The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

23Jun11

Gene Hackman (Harry Caul), John Cazale (Stan), Harrison Ford (Martin Stett). Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Rating: 12. Running time: 112 minutes.

As I watched The Conversation, I was reminded of Blow-Up. Not because the style is similarly distinctive, and at times so self-consciously art-house, though those two traits undoubtedly hold true of both films. The comparison, rather, ends up unavoidable because each film revolves around the obsessive practice of a craft that culminates in the main character getting stuck in the middle of a mystery. The difference is that this constitutes a ‘plot’ for Blow-Up only in a very loose sense. It’s more like the film’s theme around which stunning visuals and sequences can be carved out. And at times, The Conversation likes to focus on looking good too. But Coppola is first and foremost a storyteller, and, true to form, his Palme d’Or winner ends up taking us on an intensely planned journey. This is, rest assured, no Antonioni-driven joyride without any clear end in sight.

What’s so hard to adapt to is the fact that this is a technological crime thriller with brains. This isn’t a genre used to making films qua art, and by saying that I don’t mean to belittle it. The pure entertainment anyone can soak up from Enemy of the State‘s twists, turns and car chases has its worthy place in our lives. But that place is on a Friday night with friends. It’s good while it lasts, and then it’s soon forgotten. Who left that film fascinated by the psychology of Will Smith’s character? Who’s still interested in the details of The Recruit to this day? Ask those questions about The Conversation instead, and they no longer seem so absurd.

With regards to subject-matter, then, The Conversation sits in the same field as all modern crime thrillers, and it’s their primary inspiration. It does not, however, similarly derive its kicks from explosions. You’re going to have to work harder than that to get your reward. It instead works by very slowly building us up to understand someone, so we share his fear and intrigue and stay in the dark alongside him as events unfold. And the end-product will stay with you after the credits roll up. For the twist is neither cheap nor inconceivable. It’s both clever and very late, and it succeeds in recolouring the entire film in a way you can’t help but contemplate, as you also get to grips with the quiet insanity of the film’s main character.

I had never considered the possibility of a film of this sort being made this way, but now that I’ve seen it I want more modern thrillers to take note. Not all of them. There’s always room for the type of fun we get from The Recruit. But nowadays that market is saturated. I want a deeper, tougher and quieter yet more enduring experience, and it seems that on that front, The Conversation is the unrivalled archetype.

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