Francis Ford Coppola, Harrison Ford, and Gene Hackman have a conversation
Although Gene Hackman’s character is a man in the surveillance business, The Conversation (1974) is about a Nixon-level invasion of privacy, which leads to paranoia and ten rounds with the human conscience. The movie begins with a zoom in on a mime in a crowded plaza, and he directs his bothersome attention to Gene Hackman, who is having a coffee, but Hackman doesn’t want attention. Hackman plays a very different character than any he’s played before and he’s gone on record saying that it was difficult to deviate so far from himself. I guess that’s what acting is about, because Gene Hackman is simply great in this movie, as the reluctantly immoral surveillance expert, Harry Caul.
I think only Enemy of the State compares to this level of paranoia and attack on personal liberty. However, The Conversation (1974) can be taken more seriously and this is not a buddy film. It is a character study, not a conspiracy action movie wanna-be. Just about everything Harry Caul does or says in the film illustrates something about him. It’s brilliant how much detail Gene Hackman put into his role.
The beginning of the film is a demonstration of Caul’s trade, and his activities. He’s on the job bugging people and taping private conversations right from the start of the movie. He is apprehensive and wants to get his job done right, wants to get the evidence and deliver on his assignment. He doesn’t even really care who the job is for or what the conversation is, just that he gets the recording.
Even though Caul seems devoted to his job, he is utterly paralyzed by its realities. He knows people are listening because he’s one of the people. He knows the government, secret agencies, the justice department, whoever—all collect information on citizens of the US. He knows how to break the law and many tricks of the trade. That’s why he has four locks on his door and he’s almost entirely isolated from the outside world, much like his character Brill in Enemy of the State, but with less stupidness.
Harry Caul eventually becomes deeply affected by his work and the results. Some people have been killed in the past and more are in danger as another situation paralyzes him in fear for the consequences. His girlfriend, played by Teri Garr, becomes amused at the paranoid way he acts and he gets upset when she keeps asking him questions. The movie is very good at making you feel paranoid and Gene Hackman has this silent way of expressing his irritation and restlessness that is great. A stand-out scene is when Gene Hackman goes to leave when he can’t stop thinking about why she is asking so many questions, and she is hurt, sad and unable to understand why he can’t be with her. He pauses at the door, as if second-guessing himself, but leaves anyway.
Harry Caul is a devout Catholic with a curious job. You’d think somebody so concerned with life and privacy wouldn’t be a surveillance expert. He may have worked for the government in the past, but he’s now in private work. He desperately wants to distance himself from his past, when he caused the deaths of others, and doesn’t share anything. He refuses to share personal information and is catatonic to the extreme about anybody finding things out about him, which is ironic, since he’s the best bug agent around.
Finally, he gets the courage to go help the two people he’s put in danger. He visits their hotel, but can’t bring himself to warn them. He stays in the adjoining room out of fear and eavesdrops on them, accidentally hearing a murder. The one thing about this movie that is absolutely paralyzing is its use of silence. Gene Hackman’s expressions are often as telling as a long speech. They build the anxiety and paranoia in the film, guiding its themes. The movie has a strong score to compensate for the use of silence, but it’s often lonely piano music or other such orchestral instruments.
Enemy of the State could be considered a sequel to this film. It has more action and is faster, but The Conversation has more nuances and is better directed. They are only similar superficially and it may seem like Gene Hackman plays the same character in both movies at first glance, but they are both quite different. His character Brill in Enemy of the State is paranoid, but he is aggressive and a highly intellectual conspirator. Harry Caul is more introspective and has lost his personal identity, if that’s even possible. His business and talents scare him, while Brill accepts them as a necessary trade.
This was the film Harrison Ford did after his first great role in American Graffiti. He has no impact on this movie, beyond adding an aura of seriousness as a co-conspirator to murder. John Cazale does a good job as Stan in the movie and has a small relationship with Harry. You can see some of the idiosyncrasies in Stan that Cazale would later use for his character in The Godfather.
All in all, this is a great movie. It’s a better movie if you’re in the right mood because it’s somewhat slow and character driven, like The Godfather. I like it. It’s different, for its unusual character study and the twist at the end is great. Francis Ford Coppola is a good director and shows it every time, but the real treat is Gene Hackman. His performance really makes you believe Harry Caul is concealing himself from others, and it always looks like something is bothering him, although we don’t know what until later. The camera isolates Harry with the way it keeps back in some scenes, and frames the tension in others with its closeness. Coppola creates a taut thriller, and it kept me watching, listening, and analyzing, like both Harry Caul and Gene Hackman.