“I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”
Thrillers today are too focused on story, I think as I watch The Conversation, Coppola’s entrancing mystery-thriller about a paranoid man who listens to other people’s conversations for a living. There’s an entire world to this movie- a sad world where lack of privacy is a given. A world where a shred of empathy could be your downfall, but you still cling to the hope of some kind of decency. This is a mystery where you can stop worrying about the story for long intervals just to immerse yourself in a character, and I think we’ve lost a lot of that in mainstream thrillers today.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a private-operating surveillance expert who is tasked by a mysterious client to record a conversation between a young couple in a public square. Caul is incredibly cautious and paranoid about being a victim of surveillance himself, and he distances himself emotionally from others, including his girlfriend who knows very little of his actual life. He becomes obsessed with the details of the conversation he records in the square, suspecting that the young couple may be in some serious danger.
The movie is slow in terms of plot because there’s not a lot of actual plot. There are some really cool sequences of Henry piecing together the audio, refining its quality to understand new pieces of the mystery while older segments are constantly repeated. Mostly, though, Coppola seems interested in his protagonist. There’s a fascinating sequence in the middle where Caul visits a surveillance convention, mingling with other surveillance expert, and his iconic status in the world of surveillance becomes apparent. I love when movies can bring some niche culture of individuals to the forefront, and The Conversation does so delightfully with surveillance junkies in a really thrilling way that you just wouldn’t see done the same way today.
Coppola wrote and directed the movie, and you can see his cohesive vision throughout all parts of The Conversation. It’s not meant to be an epic like a lot of his other movies. It’s more focused and ripe with details, like Caul’s love of the saxophone or all the little ways he maintains his privacy. The movie is easily more of a character study than a mystery, and that only makes the mystery more elusive and enticing. Coppola achieves the unique task of making you less concerned about whether anyone is in danger but more concerned with how the protagonist feels about that. It’s an exciting, violent scenario presented in a slower, more reflective way, and I think that’s a sign of mature filmmaking.
The Conversation is a delightful, underseen find of a movie. It’s as good as Coppola gets, and I like that you can see a more nuanced side of his work with this movie. It doesn’t shoot as wide as The Godfather, but it hits its mark beautifully nonetheless, and it’s definitely worth your time.
Films Left to Watch: 861