Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Film #66: The Conversation
Gene Hackman and Francis Ford Coppola were white-hot in 1974. Hackman had already delivered Jan Troell's underrated Zandy's Bride with Liv Ullmann, and Coppola was finishing up The Godfather Part II when they quietly eked out The Conversation, one of the most unexpected masterpieces of the 1970s, which landed Coppola the International Grand prize at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. The film follows brooding surveillance expert Harry Caul (Hackman) as he obsesses over a recording he believes is of two people (Cindy Williams and Fredric Forrest) fretting over their affair and fearing violent repercussions from the woman's husband (Robert Duvall), who's the CEO of the imposing corporation who hired Caul to spy on the couple in the first place. His conscience starting to eat away at him, Caul makes attempts to withhold the surveillance results from Duvall and his plain-talking toady (Harrison Ford), but his moral stance backfires quite harshly on him.
With its bugging technology and crushing sense of paranoia, Coppola's original screenplay for The Conversation was quite timely in 1974, since Watergate fever was sweeping the populace (the script was written by FFC years earlier, however). This potent resemblance of life to art probably explains how the great film still managed a Best Picture nod
while winning only two other nominations (for its screenplay and another for its sound). Hackman mysteriously escaped a nod for his about-to-blow portrayal of a man consumed with mistrust; it's one of the five best showings of his career (I love that see-thru raincoat he wears---it's yet another murky layer for us to peer through in this movie). Also of special note is the fine, lackdaisical editing and inventive sound design by post-production master Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient). The film might seem to creep along, but that's a result its possessing almost no musical score (what a relief) and a very spare plot--The Conversation is quite a bit more about its socially-withered lead character than it is about his latest case. In fact, the case is dropped as a focus about halfway through and picked up again twenty minutes after that. I think Coppola's film is all about a man who, by virtue of his stressful job, has a best friend (John Cazele) who isn't a confidant; a girlfriend (Teri Garr) who isn't a lover; and a rival (an excellent, irritating Allen Garfield) who isn't even an enemy. All the humanity in Harry Caul was long ago decimated by his snooping; he's now just a mere organic extension of his mechanical toys. (The fantastic final shot proves this, though it gives a strange sense of hope that Harry's gonna find another line of work to get into.)
This is a little-known fact, but The Conversation is based on the experiences of one of San Francisco's leading 1970s-era private eyes--the same P.I. who invented the-microphone-in-the-martini-olive. How do I know this? I live here in Brooklyn with one of his San Fran P.I. students, who told her he was interviewed by his close friend Coppola in connection with the movie!
I love The Conversation. It's a paranoia-steeped, post-Kennedy-assassination 1970s touchstone, just like Executive Action, The Parallax View and Targets, just to name a few in the subgenre. Finally, can I mention that The Conversation was advertised in 1974 newspapers with one of my favorite ad photos:And to think....you couldn't even show a toilet in a MOVIE until Psycho came along!!!! Fifteen years later, they'd be in the newpaper ads. Ahhh, sweet progress.