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 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 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.


Fletch said...

"Also of special note is the fine editing"

You wrote an excellent piece here, but lost me with the above quote. Likewise, that's where the film lost me. I can be a patient, appreciative viewer, but The Conversation asked too much of me.

Dean Treadway said...

Well, I think we have to realize what we mean by fine editing, so I apologize for my lack of specificity. In the case of THE CONVERSATION I mean the fine editing that allows us to see each piece of information just long enough to make a decision as to what we're seeing, so's we can move on to the next short piece of information.

I'm not talking about the kind of editing that made GOODFELLAS seem to fly by in 3 minutes or that made THE MATRIX so exciting. I don't find THE CONVERSATION particularly slow; no slower than NETWORK or THE LAST DETAIL or TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. I would be willing to bet that half of the movies that were nominated for Best Editing Oscars in the 1970s would be movies you would take similar issue with. This comes from being brought up with a certain style of editing--the MTV style, if you will (it's really just a result of the digital editing age). No cut lasts longer than 4 seconds, unless you're at the end of a scene. Am I right in assuming this? Either way, you prefer this tpye of editing, am I correct?

Fletch said...

No, I'm fine with long takes; I don't have that short an attention span. I'm talking editing at its basest level: I felt the story that was told in 113 minutes could have been told in half that time, all the while maintaining the "peeling of the onion" doling of the information to us. I think it's a great story, just one with too much, appropriately, dead air.

Anonymous said...

Liked you review, but I have to agree with Fletch. The film was too long for the story they were telling.

Dean Treadway said...

I've amended my review to explain why I think THE CONVERSATION is just fine as a character study. The plot is a maguffin, a nothing to center the character study around, not vice-versa.

Big Mike Mendez said...

I think you touched on the key elements that make it a great film. Sound, editing, costumes and production design all work together to give the viewer so much information to sift through upon repeated viewings.

But Coppola's script and direction as well of the performances of Hackman and everyone else are what make this movie a fine example of filmmaking. It is a really simple story, very basically told with small sequences, but they really transcend the material to make it more cerebral than just Enemy of the State, with Hackman reprising this role.

Anonymous said...

our last single charlie said used a quote by hackman from this film 'he'll kill you if he gets the chance' cool that you've picked this one. also back to the film for those who have commented that it could have run for an hour (instead of two) then you've defeated your own argument about the mtv generation. it is 'slow' by modern standards but that rewards the viewer who is in a more reflective mind set.

Unknown said...

Super review, but I must implore you to consider how brilliant David Shire's jazz score is and how often it is heard on the the soundtrack, both fore and background. The main theme riff is reminiscent of a dial-tone with a paranoid arrhythmia. The tonal variations throughout the film echo Harry's descent ingeniously. Murch himself said he worked with Shire from the beginning and the quality of obvious. One fun trivial factoid: The caricature of John Cazale on the wall in the great "how'd you do it, Harry?" setpiece was drawn by Cazale's girlfriend Meryl Streep.