The Conversation Gene Hackman

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: The Conversation

Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime Video

The Pitch: Gene Hackman plays a surveillance expert who realizes that one of the recordings he was hired to make contains information which may get people killed.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation is one of the greatest paranoia thrillers of all time, and one of the very best movies of the entire 1970s. It may not be as influential as Coppola’s The Godfather or nearly as legendary as The Godfather Part II, but it certainly holds its own against those films, and for some, myself included, it may be the outright best thing he ever directed.

If you thought it was impressive when Christopher Nolan made The Prestige or Inception between Dark Knight movies, think about this: Coppola made The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather Part II back-to-back-to-back in two years. And what’s more, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II were both nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and Coppola ended up winning for The Godfather sequel. Say what you will about the man and the quality of films in his later career, but that is an unassailable, god-level run.

It’s wrong to suggest that The Conversation isn’t a well-respected movie, but when The Godfather films take up so much real estate in the 1970s pantheon, The Conversation can sometimes feel like a second-tier afterthought. Don’t let it fall through the cracks: I encourage you to use this quarantine as an opportunity to seek it out for the first time or revisit it, because it is a stone cold classic.

Coppola’s movie is my favorite of that entire stretch of paranoia thrillers that includes things like All the President’s Men, Klute, Three Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man. Its ending, which I won’t spoil, is just as bleak as the conclusion of Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, but it hits way harder because we care more about Hackman’s Harry Caul than we do about Warren Beatty’s obsessive reporter. The stakes are smaller and more tangible, and we’ve sat with Hackman’s sweaty desperation and felt his mind race through possibilities as the walls – and the camera – seem to slowly close in on him. It’s a tight, claustrophobic movie, and also a prescient one: decades later, surveillance and privacy are obviously still hot-button issues.

Highly influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 movie Blowup, which follows a photographer who takes a photo of something he never should have seen, The Conversation came out several years before Coppola’s fellow New Hollywood member Brian De Palma would make Blow Out, which is essentially a contemporary mashup of those two movies. I also love Blow Out, but Hackman’s terrific lead performance and strong supporting turns from Robert Duvall, John Cazale, and a young Harrison Ford push The Conversation above it for me. If this piece convinces you to watch the film for the first time, I’d love for you to @ me on Twitter and let me know your reaction after seeing it.

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