So, The Conversation. It’s, um, not exactly my favorite movie. As with some other films that I dislike, it can either be hard to put my finger on why, or I have irrational reasoning for the dislike.
With this film, it’s a little bit of both–the irrational is that it has far too much saxophone, and Harry’s (Gene Hackman) rain jacket is ridiculously thin and it bugs me to no end. But there’s a large amount of dark matter in my dislike–there’s something there, but it isn’t quite quantifiable. Like Blade Runner (if you follow me on Twitter, you already know how I feel about that film), I’ve given The Conversation a number of chances, although not as many. There are things to like each time I watch, whether they’re things I’ve always liked, or new things that pop up.
This time around, I tried looking at my hatewatch a little bit differently; it’s weird, but I tried not hating it, so let’s see what happened.
The first thing that struck me on this viewing was, in surveilling two individuals at the start of the film, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) says to Stan (John Cazale), “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.” There are two things going on with that line: 1) Harry’s a professional, so it doesn’t matter what is being said or who he is surveilling; he has a job to do. 2) He’s divorcing himself from any sort of morality on his part and on the part of those he’s monitoring. Both things will crash down on him with a weight he couldn’t have imagined.
We then get a glimpse into Harry’s psyche after he unlocks about three different locks on his apartment door, only to find a birthday gift waiting for him as he walks in. This results in an immediate call to the super wondering how he was able to bypass not only the locks, but the alarm system! Later in the film, we hear Harry tell Amy (Teri Garr), “I don’t have any secrets.” But we all know person who won’t let anyone into his/her life does have secrets.
After some misdirection, we see how truly serious the situation is in which Harry finds himself, and realize that perhaps his paranoia isn’t so unfounded.
Because Harry has no life beyond his job, he lives through those he surveils. It leads to a sparse and lonely life. The pacing of the film is deliberate, but not in a bad way. It mimics what I can only assume is the solitude of being in a business that requires long hours sitting in the back of a van or on the top of a building while listening intently to the lives of others. David Shire’s simple piano score fits incredibly well with the pace and highlights, again, a sad and lonely life.
At the end of the film, the phone call that says “We’ll be listening to you” leads to a sweaty Gene Hackman in a chair playing the sax in the middle of a destroyed apartment, and that image is a perfect representation of what this film feels like to me.
This time around I really found myself identifying with Harry–a loner, not a fan of human contact, and a bit suspicious of others. After this third or fourth watch, The Conversation‘s status as a hatewatch is now in serious jeopardy of turning into true appreciation.