Born in an era of Nixonian paranoia – the White House tapes, the Watergate burglary, all the bugging and spying and infiltration of American activist groups deemed subversive – The Conversation is a movie of its time, but it’s also chillingly prescient. Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is the prototypical surveillance state cog, methodical and dispassionate. A freelance surveillance expert, he’s hired to record a conversation in a crowded public place between a man and a woman (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams). He spends much of the film trying to enhance the recording to make out what was said (following in the footsteps of David Hemings’ photographer in Blow-Up, who thinks he’s snapped evidence of a murder, and anticipating John Travolta’s sound engineer in Blow Out, who thinks he’s taped evidence of a political assassination).
Caul comes to fear that his bosses have kept crucial information from him, and that lives may be in danger, including his own. He fears that he’s become the target of surveillance himself, and that fear drives him over the edge. The technology Caul uses may look antiquated now, but Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant use of sound and imagery to tell Harry’s story has kept the movie frighteningly fresh for almost 40 years.
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