Francis Ford Coppola | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG
In the mind of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, the concept for The Conversation started out as a puzzle, a story that used repetition to make the audience reconsider what they thought they knew — “not like Rashomon where you present it in different ways each time,” Coppola told Brian De Palma (in this interview, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the genesis and making of The Conversation). “Let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context. In other words, as the film goes along, the audience goes with it because you are constantly giving them the same lines they’ve already heard, yet as they learn a little bit more about the situation they will interpret things differently.” That element is unquestionably still in the film — it propels its plot and generates its twist — but Coppola was a very character-driven filmmaker, and so he couldn’t help but flesh out the man who was listening to those lines over and over again.
That man is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional eavesdropper — people pay him to record what other people are saying in private. When Coppola conceived the film, this was just an interesting world to play around in. By the time it was produced and released, Watergate had recently happened and the film could not have been more timely. Nonetheless, the end result is not merely an espionage mystery, but also a character study about what kind of man would perform this work. So we do see how Harry goes about his job, but these scenes are almost as much about telling us who this man is (methodical, thorough, clever, inventive) as they are about furthering the plot (which, naturally, they’re central to).
It’s also about how the job affects him. One part of that is paranoia — an obvious reaction when you think about it. Harry has multiple locks on apartment door, and one major early sequence is based around him trying to establish how a kindly neighbour had got in to leave him a gift — a seemingly innocuous thing, but the potential it holds has him terrified. Come the end of the film, such behaviour takes on a maddening new dimension. But perhaps an even bigger problem is conscience. Harry lies to himself about the nature of his work, because once upon a time a trio of deaths resulted from it. He says they weren’t his fault because he was just doing his job, but he still clearly carries the guilt of it, and that is what ultimately leads him into a new predicament. Not that that ends well either. Yes, it all comes to a very ’70s conclusion: bleak.
Coppola’s original vision for the film, as a puzzle for the viewer to be solved, survives into the final cut, though anyone watching it just to solve the riddle may find it slow going at times. That’s because Coppola’s other filmmaking instinct, to explore character, has naturally taken hold, and so the movie is as much about the bugger as the bugging. And so it’s very much two things hand in hand: the mystery of what’s going on in the recording, and a study of the psychology of a man who does this for a living. It’s all the richer for being both.