Seattle Courant

Technology vs. humanity in Coppola's "The Conversation"

Francis Ford Coppola's
By Jason McBride
May 24, 2009 06:05PM

Never fear. You can still support the arts (at matinee prices) and get a dose of pre-winery Coppola with SIFF’s presentation of “The Conversation,” the product of the aforementioned original screenplay. The Watergate-era paranoia-fest stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a geeky surveillance expert and introvert who makes Howard Hughes look like a social butterfly. Released in 1974, between the first two “Godfathers,” “The Conversation” shows Coppola at the height of his powers, before he got swept up in the “edgy” music-video style of “Dracula” and John Grisham adaptations. Jeez.

The film begins on a sunny afternoon with Harry coordinating a complex eavesdrop on a couple walking through a San Francisco park. He’s got a creepy van, a couple guys with shotgun mikes and a man with a wire tailing them as they discuss vaguely sinister matters. We don’t really know what’s going on, because we’re picking up what his crew hears: disjointed conversation, background chatter, audio distortion. Critics love to harp on voyeurism in film (well, duh), but there’s no denying it here. And Coppola doesn’t dumb it down. We’re just as confused as Harry and his crew.

But the data gets sorted, unfolding the story and Harry’s brilliance. Back in his warehouse, Harry tinkers with knobs and loops (that’s right, those big old tape reels), sorts through the dross and uncovers a possible murder plot. If he turns in the tapes to his employer, he could get the couple killed. Harry, a genius in his field with a reputation to consider, struggles with his conscience. We learn, in fact, that a previous mission got three people killed, quite brutally.

Here’s where Gene Hackman’s great performance comes in. This isn’t the cowboy Hackman, or the swaggering Lex Luthor of the Superman series. In “The Conversation,” Hackman plays the classic, establishment technologist, an overly competent workaholic who can’t connect with those closest to him. His lack of people skills drives away his assistant Stan (John Cazale, who played Fredo in “The Godfather”) and his girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr), whom he suspects of spying on him when she starts asking him questions about his work. When he goes to confession, he justifies any possible harm he does in his work because he is, after all, just doing his job. The church-going, tie-clip wearing Caul evokes the Nixonian square, a man who shushes those who take the lord’s name in vain but kills by remote control.

Watching movies at home is a given, and I write this column for people who want to break through the Iron Curtain of the new releases section and explore great films of the past. But it’s never a bad idea to watch a cinema classic on the big screen. “The Conversation” holds up brilliantly on a TV, but I suspect the seventies audio spy loops, in all their disjointed, mashed-up glory, would be well served by a theatrical sound system. And who knows? Maybe Coppola might stop by.

“The Conversation” plays at the Egyptian Theatre on June 11 at 4:30 PM. For tickets, go to

Francis Ford Coppola's