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The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart

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The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart

When considering the astonishing run of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola's work in the 1970's, most minds tune in to those films that have become touchstones of popular culture: The Godfather Parts I & II, and Apocalypse Now. Neither film requires much introduction here.

Some, but not all fans of these three legendary films and this director are aware of a quietly strange little film that Coppola made, squeezed between the first two Godfathers

, made on a relative shoestring budget and presented with very little glitz or arty fanfare. Nonetheless, the film is an atomic sock in the gut for filmgoers, and this quiet little film did indeed win Coppola the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it is not only Coppola's personal favorite in his canon but is Gene Hackman's favorite role.  .  .  beloved even over his blistering turn as Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin's preceding The French Connection.

This film had a great little ball of synchronicity and providence surrounding it, helping it along. The tale of a surveillance expert/professional wiretapper named Harry Caul, the film is based on a scenario written by Coppola in the late 1960's .  .  .   but he never had the bread to make the film until the smash hit of The Godfather made him a bankable man whose work was suddenly seen in a new light by studio heads. The film came out for general release in April of 1974 .  .  .  just a month after the Watergate Seven were formally charged in court for the break in and wiretapping of Democratic National Headquarters--coincidentally using the precise same methods of technology for the bugging / surveillance that is illustrated in Coppola's film.

The film then profited hugely at the time, then, from its lucky confluence with the entire length and breadth of the Watergate scandal and final resignation of President Richard Nixon afterwards. The myth persists in the minds of the general public to this day that the film was designed to capitalize specifically on the scandal and spin off a film from simple current events.

The Conversation is nothing of the sort; written years before, it is a stinging, quiet film about the disease of work infecting the guts of a repressed man, a man with little to no outlet to valve out the stresses of the day, the months, the years. In particular it's a story about how much louder silence can scream versus a cacophony of noise, how life often becomes more complex as you peel back its layers, rather than simpler. The quieter grows the world, the louder grows the mind. Self examination and an attempt to purge one's demons can lead only to madness, for certain doomed souls .  .  .  certain cyclic, head-trapped, over-restrained souls that are tormented.

A brief encapsulation: Gene Hackman's Harry Caul (likely his most atypical role) is assigned a task of surveilling a young couple; we begin in media res amidst the surveillance operation in San Francisco's Union Square where we slowly, bit by bit, see how Harry has effectively boxed in the couple in (unbeknownst to them) from all four sides fore and aft, left and right, and even from above via a high power unidirectional mic on a sniper's mount.

With this scene we begin hearing snippets of conversation that repeat themselves henceforth through out the film (as Harry reviews them over and over again in his lab and in his head), slowly gaining clarity as the film unfolds in the same way that we catch snippets of visuals in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now: we, through the eyes of a protagonist, are presented with an almost impenetrable data string which repeats and repeats and repeats until at last the mystery of the senses is unraveled at the conclusion. 

Clearly the couple have traveled here to avoid detection; we hear, through the little snippets of conversation (which are rendered on the audio track with bits of noise and analog interference as though we are listening in with the surveillance agents on their highly sensitive equipment) the clear fact that the two are afraid. Afraid of someone. We sense danger, we sense paranoia, we see that the couple are constantly observing those pedestrians and park-goers that are around them, suspicious of being followed. 

Part of the film runs on the thrill of peeking into the (especially back when it was made) genuinely rarefied world of high tech wiretappers and agents. The gadgets, the operations, the techniques--most people love the romance of spying and are fascinated with authentic looks at the highly protected and carefully hidden world in which they orbit. This is a cinematic obsession with espionage which runs riot across the screens yet today--it was extremely rare to see such an authentic portrayal of this professional strata rendered on the public movie screens for all to see. It was so unique back then it felt like a true, privileged peek into that world.

The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart

Harry Caul is a guy who never gets involved with his work--he reads as a highly repressed, blankly overloaded slate, carefully watching every word, catching every revealing syllable before one accidentally stumbles irrevocably from his lips towards an errant reveal.  .  . he is a man who knows how easy it is to listen in to somebody else if you would really like to. Aware what he could be subject to at any moment from a bout of counter-surveillance, he never reveals a thing about himself to anybody at any time .  .  . and this includes his innocent would-be girlfriend (played by an incredibly young Teri Garr).

This is a stinging film that burns the eyes like noxious aerosol accidentally thrown over by an errant wind. Studded with an incredible cast--some of whom, like Robert Duvall, and the astonishing John Cazale had already appeared in the first Godfather (not to mention an almost teenaged looking but still somehow menacing Harrison Ford, pre-Apocalypse)--the film is nonetheless not as much about blazing performances as it is a well constructed, poisonous whole universe of of self-imposed, but somehow unavoidable isolation.

Unavoidable because the habits and the job are too deeply ingrained for Caul for the tendency to be reversed--especially in a world filled with cohorts who are likewise infected with constant deception. Everyone is deceiving someone else in this film: Ford's Stett is deceiving Caul, Cazale's Stanley is deceiving his boss Harry; the young couple is deceiving the Director; Caul is deceiving his young girlfriend; Elizabeth Macrae's blond fling Meredith is deceiving Caul; Stett wound up deceiving the director; Alan Garfield's Bernie Moran is deceiving Caul with his little pen gadget--everybody is filled with lies, and the truth, often times the most obvious thing in the world, is missed because warped minds are expecting to be thrown out into the distant weeds by professional liars and clever agents.

When the simple truth sits unnoticed for so long, owing to the mind having to outfox layer after layer of false realities deliberately piled one on top of the other, over and over again by opponents and by routine, the human loss becomes irrevocable in certain cases of great skill blended with stunted emotional development. This film tells that quietly blistering story in razor-sharp spades.  

Schreck/Clive

3/31/2015**


Published by Preston Clive , 31.03.2015 at 22:15

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Owen Stone
Owen Stone 2 April 15 14:58 I always like to check out the artworks for these classic movies. Text hided expand
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serdar202
serdar202 6 April 15 10:18 I recently rewatched the Schmidlin restoration of Touch of Evil, Mr. Clive knows why, then I listened for the first time to Schmidlin's enthusiastic audio commentary (the solo one, not the one with Heston and Leigh) where he repeatedly praises The Conversation and Walter Murch's work on this film (who also reconstructed the "sound tapestry" - he called it something else - of the Welles film). So I rewatched The Conversation too of which I only remembered very few details. Great movie but too Schreckian for me ;) Text hided expand
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I recently rewatched the Schmidlin restoration of Touch of Evil, Mr. Clive knows why, then I listen…
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