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Jul 30, 2008

Fletch's Film Review: The Conversation

[Note: The Conversation is the LAMB's Movie of the Month. Head on over there to read a number of other takes on the film from literally millions of other bloggers. Maybe even billions. It might take you awhile to read them all, but it's clearly worth your time.]

Gene Hackman is said to have more or less reprised his role of Harry Caul, the paranoid "surveillance technician" from The Conversation for 1998's Enemy of the State. The Will Smith-starring, Tony Scott-directing effort is a paranoid action thriller with a star-studded cast and a pulse of about 220. It starts with Smith's Robert Clayton Dean, a hotshot attorney, being the unwitting recipient of some incriminating data that the government (or rather, a few rogue secret ops types) is just dying to get it's hands on. In a very The Net-like fashion, Dean loses pieces of his life - home is tapped, credit bad, you name it.

He is eventually directed to a mutual friend name Brill, played by Hackman. Brill, a surveillance expert and former spy for the government currently in hiding, makes The X-Files' Mulder seem relaxed and completely trusting of the government by comparison. Everything freaks him out, and he's not only a gruff s.o.b., he's a bit of a badass.

He also couldn't be much more different from Harry Caul - if they were to meet on the street, I would expect Elaine, Feldman and Gene to be nearby. Likewise, the Francis Ford Coppola-directed Conversation is just about the polar opposite of Scott's State, registering a pulse somewhere around "comatose." Sure, Harry too is a paranoid surveillance expert played by Hackman - but that's where the comparisons stop. Caul is a quiet, sensitive, devout Catholic, wracked by guilt over past jobs gone wrong, and he's hesitant to make a connection with just about any outside his direct social circle. Even then he's still touchy, and is so secretive that even his employee feels forced to a competitor due to Harry's tight lips and closed-off personality.

Caul's latest gig, not surprisingly, is giving him fits as well. We catch up with him as he and his crew are listening in on a conversation in a San Francisco city square between a man and a woman we never really meet. Over the course of the film, we learn bits and pieces of the discussion as we see Harry tweaking the recordings to an audible level, slowly unravelling a mystery that Harry, despite his better judgement and past, gets caught up in, to the point where he becomes the subject of some spy work himself.

I liked the story told in The Conversation, but it requires a patient, alert viewer (and possibly some of the stereo equipment that Caul uses to keep up with the dialogue). The inside look into Caul's profession and methods are interesting, and I'm all for setting a tempo and character development, but the film is badly in need of an editor. It's mood reminded me somewhat of the quieter, jazzy scenes from In the Line of Fire, but it never ratchets up the tension or the action quite like the Eastwood film does. It's a very slow boil that does pay off in the end somewhat, but feels much more than its 113 minutes.

Fletch's Film Rating:

"You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you."

7 people have chosen wisely: on "Fletch's Film Review: The Conversation"

Graham said...

Fine, I'll take the bait. You're wrong!

Seriously though, maybe the film's pulse is comatose (although I don't think so) but mine was racing every second of this movie, even though I watched it alone in broad daylight. I can't think of a movie where the tension is ratcheted up more effectively.

And the creepiness of the Harrison Ford character - such a weird, early role - also had me on edge.

J.D. said...

This is one of those great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. It makes a good double bill with THE PARALLAX VIEW.

The sound design on this film is incredible and you really appreciate it the work that went into it on Walter Murch's commentary track for the DVD. Great stuff. Nice article!


THE CONVERSATION is 70's cinema.

Marcy said...

Great review, Fletch. I guess we're in the minority when it comes to The Conversation. But like you said, this film is badly in need of an editor.

I much prefer the adrenaline-filled Enemy of the State.

Fletch said...

@ Graham - I'll grant that Ford was creepy. Maybe I was just tired or too comfortable, but I nodded off a couple times, though when I was awake, it felt uber-long. I'll give the movie another chance in a year or so - I do think there's a lot of good in it (young Jedi), but it just wasn't sitting well with me last night.

@ Joe C. - Not sure what you're getting at.

@ Marcy - thanks, though I'd like to strip my name from this baby. I was in a terrible rush writing it to get it to Rachel before the MOTM deadline.

I'm hesitant so say I think it's better than Enemy of the State. I recognize that The Convo is a well-crafted, beautifully shot and finely put together adult thriller and that Enemy is a (practically) meaningless popcorn flick with little to say about anything (Tony Scott's specialty, for better or worse), but yeah, if we're talking straight entertainment value, it blows The Convo away.

Marcy said...

I demand movies to be engaging and/or entertaining and The Conversation isn't either (at least for me it isn't), even though it is undeniably well-made. So yeah, like you said, Enemy of the State pretty much blows The Conversation away on the entertainment scale and that's exactly why I like it more.


The thing that was unique about 1970's American cinema was the slow pace. The paranoia. The build-up.

The decade did away with the conventional thriller traits. Instead of being chased in a car by someone intending to harm you, you are being wiretapped from miles away by a person whose true intentions are unknown.

Terrifying stuff.

This is not to say I don't like the other types of gritty thrillers that also came about in the 1970's, such as THE FRENCH CONNECTION. TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE.