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By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Paramount Home Entertainment 4/74 DVD/VHS Feature Film
Francis Ford Coppola (You're a Big Boy Now, The Rain People, The Godfather) is a proficient film-maker with a keen cinematic sense and a deep moral sensibility. He finished the first draft of the screenplay for The Conversation in 1969. Like The Rain People, it is essentially a story about responsibility. Hooked into the happenings of Watergate, this moral parable has immense wallop. But the movie suffers from a severe case of arrested development and an unbelievable finale.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the "best bugger on the West Coast." He's made a name for himself as a private surveillance and security technician. His contracts have included work for the government and industrial espionage jobs. When we meet Harry he's involved in a $15,000 piece of spying on a young couple in San Francisco. He brings all his skills into play while taping a lunchtime open air conversation against between the couple in a mall. Using cameras, directional parabolic microphones, and two shadowing devices, Harry manages to put together their conversation against all odds.
But in the process he realizes for the first time in his life that morality cannot be separated from the professional use of technology. Put another way, everything is not permitted when life is put into the balance. And, even more important, Harry has the tables turned on him in a series of incidents wherein his own privacy is assaulted. A landlady somehow breaks through the three locks and alarm system on his apartment door to place a birthday present inside. The girlfriend he keeps in another apartment insists on knowing more about him and threatens to break off their relationship when he refuses to open himself up to her by telling her where he works, what he does, and how he feels. And finally, another professional snooper plants a bug on Harry and tapes a private conversation between him and a hooker.
Harry begins to see that he has a responsibility to the couple he has taped; their lives may be in danger. In a dream, it comes to him that he's not so much afraid of his own death as he is frightened of the possibility of others being murdered. However, Coppola is not able to move The Conversation beyond this crisis point. The last section of the film is either pure fantasy or heavy-handed allegory. No matter what the intention, the ending doesn't work.
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by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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