Gene Hackman did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Harry Caul in The Conversation.
I must say Gene Hackman's lack of a nomination is a bit surprising in retrospect. As he was nominated in the other awards of the year as well as successfully won the National Board of Review. Also more importantly to the Oscars themselves was that the Conversation was nominated for Best Picture. Although Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson all followed along with their pictures to nominations, but oddly enough Hackman was pushed to the side for Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, which is especially strange since The Conversation depends so greatly on Gene Hackman's performance.
Gene Hackman shows a different side to his considerable talent than in his far more flamboyant Oscar winning turn as detective Popeye Doyle. In his performance as Harry Caul Hackman gives a very tightly wound performance. Aided by a clear rain coat, those glasses, and that mustache Hackman creates a very unique character in Harry Caul. His manner is very distinct here as he portrays the very withdrawn Caul. Hackman who succeeds so well in overpowering characters who constantly are seeking to make themselves known, is equally apt at being this man who wants to be invisible at times.
Hackman is outstanding in the opening scenes as we see Caul move through his task of tracing to people who are having the titular conversation. Here we see Caul very much in his world as he goes about being hidden and watches his plan unfold. Hackman shows that Caul proceeds in a very workmanlike fashion as he goes through the process of finding the information that is required for him. Hackman portrays distinctly here a certain lack of investment in what exactly he is dealing with at the moment. Caul does not care about what his task at hand really means, but is simply being a professional in going through what needs to be done.
After this initial scene though we see Harry Caul go home, and here we see that Caul's attempt at being unnoticed is not something he does for his work, but is in fact his way of life. Hackman's body language here is brilliantly used as he portrays Caul's every movement as one of caution. The way he walks, the way he even unlocks and opens a door, Hackman always shows a certain uncertainy within Caul that causes him to act in his unique and rather peculiar fashion. One big part Hackman always brings across is that Caul never seems to be able to relax. Even when he goes to visit his girlfriend Hackman shows the same distance, and lack of comfort.
Hackman is brilliant in his portrayal of the paranoia that constantly is pressing on Caul's mind. What is so effective about Hackman's performance is how quiet he is in conveying the paranoid Caul. There is not single scene where he burst out in emotions over his fears once. Instead Hackman is far more convincing in portraying this man's mindset by never making this as any sort of obvious insanity, but rather a constant underlying pressure upon Caul that forces him to act in his particular way. Hackman shows that it is not that Caul wants to be paranoid, but as a surveillance expert he can't really not be paranoid.
Hackman portrayal of Caul's behavior is something truly striking because he shows Caul effectively keeps his distance at all times. Whenever he talks to anyone even colleague or his girlfriend on casual terms Hackman's is terrific in bringing to life always a disconnect between Caul and the people around. The most interesting part of Hackman's performance in this regard is that there is a certain desperation behind his apparent coldness, the desperation being that he really does not want to be this way but he can't help it. Hackman shows that Caul does want warmer relationships, but this only comes out at pivotal moments.
Hackman does not make the moments where Caul lets his guard down as being worn down in the least, but rather as Caul is not nearly as cold as he seems to think he needs to be they are at times some of the natural moments for the Caul the person. In particular one scene where Caul is pushed to say how he did one very difficult assignment. Hackman perfectly downplays Caul's usual distance here as he shows Caul actively show a little more warmth as he boasts a little and smiles just slightly at his achievement. Caul quickly finds that his guard being down has left him open to an attack on his privacy, and Hackman's Caul's anger being both toward the man who pulled the prank on him, but as well at himself for not being protective enough.
Gene Hackman's performance as great as it is does not only focus on just the paranoia, but as well as a prevailing guilt in Harry after one of his jobs lead to murder, and he believes that this new one may lead to the same. Hackman in this performance knows how to make the slightest absolutely compelling as he repeatedly goes over the recording over and over again trying to figure out what exactly it means. Hackman brings us into Caul's mindset as he carefully listens over and over again to every facet of the recording. Although Caul claims that he only wants to make the recording clear for his client, Hackman conveys in his intense pondering over the conversation that Caul cannot separate himself from what might be the results of the recording.
Hackman is simple fascinating as he brings to life the guilt that Caul cannot shake and follows him through. Hackman shows that as cold and distant Caul wants to be he is fact a man who becomes far too deeply invested considering what his work entails. It is something truly outstanding as we follow Caul through finding out exactly what the conversation did mean after all. Hackman brings us right into the horror of knowing the truth as Caul sees the results of work. It is an astonishing scene as Hackman's portrays the sheer terror, and pain he goes through as all of his fears come true. An incredible scene to begin with but Hackman makes it as powerful as possible through his flawless portrayal of Caul's haunting reaction.
This is simply an amazing performance by Gene Hackman that may be his personal best, and considering his filmography that is really saying something. He never wastes a single moment in his performance utilizing every second of his performance to realize this very unique characterization. Hackman makes his Harry Caul into a truly fascinating man, very peculiar, yet there is not a hint of acting in this performance. This is an incredible achievement by Gene Hackman as he simply becomes Harry Caul, who he makes into a unforgettable and always fascinating character.