1974 / Best Picture

Film #263: The Conversation (1974)

Hackman’s next appearance in a Best Picture film came four years later in a movie which I still consider one of my favourite of all time. I also believe that Hackman’s performance in The Conversation was deserving of at least a Best Actor Nomination, an honour that he didn’t receive for this particular film.

Arguably, The Conversation was a better overall film than The French Connection while I definitely preferred Hackman as Harry Caul. Caul is one of America’s most renowned surveillance experts and has often been praised for being able to pick up any speech necessary. Caul lives a fairly solitary existence, living alone with only his jazz saxophone for company, though he does have a regular relationship with a woman who knows nothing about him. But Caul’s work has sometimes caused him emotional strain and, as we learn later in the film, one of his most recent jobs resulted in a triple murder. Caul is very wary when he is tasked with recording a couple as they walk through Union Square in San Francisco especially when he hears the phrase ‘he’d kill us if he got the chance.’ Caul is soon tasked with giving his tapes to a man known simply as The Director, but when one of The Director’s underlings takes the tapes a nervous Harry takes them back. As he becomes obsessed by the tapes, Harry realises he has to act on what he’s heard and uses the information he has to act as a vigilante hero. But, the film’s message ultimately seems to be that, even if you can hear everything, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you listen to everything that’s being said.

The Conversation is the first time that I’ve come across a Francis Ford Coppola film while writing this project and you can see why, at his peak, the director was hailed as one of the greats. The Conversation is a tense thriller which builds up the audience’s expectations before completely changing the game in the last ten minutes. For me, I think that The Conversation features some of the greatest uses of sound in cinema history. The way we see the conversation being broken down by Harry throughout the film is simply superb and you never tire of hearing the same speech over and over again. Hackman’s performance as Harry is also one of the film’s greatest strengths as he portrays the surveillance expert as someone who’s always been on the borders of society. Though Harry is seemingly attractive to the opposite sex, his intricate nature and paranoia make it impossible for him to form meaningful relationships. For the most part, Hackman plays Harry as someone who only speaks when he really needs to and I feel he communicates more by his actions than by his words. Hackman is supported by John Cazale as Harry’s colleague Stan who is a bit wilder than his friend and often uses his job to ogle women. The film also features a great little performance from Harrison Ford as The Director’s aide Martin Stett, which provided evidence of how great the actor would go on to be. My only frustration is that The Conversation didn’t do better at that year’s Oscars, but I don’t think Coppola was too bothered seeing as it was another of his films that scooped the majority of the major prizes.


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