Gene Hackman plays a reclusive surveillance mastermind, so terrified by the prospect of tasting his own medicine that he's grown certifiably obsessive-compulsive. He's also a deeply religious altruist, which stands in sharp contrast to the seedy nature of his business and the people who pay him for it. This inevitable internal conflict peaks when he eavesdrops on a similarly skittish young couple and begins to worry that his recordings will lead to their death.
The suspense takes some time to develop from there, as Hackman's gentle spy leads us through the nuts and bolts of his work, navigates a trade show (where, to his dismay, he's recognized) and swings between concern for the subject and obligation to the client. I found the head-down technical bits fascinating, a close inspection of modern mechanical and electronic wizardry in a more primitive form. Today, it seems like almost anything is possible without much extra effort from the operator, and there's a lost sense of challenge and intimacy in hand-waving all the details like that. The Conversation celebrates its knowledge of just how nuanced and difficult this work really was, and while that often slows the pace to a crawl, I enjoyed it all the more for taking the time.
The more dramatic twists and turns deliver, too, but those all arrive in a rush at the very end, an explosion of stress and fright that heralds a jarring tonal shift. It's effective, with a major script-flip moment that lingered with me for some time and a rewarding, if not happy, resolution, but it's also very sudden and overwhelming. The preceding hour of quiet contemplation and neatly-dodged confrontation had almost lulled me into a trance. Hackman is excellent, as is John Cazale, an under-appreciated favorite of director Francis Ford Coppola. Baby-faced Harrison Ford also pops in for a few scenes, one of his earliest film credits, and leaves a lasting impression.