The Conversation (1974)

As the lights flicker out and the subway train is submerged in darkness, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) looks back at the void behind him. For any other man, this might be simply a look of curiosity or a glimpse to see if anything is wrong. But For Harry, it’s a look back in paranoia, fear of what might be hidden, of what he might not be able to see or notice.

Harry has a good reason to be paranoid. He’s a private investigator who’s captured on tape a recording that someone wants a lot and heavily suggests the people he is working for aren’t the friendliest clients. The worst of it all is that he has no idea what the details are, what his client wants with this information and, most importantly, how they will use the information.

These elements could lead to a powerful and overbearing, thriller the paranoia of Harry assaulting the audience’s senses. And, to an extent, that’s what director Francis Ford Coppola does. He uses this grating, electronic static soundtrack to audibly evoke the erratic tension building inside Harry. It’s one of the boldest uses of sound in film and it works because of how subtle Coppola is elsewhere.

If he used the camera to get more psychological, oblique angels and if he had Gene Hackman make the roll high-energy with a lot of quirks and idiosyncrasies, the soundtrack would be superfluous and wasteful. Instead, he restrains everything else, holds back on what so often is used to tell a story and crafts this fascinating look at the rising paranoia of Harry.

The film also gives the audience a nice dose of fear Harry Caul is not a Bogart P.I. but a cutting edge technician who uses an array of advanced technology to monitor and record his targets. From the tiny bugs planted to the distant conversations recorded by microphones, there this sense that what Harry is doing to this couple in the center of this bustling crowd could be done to anyone.

This effect is only intensified in retrospect. If this film was made in 1974, imagine how much more advanced and effective the technology today must be. And even in an age before the Internet, the pros are already able to infiltrate the private lives of everyday people. Now with webcams, Internet identities and more there’s an even greater feeling of fear when watching this movie.

But underpinning all the paranoia, the fear grating away at this character is a subtle drama about a lonely man. Because of his paranoia and fear he lives a life of isolation. He always has his guard up, a wall of cynicism, doubt and fear blocking out anyone that might come in. He’s a tragic figure, left empty and alone by his paranoia that drives his every action and flows through every vein in his bones.

Most films that deal with fear are either heightened political dramas or horror films. The Conversation is neither. While the soundtrack might be loud, it’s a quiet, understated look at fear that slowly unravels one man. And the real craft of the film comes in the final act which could be unrestrained or deal in excess but instead is reigned in, pulled closed and concluded fantastically, a fitting end to that creeping sense of paranoia that reaches out of the screen and seizes the audience.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing