Relax, I can calm all your eavesdropping fears;
Don’t worry; we’re shielded from unwelcome ears.
I’ve turned off my phone, which I’ve hid in my lawn,
So it’s muffled in case it’s remotely turned on.
I’ve checked every lampshade and drawer that I’ve got
And crushed every bug, whether living or not.
I’ve emptied the bookcases, checked every crack,
And covered the windows with tarps painted black.
I’ve wrapped my computer and cameras in wool,
So no one can use them to get an earful.
And while I apologize for all the noise,
It’s safest to speak while I blast Beastie Boys.
So now we can talk, privately and secure.
And yet, in this world, can we ever be sure?
MPAA rating: PG
Francis Ford Coppola had a good year in 1974, where both The Conversation and The Godfather Part II were nominated for Best Picture, the latter winning, of course. Both have solid critical acclaim, but it’s easy for The Conversation to be overshadowed by its more epic cousin. It’s a slow-moving thriller very different from Coppola’s other films, hanging predominately on Gene Hackman in the lead role of Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who believes he’s overheard evidence of a potential murder yet to happen.
Hackman is always excellent, and while I can’t say it’s one of his most memorable performances, he makes the mustached Caul sympathetic with his intensely private, loner lifestyle and his guilt over a past job gone wrong. Next to him are early appearances by Cindy Williams, John Cazale (Fredo in The Godfather films), and even Harrison Ford, but the other star of the film is the surveillance equipment Caul employs. In our current world of advanced electronics, The Conversation feels significant if only to capture the methods and technology of the surveillance profession decades ago, such as the huge reel tape machine that Caul uses to listen to the same enigmatic sentences over and over throughout the film. While most of it seems antiquated, I was actually surprised by one gadget that could remotely turn a telephone into a listening device, and those were old-fashioned corded phones!
All that being said, The Conversation is a thriller of a different style than we’re used to nowadays with constant car chases and explosions. It’s slow and meant to be slow, relying on suggestion and paranoia that doesn’t always keep it interesting. That does change toward the end, as the truth of the conversation comes to light, especially with a memorable scene involving a toilet. After the masterfully enacted twist, though, it’s as if the film doesn’t know how to end. The final scene boasts some powerful paranoia (enough even to overwhelm Caul’s religious devotion), but it’s not what I consider an ending. Perhaps it would have benefited from a little less ambiguity toward a climactic irony, which I only learned of while reading about the film afterward.
The Conversation may not be my cup of tea, as far as thrillers go, but it’s an anxiously plausible and well-made meditation on privacy or the lack thereof and a reminder that the meaning of a conversation can hinge on the stress of a single word.
Best line: (Caul) “I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”
Rank: Honorable Mention
© 2016 S.G. Liput
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