Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Conversation

Gene Hackman's Harry Caul is the consummate professional and his specialty is listening to people when they don't want to be heard. He takes on a job for The Director (Robert Duvall) who suspects his wife Ann(Cindy Williams) is cheating on him and wants tape of her and her lover Mark (Frederic Forrest) talking.

Harry appears in control at all times. To record a conversation, he always has plans and back up plans, and several different recording methods going at the same time.  At the beginning of the movie, recording Mark and Ann, he has a high tech listening device on a rooftop, as well as microphones hidden in the crowd surrounding them, while he monitors everything from a surveillance van. When Stan (John Cazale),one of his crew, comments that "sometimes he likes to know what they're saying." Caul responds "I don't care what they're talking about." Caul's need for control extends beyond his work. He is also obsessed with his own security, arguing with his landlord who placed a delivery in his apartment, despite Harry's triple locked doors. Harry insists that he should have the only key to his place. His knowledge of surveillance methods undermines his own sense of security.

Harry's expertise is recognized by his field and his presence is even promoted in the newsletter for a surveillance convention. The sequence where Harry and Stan piece Ann and Mark's conversation together from all their recording sources is brilliantly effective giving us snippets of conversation in the same way that Harry pieces them together. While Harry claims to only care about "the recording"  he can't help but make certain assumptions to fill in the gaps when dealing with the recording after the fact.

Harry's lover, Amy (Teri Garr) remarks on Harry's manner, observing that she always feels like he's trying to catch her at something. Although he pays her rent and they've been together for some time, Harry won't even tell her what he does for work or where he lives. He also claims, as he does several times to others, that he doesn't have a telephone. She threatens to break with him, unhappy with his secrecy and having to wait until he wants to show up.

Harry's need for precision and set routine is disturbed quickly when the Director (Robert Duvall) is absent when he delivers the tapes, although they agreed he was to deliver them to the Director by hand and person to person. The Director's Assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) takes the tapes and pays Harry instead. Harry gets agitated at this and takes the tapes back, leaving the money, deciding he'd rather wait until the Director returns to stick to their agreement. The Assistant warns Harry not to get involved because "the tapes are dangerous and someone may get hurt." He sees both Mark and Ann in the building as he leaves with the tapes and despite himself, the tapes begin to seem more personal. Harry starts playing snippets over and over again, not even realizing that his perspective is coloring what he hears. Harry has a heated argument with Stan who asks what Mark and Ann are talking about. Harry angrily reasserts that he has no personal curiosity about the job and that curiosity is making Stan sloppy. After Stan leaves, Harry becomes fixated on the snippet of Mark telling Ann  "He'd kill us if he got the chance."

Harry first admits his concerns while going to confession. He tells the priest that he's worried his recording will get people hurt and that it has happened to him before. It's also interesting that while he tells the priest about taking the Lord's name in vain, stealing newspapers and taking pleasure in impure thoughts, he also needs to mention that he's not responsible. Harry's phrasing reveals the conclusions he's drawn from the tapes. He says his work could be used "to hurt these two young people."

Harry is most at ease at the surveillance convention. Although the attending vendors are eager to have a picture of Harry in front of their wares, Harry insists that he builds all of his own equipment. At the convention Harry runs into Stan, who is now working for Moran, a competitor, who Harry feels is beneath him. While Harry does try to downplay their argument, his major concern is obviously that Stan doesn't reveal any of his secrets. Stan replies that Harry never told him any secrets and that was part of the problem. Before leaving he tells Stan that he thinks he's being followed. It turns out that the Director's Assistant is following him (or as he says "I'm not following you. I'm looking for you.") He tells Harry that the Director wants to set up a new delivery date.

After the convention, Harry has drinks with his colleagues at his recording studio warehouse. Moran brings up some questions about a past job in New York that no one can figure out how he accomplished. The details of the brutal murder that was committed as a result of the job are also brought up, clearly rattling Harry. When Stan starts giving out details of the latest job, Harry can't resist bragging about the techniques that he used, although he evades their questions about the personal details.

After Harry insults Moran, Moran plays back a personal conversation between Harry and Meredith, (Elizabeth McRea) a woman who tagged along with them. Harry is so bothered at being bugged that he kicks everyone out and despite Meredith remaining behind trying to get Harry's attention, he can't resist going back to the tape of Ann and Mark talking.. He sleeps in the warehouse with Meredith, keeping the tape playing in the background. His guilt increases the more he thinks about it and he even dreams about Ann running from him through a fog. He quotes the recording and tells her, "I'm not afraid of death but I am afraid of murder." Meredith is gone when he wakes up, along with the tape.

Harry tries to call the Director's office and is highly disturbed when Martin calls him back immediately(although no one knows he has a phone) He tells Harry that they've been watching him and couldn't risk the tapes being destroyed. He tells Harry to come to the office to get paid in full. When Harry arrives the Director is listening to the tapes, clearly disturbed by the content. Harry's collects his money and leaves the Director and Martin listening to the tapes. On the way out, he asks the Director and then Martin "What'll you do with them?" The Director doesn't answer at all and Martin only says "You'll see." Harry then tries to book the hotel room mentioned in the tape, but finding it already booked, takes an adjoining room, hoping to avert the murder he's now convinced will happen. Harry quickly sets up a listening device through a shared bathroom wall and overhears an argument between the Director and Ann.  Stepping onto the room's balcony he sees a bloodstained hand pressed against the glass in the next room  and thinks the murder has occurred. Hours later he breaks into the room and finds no evidence that anything happened until he flushes the toilet and the bowl fills with blood.

Harry again assumes the worst. The truth however is much much worse than he assumes. As Harry pieces all the parts of the puzzle together things take an unexpected turn and Harry's paranoia seems perfectly sensible. And for someone who is used to having all the answers he discovers that he had many of them wrong. Harry replays the audio clips in his mind and now the same snatches of conversation mean something completely different.  Harry, not knowing what else to do, retreats to his apartment to play the saxophone until an interruption forces him to realize that his lack of control was far worse than he thought. (And yes, I am being vague. If you haven't seen the last quarter of this movie, I don't want to completely rob you of it.)

While Coppola will always be known for the Godfather, the Conversation is such a different film that it's hard to believe the same man directed both. Everything about the fiming serves the story and the character of Harry Caul. This is a tight character study, as claustrophobic as the mind of the protagonist.The use of Harry's audio clips as part of the soundtrack really helps drive this home. Hackman is brilliant here (although he usually is.) portraying Harry as a complex character whose severe contradictions can't help but catch up with him.  While the supporting cast is populated by great actors in top form, Hackman forces us to keep our eyes on him, as much as we may want to look away from the wreck he's headed towards. While it could be seen as a warning about technology advancing beyond anyone's control, and certainly has some valid warnings about the illusion of privacy in modern life, I think it's ultimately about the difficulty that a man with a conscience invites by playing games with his own sense of morality.


TirzahLaughs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TirzahLaughs said...

Didn't they make a half-hearted remake of this movie?

Gene Hackman is still better than most when he's bad. He's one of those under-rated actors. Each character is stamped with his personality yet distinct.

I haven't seen the complete "Conversation" only the start and now you have me salivating.

Darn you.

INDBrent said...

Hi Tirzah,

LOL .I think they've done a few of them. Usually the audio is replaced with different technology. Blow out by Brian Depalma (with John Travolta) has a lot of similarities. I agree that Hackman doesn't get enough recognition. He has so many terrific performances.

Unknown said...

I saw this movie in the early 80s, and I believe it was only because I had heard that Harrison Ford was in it (big crush on Han Solo) and we had a Betamax. I remember it being slow, slow, slooooow. Even for Coppola. However, it's worth it all for the ending.
And I could watch Gene Hackman do just about anything. This was such a departure from the Popeye Doyle series for him. I think ultimately it shows that although we may think the enemy is outside, it is always within. Thanks for another spot-on review.

INDBrent said...

Thanks Bridget,
I could see that (especially if you watched it for Harrison Ford, he's good and all but not a huge part here.) Coppola said that Hackman had a lot of difficulty with the role because Harry Caul is not at all like him. He also says that it's one of Hackman's own favorite performances. Definitely couldn't be further from Popeye Doyle! Thanks for stopping in!

Anonymous said...

For some reason, I have always started watching this movie but have never seen it to the end. Darn it! But reading your post, I was riveted, then you got to the really good part and won't say how it ended! I bet next time, I'll watch the whole thing.

INDBrent said...

Normally I don't care about "spoilers" as a good movie is impossible to ruin, but in this case the ending is so much more rewarding (or the opposite of) if you reach it the same way Harry does. Keep me posted if you do reach the ending. I don't know if you'll thank me but you'll see it was worth it!

Lana A said...

This is a fine film but I agree the pacing is slow. Still very worthwhile for the acting and the story.

INDBrent said...

Thanks Lana,
Slow sure, but I think it suits the life of the character if you can get through it. SOme of the equipment looks a little dated, but yeah the acting is the big draw here.

macannie76 said...

One word: Cazale.

I worship him.

I fell asleep before the conclusion. Pacing, as aforementioned, got the better of me, too. But your review has rekindled my interest, and now I'll have to watch it again. Damn you, Allard...

INDBrent said...

LOL. Cazale really was something. Every film he appeared in was nominated for best picture. I always feel so bad for Fredo.

So it seems people think the pacing is slow? Ok it's slow, but seriously try one more time. The thing is Harry Caul's a pretty boring guy and when the pacing really kicks up in the last quarter, the contrast is unsettling. And the ending just has to be seen. As I said you won't thank me after, but you will think "that's something that everyone should see" maybe.

Lena said...

The movie was on my to-watch-list for a long time. But as usual I never have got to it. Your brilliant review made me want to watch it now. Not sure though that my boss will appreciate me watching a movie in the office :D

Ligie said...


Well now, haven't I been searching for you!! Email me at buddhistbabe@gmail.com

(you know, that short girl who ran away from New Hampshire...)

INDBrent said...

Hi Barbara.

Wow! (yes, I do indeed know that girl)

Ocho Signos said...

I haven't seen The Conversation, but reading the review reminded me of The Life of Others, that German film from 2006 that won the Oscar for best picture in foreign language. The pace might also seem a little slow, but the film is excellent. You can feel the protagonists' tension and feelings... so maybe not a great pace, but a lot of emotions! Excellent film.

INDBrent said...

Hi Ivana! Yes, Good comparison. It is definitely a film to watch when you're relaxed and don't have anything on the agenda. I personally didn't mind the pacing, but it may just be because I love the film so much. Personally, I think it may well be Coppola's best work and Hackman is so amazing here. Worth a watch but yeah be ready for a really slow build up.