A tragically lesser-known work from once-masterful director Francis Ford Coppola (let's just leave the post-70s work out of it, shall we?), The Conversation's only flaw was in its release. Coppola made the film after the success of The Godfather, and the film premiered in the same year as The Godfather, Part II. The man could have defecated diamonds at a press conference and we'd be talking about that less all these years later than the first two Godfather entries. However, The Conversation stands as perhaps Coppola's tautest film, and one of the best thrillers ever made.
Gene Hackman gives the performance of his career as Harry Caul, a legend in the surveillance industry so revered by his peers and so self-confident that it took me nearly all of the film to realize how terrible he is at his job. He manages to record an adulterous couple in a park using a brilliant microphone set-up that no-else would have dreamt up, only to get personally involved with the case and even lose the tapes. He triple-locks his doors, yet his landlady manages to get in to leave him a present.
Caul also suffers from intense fear of people and a desperate need for privacy, ironic considering how me makes his living. When he's not pouring over his tapes, filtering out all the distortion and background noise. "All I want is a nice, fat recording," he says to his assistant Stan (John Cazale). Well, I say "assistant;" Caul never lets the poor man in on his methods, never shows him the tricks of the trade. I'm actually unsure what it is that he does; Caul's can't even trust the only man who has the slightest idea what Caul does and how he does it.
The two are hired to spy on this couple by the woman's husband, a wealthy business executive (Robert Duvall), who remains unseen for most of the film. Ergo, he entrusts his proxy Stett (Harrison Ford) to deal with Caul. Stett acts curt and sinister from the start, and only gets worse as Caul's neurosis begins to seep into the film. Caul refuses to give the tapes to Stett,and soon he sees the man everywhere he goes. On the recording, he notices the wife's lover tell her "He'd kill us if he had the chance," and he fears that the husband and Stett will murder the two if he relinquishes the tapes.
Late in the film, Caul attends a surveillance expo, where all the names in the biz meet and perversely discuss their profession as if it were any other business. His chief competitor, Moran (Allen Garfield) demonstrates a new bugging device that turns the victim's (let's just call a spade a spade) phone into a microphone without ever needing to modify that telephone. Stan works for him now after finally getting sick of Caul's attitude towards him, and Harry asks him to come back to work for him. Why I can't say. Moran somehow convinces Harry to bring him and some guests back to his workshop.
Here Caul comes alive for the first time; Stan brings up the park job and Harry beams at his own ingenuity. For a man who hates strangers, he sure does like to be the object of adoration. But he turns back into his usual self when he finds that Moran bugged him as a joke, and throws out all the guests except a woman who seduces him. When he wakes up, the tapes are gone.
The film then takes a step in a strange direction. Caul dreams of the adulterous woman he tries to protect, and divulges to the apparition revealing moments of his childhood. The word 'caul' means one of two things: a spider's web, appropriate for a thriller, and a thin covering that surround the fetus to prevent it from drowning. Caul tells his vision of a moment when he was very young where his mother left him alone in the bath and he nearly drowned. Caul also wears a flimsy, transparent raincoat throughout the film, regardless of the weather. From this dream we can figure out why Caul doesn't trust anyone, and why he's always so depressed.
As the film heads towards the conclusion, it suddenly kicks into overdrive, complete with downright hallucinatory visions. Caul heads to a hotel to try to warn the two lovers, only to hear terrible screams and see blood splash against the window of his adjacent room. He sneaks into their room later and flushes the running toilet, only for blood to surge out and flood the bathroom, sending Caul into a psychotic episode.
The film then ends on a shocking twist, one that hammers home Coppola's message, that simply spying on someone's conversation divorces it from context and, often, inflection. The entire film rests on which words are stressed in just one sentence and the dire consequences of misinterpreting them. Coppola wrote the script way back in the 1960s, but the film opened amidst the fallout of the Watergate scandal, and the parallels are just too good to simply dismiss as coincidence. Coppola surely didn't intend it, but The Conversation represents the paranoia and resentment created with the realization that someone could listen in on your most private moments at any time.
Ultimately, though, The Conversation is, apart from one of the most intelligent and unpredictable thrillers ever made, a attempt to capture sound: how we perceive it, how we interpret it, how it builds in our minds more than any other sense. Sound is probably the most difficult aspect of the movies to criticize and analyze, as it is the element that has to seem more natural than anything else. Even when disturbing and unexpected noises suddenly fill our eardrums, we believe them because the rest of the time we hear normal footsteps, normal insects, normal speech. The Conversation flips all that on its ear, and uses perversions of what we expect to hear to leave in a state of constant distress, begging for a release that only comes when the film has fully drained us of energy.