Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema feature is the early Coppola classic, The Conversation. This tense, paranoid thriller presents Francis Ford Coppola at his finest — and makes some remarkably advanced arguments about technology’s role in society that still resonate today.
Made between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), and in part an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s art-movie classic Blow-Up (1966), The Conversation was a return to small-scale art films for Francis Ford Coppola.
Surveillance expert Harry Caul is hired by a mysterious client’s brusque aide to tail a young couple. Tracking the pair through San Francisco’s Union Square, Caul and his associate Stan manage to record a cryptic conversation between them. Tormented by memories of a previous case that ended badly, Caul becomes obsessed with the resulting tape, trying to determine if the couple are in danger.
The writer-director Francis Ford Coppola took a suggestion from his fellow-filmmaker Irvin Kershner to check out the expanding world of electronic eavesdropping, and developed it into a near-triumph about a guilt-wracked bugging master named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who believes that he hears intimations of murder on his surveillance tapes. When it premièred, in 1974, the movie’s technological tricks and sleek corporate backdrop evoked Watergate. Thanks to Walter Murch’s keen, intuitive sound montage and Hackman’s clammy, subtle performance, the movie captures a more elusive and universal fear—that of losing the power to respond, emotionally and morally, to the evidence of one’s own senses. Bespectacled and balding, Hackman conveys a clumsy sensitivity that compensates for the wispiness of the script; he’s abetted by John Cazale, as Caul’s assistant; Allen Garfield, as Caul’s competitor; and Cindy Williams, Frederick Forrest, and Robert Duvall, as the trio involved in the homicide plot.
— Michael Sragow, The New Yorker