Tuesday, September 2, 2008

#57: The Conversation


The Conversation
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Francis Ford Coppola
Released April 7, 1974

Gene Hackman. The late, great John Cazale. Harrison Ford. Francis Ford Coppola directing at the height of his powers.

And, we're done.

Oh, I'm sorry. Do you need me to say more than that?

In The Conversation, Hackman gives one of his most varied performances as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who is so obsessed with his own privacy that he gives an irritated call to his landlord and changes his mailing address when he discovers that she has left him a birthday gift. Even Amy, the woman he is romantically involved with (played by Teri Garr) doesn't know where he works, how to get a hold of him or even that it's his birthday.

We eventually learn that some of the reason for Caul's withdrawn and secretive nature is because of his intense guilt over a mishap with one of his previous surveillance jobs, which caused the deaths of three people.

As the movie begins, Caul and a few of his colleagues are taping, from various vantage points, a conversation between a couple in a San Francisco park. Caul constantly reexamines this conversation throughout the movie, focusing in on certain bits of conversation and trying to figure out what they really mean. What seems like a fairly mundane conversation piques Caul's interest when he tries to return the tapes to the man who paid him to record them and is met with suspicious interference. The tables become turned and Caul becomes suspicious that he is being followed and recorded.

As I said before, The Conversation finds Coppola at his near peak as a director and screenwriter, able to turn a scene of a man listening to a looped bit of taped dialogue over and over into a tense several minutes of uncomfortable paranoia. Coppola even manages to wring palpable tension out of a scene at a surveillance and security convention. Now that takes some skill.

There's also something very 1970s about The Conversation. I don't mean to say that it seems dated, because it doesn't; what I mean to say is that there are these contemplative stretches of scenes, like a post-party scene in Caul's warehouse office, that basically go on for about 20 to 30 minutes. It's a kind of narrative pace we just don't get to (or aren't trusted to) enjoy today. If this movie came out now, there would have been two murders and a car chase thrown in just to placate our shortened attention spans. So much happens in this stretch that I think could potentially be lost on today's audience, like how Caul's vulnerability, loneliness and mistrust finally start to make his guilt rise to the surface.

Hackman is great here, and does not turn in the performance you'd expect. This isn't Popeye Doyle from The French Connection here, this is a somewhat cowardly man who is obviously haunted by the mistakes of his past. Even minor roles, like a creepy performance by Harrison Ford as a potential villain and even an uncredited turn by Robert Duvall, are all of vital importance.

The Conversation is like a reverse Taxi Driver; where Travis Bickle was driven to violence by his surroundings, Hackman's Caul is driven to a sort of insulated paranoia by his inability to avoid his surroundings. The movie speaks to themes of voyeurism and compliance, and how even observing someone can make you a part of their life... or, their death.

For more on The Conversation:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- A brief but very interesting analysis of the movie by a film/lit teacher.
- Buy the DVD. Insanely cheap and worth the money.

The trailer for The Conversation:

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