Seen in an introductory film class, The Conversation counts among my very favorite films of all time. It captured my imagination during a time when I was just beginning to delve into the history of cinema. This is just a theory of course but I believe most people my age who loved film and film history started with the cinema of the seventies or directors that made their most famous films in the seventies. This is because these films seem to have the most energy and grittiness to them that modern films and films of the studio system seem to lack. For some it was Jaws or Star Wars, for others it was Taxi Driver (mine) or The Godfather. Whatever your entry point, seventies film serve as a vital gateway into film geekery and to mine especially.
The Conversation follows a very secretive surveillance expert as he tries to unravel the mysteries behind a conversation that he recorded for a client. We know little about his past or who he is inside except when glancing at his work, watching him play the saxophone or when details of his past life are revealed by others. Each detail is crucial to who he is in the audience eyes and it mirrors every detail that he extracts from the recorded conversation. The conversation warps and changes every time he uncovers a new stone in the search. The whirring of the playback machine, the distortions in the dialogue, and the jazz score stay with me days after the film is over. One other thing that stays with me is that final scene in which our hero plays a lonely sax solo in a destroyed apartment. The final scene is heartbreaking because the audience knows that is the last time he will play that sax before he destroys it in a futile search.
I have to admit that before watching this film, I was more familiar with Gene Hackman’s more “hacky” stuff from the mid nineties and early two thousands. It never occurred to me that this man was actually a good actor. Here he conveys his character through small gestures and facial expressions all of which tell way more about his character than his dialogue does. John Cazale is one of many pretentious film professors’ (at least at my school) favorite actor. Although he died young, he was a vital force in seventies films and brought a completely different quality to each character he plays. In fact watching him in this film and comparing him to his role in Dog Day Afternoon and The Godfather and they seem like two different people. Here he plays a kind of everyman while in the other three films that I have seen him in he is slimy and sleazy. He is curious, he is randy, and he is good at his job but just sees it as a job like most men that I know. However this is everything that Hackman’s character is not. He is pure. He is guarded and his job is everything to him. The two characters are a nice foil that balances out the heady film.
Many people believe that Coppola’s crowning achievement in his film career was the Godfather series (I and II… there are no other films in the series), but I would have to disagree with them. I think that The Conversation is the most complete and daring project that he has ever done, except for Jack. (I had to put a jab at him for that film. I knew that film was crap when I was eight years old and I had to watch it with my parents because they thought I would enjoy a story starring Robin Williams about a young man who ages super fast into the hairy Robin. Emotional scars are all I have to say about that) I love this film for many reasons that are too boring to list here, but if you are at all interested in meditative character pieces, I would suggest you check out this film. You won’t be disappointed.