

During one of the peaks of American filmmaking, Coppola sat on top of his Everest, looking down at the rest of his peers waiting for them to catch up to him. To direct mammoth works like The Godfather, Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now in the same ten years is a feat so unbelievable it’s as if he made a pact with Satan. Considering where things went after the 70s, maybe he did. But the craziest part of Coppola’s unparalleled run was in 1973. Squeezed in right after The Godfather and before Part II, just two of the most treasured pieces of cinema, he made another film that actually may be his best. 

Shooting on his home turf of San Francisco with a miniscule budget, Coppola was taking a wild swing with The Conversation. He was the hottest director on the planet and decided to use that cache to make a complex, psychological character study about a paranoid dude who spies on people for a living. The country was in the wreckage of the Vietnam War ending and the Watergate scandal beginning, which made critics plop The Conversation into the genre of “70s Paranoia Thrillers.” It makes sense given its themes of surveillance and overwhelming guilt, but this film is playing a smaller and more disturbing game than the epic political thrillers of the time like The Parallax View

Ironically, The Conversation wasn’t conceived with Watergate in mind, even with all the wiretapping and staticy audio recordings that play a big role in the film. According to Coppola, “…right from the beginning I wanted it to be something personal, not political, because somehow that is even more terrible to me.” While he usually begins the writing process with an idea of a character, The Conversation started with a real conversation. One between him and future Empire Strikes Back director, Irvin Kershner, about how hard it would be to bug someone walking through a crowd. 

Squeezed in right after The Godfather and before Part II, just two of the most treasured pieces of cinema, he made another film that actually may be his best. 

Since the idea was generated by an idea and not a foundational character, Coppola needed an actor who could fill in the gaps with their performance. They needed to create a richly detailed portrait of a lonely curmudgeon who hates other people and never lets anyone in but is a genius when it comes to capturing their secrets on tape without their knowledge. He’s a man riddled with guilt from his Catholic upbringing (Catholicism runs throughout Coppola’s filmography) and a past job that resulted in the brutal murder of an entire family. In other words, not a fun hang of a person. The only actor that could pull off a high wire act like this would be the only person cooler than 70s Coppola…70s Gene Hackman.

He plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert hired to spy on the wife of a powerful businessman, known simply as The Director (Robert Duvall). He listens to the recordings over and over again until he realizes he may have found himself in a dangerous murder plot. With the weight his past sins pulling on him, he spends the rest of the film attempting to stop what may or may not be in motion. In the process, his obsession and paranoia turn against him, making him a saxophone playing shell of a human by the end. 

The 1975 Academy Awards had a Hall of Fame Best Actor category, including all-timers like Al Pacino for Godfather Part II, and Jack Nicholson for Chinatown (they would both lose to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto because the Oscars have always been insane) but the sneaky best performance of the year wasn’t even nominated.  

Hackman plays one of the most unpleasant lead characters of a major studio film in Harry Caul, and still makes him captivating. It helps that Hackman was born, Benjamin Button style, as a grizzled middle-aged man who’s fed up with it all. He looked exactly 52 years old for three decades. 

Coming off his star-making role in The French Connection, Hackman took the complete opposite approach from playing Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle with The Conversation. As Harry, he plays a man so buttoned down and introverted you worry he might physically shrink into nothing in the middle of the frame. He hides behind his depressing glasses and mustache, similar to another genius with some secrets, Walter White. He also wears one of the most unstylish raincoats ever captured on celluloid through most of the film. Like the rest of his character, the raincoat is translucent and hard to see through completely. He wears it like knight’s armor.

The Conversation (Paramount Pictures)

He’s brilliant with electronics but lacks any social graces. Early in the film, Harry passes a friendly neighbor in their rundown apartment building who wishes him a Happy Birthday. Instead of the normal “Thanks,” Harry winces like he’s just been shot and hurries to his apartment (locked with three different locks and an alarm system) without saying anything. The way Hackman portrays antisocial behavior, not by being obvious but by being small, like a scared turtle, reminds me of some of the jittery characters Philip Seymour Hoffman would later play to perfection. 

Harry’s worst fear is anyone knowing anything about him, especially the women in his life. In one scene he visits his mistress, Amy (Teri Garr), who calls him out for creepily standing outside her apartment, like he’s waiting to catch her doing something. Amy probes Harry more, trying to get him to share something, anything with her. The only thing he shares is a lie about being a freelance musician. 

Garr is effortlessly charming as always while Hackman is able to use the power of his silence to invoke a Don Draper-level of sexiness, despite the creepy mustache. By the end of the scene, Garr turns that charm into a knife when Amy tells Harry they need to end things. He leaves without saying anything, of course.

Harry asks ” How did you find out about that?!” several times in the film. Not out of curiosity, but out of pure fear that someone has information he doesn’t. He says it in one pivotal sequence where he finds himself back at his office, located in a nondescript warehouse, late at night after a surveillance conference (those used to be a thing I guess). He’s with fellow surveillance experts who bring along some women to party with them, including Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), who tries to seduce Harry. 

The Conversation (Paramount Pictures)

Hackman puts on an absolute clinic in this scene. For a performance that is so still, we can see hundreds of emotions cross his face. First there’s the moment when Meredith takes him to a shadowy corner to try to fool around with him. Like most social interactions, Harry is not into this, and Hackman is able to pull off a high degree of pity by just leaning on a wooden post and avoiding eye contact with MacRae.  

Then afterwards, when the couple has rejoined the larger group, the scene takes a turn when one of his competitors, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield), starts pushing his buttons. Bernie tries to compare his surveillance equipment with Harry’s, putting him in a defensive position. It’s like an early version of the American Psycho scene where Christian Bale and his fellow Wall Street bankers wave their business cards around like it’s a bench press competition. 

Harry is able to keep his cool until Bernie brings up his dark past, including the mass murder of a family that resulted from Harry’s spying gig. This is where the ” How did you find out about that?!” drops. It’s the only time Hackman slightly raises his voice, but it feels like a primal scream. He goes into a frenzied mode, which for Harry means turning extroverted and becoming the life of the party. He shares other, less sordid tales and brags about the intricate surveillance job he pulled off at the beginning of the film. Because Hackman goes under the speed limit with his acting the whole movie up until now, the moment he speeds up turns the scene into something very unsettling. 

Hackman’s and Coppola’s work pays off for the chilling final moments of the film. Coppola fragments the mystery by using Harry’s shaky point of view before it all comes together like a piece of distorted audio, finally heard loud and clear. The tables are now turned on Harry, and he’s convinced he’s the one being wiretapped. Hackman doesn’t scream or punch the walls. He’s still quiet. He just methodically tears his walls apart, breaks his phone into pieces, and tears up the floorboards, trying to find a recording device that isn’t there. Coppola ends the film with Harry casually playing the sax in his destroyed apartment. The camera is nailed to the floor, panning back and forth like a security cam spying on Harry.

This was the only time Hackman and Coppola worked together, which is unfortunate. Hackman has Every Man gravitas that lets him easily slip into different film worlds ranging from Coppola’s haunting visions to the whimsical New York City of Wes Anderson. He has movie star charisma but could also be your shady uncle. Even with the great performances Coppola got from the best actors of their generation like Pacino, Brando, and Duvall, no other role in Coppola’s work has the same level of disturbing precision and understated power like Hackman’s troubled Harry Caul. 

The Conversation Trailer:

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