In 1974, Francis Ford Coppola went up against himself at the Oscars. In one corner: the director's undeniably brilliant prequel/sequel, The Godfather Part II; in the other: Coppola's dread-soaked conspiracy thriller, The Conversation. Both films went head-to-head in the Best Picture race (alongside Chinatown, Lenny and The Towering Inferno), but, as we all know, Godfather II emerged victorious, and rightfully so.
Technically speaking, I suppose that means that The Conversation was "snubbed" for the Big Prize, but I'm not here to dispute that win. The Godfather Part II was the bigger accomplishment, the showier display of Coppola's talents, a sprawling epic filled with indelible performances that deserved every bit of praise it received that year (and that it's received ever since). But I will say this: if I've gotta choose between watching Coppola's first Godfather sequel and The Conversation, I'm choosing The Conversation every time. It was rightfully "snubbed", but it remains my favorite Coppola film. It's one of my favorite films, period.
So let's recognize the snub while setting aside the Oscar competition for today. Instead, let's focus on what makes The Conversation so also-great.
More than anything, I believe The Conversation's greatness lies in its tone: from the very first frame, the film is steeped in dread and wild-eyed with paranoia. We watch as a young couple strolls around San Francisco's Union Square plaza, totally unaware that their entire conversation is being recorded from afar. This is how we meet Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a master "surveillance expert" (read: eavesdropper) who's been hired to track the couple. Harry's surveillance team is stationed all over the plaza, and the audio they're getting is distorted and wonky: we hear the couple's conversation in real time, but from moment to moment it sounds like it might be occurring underwater, in a wind tunnel, or right next to us. The effect is disorienting and - once we realize why it sounds the way it does - deeply creepy.
On top of that, there's the conversation itself: what are these characters talking about? They're clearly involved with one another, but why do they seem so spooked? There's a frightened undercurrent to their entire exchange, and it all culminates in a statement that Harry finds himself immediately haunted by: "He'd kill us if he got the chance." Who would kill them? And why? Now Harry's spooked, and so are we. The creepy/spooky/paranoid tone ramps up over the course of the film, finally hitting a nightmarish crescendo inside a hotel room where a toilet overflows with blood. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
But there's more to The Conversation than its masterfully executed sense of escalation: it's cleverly scripted, and features a number of fantastic performances (Hackman is so, so good here) that will stick with you. There's a particularly sly twist you might not see coming (hint: what is that couple really getting at in the conversation that opens the film?), and I love that the film has the balls to draw Harry's story to an appropriately dark conclusion. A "feel good" movie, The Conversation most certainly is not.
Also not a Best Picture winner! But who cares? If The Conversation had to get snubbed, let's be glad that it got snubbed by one of the best.
Note: The trailer at the top of the page is not The Conversation's original trailer, but one that was put together for the film's re-release on Blu-ray. We've opted to use this one because the only copy of the old-school trailer we could find looked like hell.
Oh, And Also: It's worth noting that The Conversation is available via Netflix Instant. Watch (or re-watch) it immediately.