Film

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is an eerie prediction of our surveillance age

The veteran director's surveillance flick has has always been overshadowed his other films, but it's rerelease in cinemas is especially timely

Gene Hackman in The Conversation. Image: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

This September will see the UK release of Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis, a grandiose $120 million (£95m) passion project based on an idea that the filmmaker first dreamed up back in 1977. And judging by the divisive response from its recent premiere at Cannes, Megalopolis is a literal monument to hubris, with a zealous architect called Cesar (Adam Driver) shaping a broken city into a vision of utopia. 

It sounds pretty allegorical (this all takes place in some alternate timeline) and more than a little daft (Aubrey Plaza plays a character named Wow Platinum). But since the veteran writer, director and winemaker funded it all himself it should at least be true to Coppola’s singular vision.

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Before that potential boondoggle, though, there is a chance to reacquaint ourselves with some prime Coppola. The Conversation was first released in 1974, between his huge successes The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. This was also the industrious decade that Coppola closed out with his wild Vietnam mission Apocalypse Now. So The Conversation – a gloomy, minor-key, paranoid puzzle box of a movie – has always been rather overshadowed by its flashier peers. 

Francis Ford Coppola: The Conversation

Gene Hackman stars as wiretapping specialist Harry Caul, already a legend in the furtive but proliferating world of private surveillance. Caul designs and builds his own equipment, operates out of a draughty loft workshop and cloaks himself in tetchy professionalism (as well as a cheap, semi-translucent plastic raincoat that gives him an air of ghostliness). It is as if this hopelessly closed-off technician is trying to insulate himself from something. By focusing so intently on the job at hand he does not have to fully consider the potential consequences of his work.

It begins with an impressive but unsettling set piece, gazing down on Union Park in San Francisco as a pre-Christmas crowd hustles and bustles. A couple is drifting through the hubbub and as the camera inexorably zooms in, it becomes clear they are the subject of a surveillance operation. Two long-range microphones aimed from rooftops track them around the square; a stooge loiters nearby with a portable recorder.

Later we will see Caul synchronise and mix these three different sound sources into one clean master tape like a particularly furrowed Fatboy Slim. But for now, the soundtrack warps and crackles as we try and follow the gist of the murmured chat. Are the couple flirting? Arguing? Plotting? 

Caul has agreed to hand the recording directly to his corporate client (an uncredited Robert Duvall). So when a personal assistant tries to intercept the tapes – a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford, curdling his natural charisma into something much more sulphuric – it puts him on high alert. Caul hangs on to the recording, and fixates on a snippet that hints at foul play: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

There is a pleasure in seeing Caul fine-tune his equipment like a maestro, twiddling knobs to ensure the best results. It is also a finely calibrated performance from the brilliant Hackman – Caul is a surveillance expert who seems incapable of observing his own flaws. He is both proud and pathetic. As paranoia overtakes him, he seeks refuge in the confession booth. When that does not work, he throws a miserable house party in his workshop after a trade show and lugubriously plays the sax back in his shabby flat.

His unease compels him to keep tabs on the couple the only way he knows how – by mounting his own surveillance operation from the plumbing of a hotel bathroom. The truth turns out to be trickier than he realised, and there is a terrific rug-pull when we discover that, for all his fusspot obsessiveness, Caul may have got the wrong end of the stick. 

Five decades on and it all feels eerily prescient. With its focus on wiretapping and illicit recordings it feels like a reaction to contemporary revelations that Nixon had bugged the Oval Office. Yet it was filmed in late 1972, before the Watergate scandal broke. The security trade show features promotional displays of the sort of CCTV apparatus that has become ubiquitous today. Even the final shot – which slowly sweeps back and forth across what is left of Caul’s flat – seems to echo the automated arc of a modern surveillance camera. The world may have caught up but this vintage film still casts a magnificent, melancholy spell.

The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola is in cinemas from 5 July

Preview

Image: Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

New Hindi-language thriller Kill looks to be taking a page from the John Wick playbook of nifty fights in tight spaces by being set entirely on an overnight train. It pits one off-duty commando (the mononymous Lakshya) against a load of bad guys who have seized his girlfriend. The action looks non-stop but will it be a sleeper hit?

Kill is in cinemas from 5 July. Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic.

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