In Apocalypse Now Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) obsessively ventures deeper into the pits of hell, until he is threatened with teetering on the edge of the darkest side of the human soul and the verge of a descent into primal madness. But only when he is in the belly of the beast, does he find a man crazier and more unstable then him, Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). A man who has looked the devil himself in the eye and has fallen in love with the destruction, carnage and despair he sees, so much so that the next time he does it, all he sees is himself reflected back at him. In the Godfather, everywhere he turns Michael (Al Pacino) expects to be shot. Everyone he talks to Michael expects to be betrayed by. Every morning Michael finds it harder and hard to wake up, because paranoia hammers in another nail to his coffin. Michael wants nothing more than to leave the shadows behind of his father and older brothers and forge his own path and build is on dynasty, even at the price of killing his own brother and bathing in rivers of blood from his enemies.
Paranoia, obsession and self destruction are themes that run concurrent through the backbone of some of Francis Ford Coppolas most compelling characters and films. He does the darkest side of human nature so well, you shoulder at the thought of what lurks in inner deeps of the mind that creates them. Coppola is also a dab hand at churning out powerful, spine tingling and haunting performances from already established actors as he drags them down into the hell of the human condition, only for them to sore higher into the acting heavens, higher than they have ever flown before. Working with Coppola generally means the highlight of your career, regardless if you’re a previous Oscar winner or an amateur of the streets. And once again it is in The Conversation; a conspiracy thriller, Coppola uses his mites touch to curse Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) with paranoia, obsession and self destruction, only to then turn all three up to maximum like the volume dial of a recording machine. The Conversation also possesses one of the finest Gene Hackman performances ever that is only slightly surpassed by his portrayal of Popeye in The French Connection.
You would think that the absolute worst profession for a Francis Ford Coppola character to have would be a surveillance expert, a world riddled with self-doubt, moral ambiguity and paranoia. But Harry Caul’s loss is our gain, because Coppola takes us into a world of two way mirrors and smoking mirrors, leaving the audience looking into their own mirror doubting the privacy of their own lives. Caul is a rather contradictory figure; he is agitated when his co-worker utters the words “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” because he regards it as blasphemy, yet at the same time he’s job is to invade people’s privacy, eavesdrop on their most personal moments and steal their darkest secrets. Whilst Harry can be a cold, bitter man that finds it all to easily to stride into the room of a young woman who idolises him, then merely to walk out on her without a second glances or even ‘ I love you’. However at the same time he is a stern man capable of playing stunning music that you would be hesitant believe come from anything short of a beautiful soul.
Harry Cual is good at his job and would go to any lengths or think up any crazy scheme to get his inconspicuous electronic ear into any room, even if it means planting a recording device into a parakeet. Such fetes have left Harry a legend in the surveillances world and thus attracting the awe of William, who pesters Harry over how he was ever able to get the drop on a intimate conversation involving the president in a secluded location. But despite the constant begging Harry doesn’t reveal his secrets, but what alarms William even more if the lack of pride that Harry takes in his audacious surveillances.
The truth soon unfolds that like the rest of us Harry is far less than perfect, but unlike Harry when we make a mistake at work or school our mistakes don’t lead to the death of innocents. And it’s these deaths that have ravaged his consciousness with pain and self doubt for a very long time, but when he is offered the chances of redemption by saving the lives of two young lovers, he quickly jumps at the chances to right himself with the god he so fears.
Similar to Apocalypse Now and The Godfather 2, Coppola pulls no punches when it comes to exploring the human condition and seems to revel in unlocking the Pandora box that lays dominant in each and every one of us. But it takes a very special actor to pull this off convincingly whilst maintaining a glimmer of something to empathise with and Heckman does this well because he’s his greatest gift as an actor was being able to reveal so much about a character as the same time of revealing nothing at all and it’s this ambiguity that keeps us second guessing and constantly drawing lines in the sand over our allegiances.
Coppola riddles The Conversation with layers upon layers of cryptic nuances on the nature of privacy and what it actually means in world where technology constantly blurs the lines. The emotion undercurrents explored through the character of Harry also goes as far to challenge our own ideology on morality. The film was made in 1974, but you still get the impression that it was an allusion too our not too distant future and retrospectively looking back at our current present, where we flick on the news and hears stories of mps and celebrities having their phones tapped.