“A complex, reverberating study of a man trapped by guilt”: Coppola’s The Conversation reviewed in 1974

As Francis Ford Coppola’s neo-noir thriller The Conversation returns to cinemas with a new 4K restoration for its 50th anniversary, we revisit our original review of the film from July 1974, in which writer David Wilson described Coppola’s script as “Hitchcockian” in its skill while, also, questioning its fixed perspective.

Gene Hackman as Harry Caul in The Conversation (1974)

The Conversation begins, as did The Godfather, with a general viewpoint which gradually closes into a particular focus: a zoom which starts high above a crowded square and ends on the figure of a man eavesdropping on a couple walking round the square. From this very first shot the perspective of Coppola’s film is fixed almost entirely on this one figure, an intensely private man who lives by invading other people’s privacy. As a professional spy Harry Caul is the best in the business (“the best bugger on the West Coast”, as a rival calls him), and the ingenious mechanics of his profession are meticulously observed and fascinating to watch. For Harry the technology (to which Watergate has given an awful familiarity, though Coppola actually began work on the script long before the White House plumbers were unearthed) is a refuge from the world and from himself. A lonely, obsessive, repressed individual, Harry depends for his professional success on keeping his secrets to himself; a private man without a private life, he leaves his girlfriend the moment she gets curious about him. 

The Hitchcockian cunning of Coppola’s script is to invite identification with this ostensibly anonymous figure from the outset, even when we ought to be identifying with the victims of Harry’s surveillance, the couple who — as we learn from Harry’s repeated playing of the tapes — appear to be in danger. Coppola builds a picture of Harry much as Harry builds the conversation from the scrambled noise of the tapes. Harry lives alone, plays a saxophone to a jazz record (a casually succinct metaphor for his state of limbo), keeps his telephone hidden in a drawer, is annoyed to discover that his landlady (whom we never see) has duplicated his keys. “I don’t have anything personal, except my keys,” he tells her; and later, in the long sequence of the desultory post-convention party in Harry’s gloomy warehouse workshop (which Coppola films almost entirely in mid-shot, keeping his distance from professional colleagues conditioned to keep a distance from each other), an invasion of his own privacy by an aggressively friendly, absurdly competitive colleague provokes his first flicker of emotion. 

Gene Hackman as Harry Caul in The Conversation (1974)

Up to this point the film’s predominant mood (emphasised by the faded, unaccentuated tones of Bill Butler’s photography) has been melancholy, apart from some gently ironic fun with the surveillance equipment convention (the banality of evil, machines for destroying private lives promoted and sold as though they were kitchen gadgets). Up to this point, too, Coppola has kept his audience balanced on the same tightrope that Harry is walking, with non-involvement at one end and curiosity about — and then, through repetition, fear for — the couple on the tape. Harry’s mistake, by his own standards, is that he does get involved; the film’s mistake, implicit in the fixed perspective device (which Rear Window, of course, was obliged to abandon when it came to the resolution of the mystery) of letting the audience see only as much as Harry sees, is that the accumulation and repetition allow time for questions about the plot. It’s difficult, given the method he has chosen, to see how Coppola could have got round these narrative confusions (what, for one example, is the precise role of the director’s assistant?), which are only compounded by the suggestion that the murder, when it happens, may only exist in Harry’s mind, and by the somewhat scrambled reversal of the denouement. These loopholes are the more troubling since it seems unlikely that Coppola has set out to dupe his audience, Psycho fashion, much as Harry is duped by his ‘victims’. 

On his own admission, what engaged Coppola in this psychological thriller was not the thriller but the psychology: he began, he says, with a film about privacy and found himself with a film about responsibility. On this level at least The Conversation is an unqualified success, a complex, reverberating study of a man trapped by guilt (the question of Harry’s Catholicism would set off another line of inquiry). It is a measure of that success (which owes a lot to Gene Hackman’s wholly persuasive performance) that the comparison which most obviously suggests itself, Blow-Up (1966), leaves Antonioni’s film looking empty and inert. Where Blow-Up, as a comment on non-involvement, left us uninvolved, The Conversation leaves us in no doubt about its concern for Harry Caul and his escape from privacy.

► The Conversation is in UK cinemas now and is available on a 2-disc 4K UHD Collector’s edition and digital from 15 July.