Criterion Prediction #220: The Conversation, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Conversation
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Robert Duvall, Teri Garr, Frederic Forest, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford
Synopsis: Noted surveillance expert Harry Caul (Hackman) is drawn into a case where he and his team are sent to record a seemingly banal conversation between a couple. Caul’s growing obsession brings him into a dangerous conspiracy where paranoia and residual guilt from a previous investigation overwhelm his otherwise quiet and solitary existence.
Critique: Francis Ford Coppola has rarely exhibited such control over one of his creations as he did with The Conversation. Not that his more propulsive works aren’t entirely captivating. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Apocalypse Now are explosive entertainment, and like so many Coppola movies are centerpieces in our cinematic lexicon. But The Conversation eschews convention, referential connectivity (unless there’s a cult of fans who can quote Harry Caul as casually as one says ”I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), as well as genre. While frequently referenced alongside the likes of Klute, Coppola’s creation seems to hang in a league of its own.
It’s a unique and rare creative stride he achieves, surpassing scope, contextual ambition, and an overall sense of self-consciousness that is inherent with the enterprising spirit of artistic direction. The roiling paranoia and omnipresent surveillance have substantial allegorical import, but it feels purely essential, and the most crucial element at play is delivering a cohesive story. As a film, The Conversation feels organically derived although it’s culturally inspired, it certain junctures the slow-burning atmosphere feels akin to a horror feature, the achy discordant score provides an extra nervy bound of tension, and at the heart of it all, it’s a measured thriller. Before the bombastic spectacle that would evolve later on with Apocalypse Now, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or the arthouse stride of Rumble Fish Francis Ford Coppola, struck a distinctive chord of artistic congruity that balances ethics, professionalism and interior struggle.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: There are two movies in The Criterion Collection that are tangentially related – it starts with Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and ends somewhere around DePalma’s Blow-Out. The missing link, The Conversation. While it wouldn’t just be “cool” to have this informal trilogy of movies, The Conversation is a major film in American cinema history and would be a perfect fit in The Criterion Collection. Not only is it currently available to stream via The Criterion Channel, its life on Blu-Ray is limited to an eight-year-old release that serves the movie well but only in that “default” kind of way.