Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Conversation


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 1/25/05.


In the early 1970s, America was in a crucial spot with rising inflation, the falling out of the Vietnam War and most of all, the Watergate scandal that involved President Richard Nixon. Corruption, burglary, lies, and illegal wiretapping were surrounding the scandal that was around the 1972 Presidential election in which Nixon won. The cover-up and tape conversations from 1971-1973 were heard about that led to Nixon to resign in disgrace in August of 1974. There, a new sense of cynicism arrived to America along with a sense of disillusionment around the American government. Around that same time in 1974, a film about wiretapping and recorded conversations came out that reflected the paranoia and secrecy of American society. Now more than 30 years since its release, it's been hailed as one of the defining films of the 1970s entitled The Conversation.

Written, produced, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation is a part-homage film to Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow-Up and a reflection of the underlying sense of paranoia and morality of wiretapping in early 1970s America. Written around the early 70s as a script right before Watergate, Coppola wanted the film to be a modern suspense thriller with a sense of character study surrounding the film's protagonist Harry Caul. Coppola, who was coming off his success of his 1972 masterpiece The Godfather used the money from that movie to make a low-budget yet minimalist film for The Conversation. Though it wasn't as known as The Godfather movies when it came out in early 1974, the film is still relevant in the mind of American society. Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall, The Conversation is a smart, eerie masterpiece that sends chills to its audience.

It's a typical day for a couple walking in a park in the city of San Francisco. What Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams) doesn’t know is that they're being followed and bugged by a group of surveillance men led by sound expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). With his assistant Stan (John Cazale) in the van and another man named Paul (Michael Higgins) walking in the park with two other guys listening far away on buildings, they record every word of the conversation they can find. After the job is done, it's up to Harry and Stan to listen to every word, even through its distortion. For Harry, it's just another job as he is hired privately by a corporate director (Robert Duvall) to follow this couple. After calling the director, he goes back to his apartment where his day often ends in loneliness.

Privately away from his work, Harry is a very secretive man who triple-locks his apartment as he learned that his landlord broke in to give him a birthday present and later that night, he visits his girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr) for a night where she keeps asking about his secrets like why he comes in very quietly all the time. Harry doesn't have a normal life as he continues to work and filter through the sounds of the recorded conversation he’s been working on. After calling Stan's work sloppy, Harry does the work himself as he tries to turn the tapes into the director who asks for them. Instead, he meets his assistant Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) who wants the tapes but Harry decides to take them since he wanted to deliver the tapes personally to the director.

With an upcoming convention looming, Harry goes through all the distortions of the conversation where he learns of a plot that involves murder and blackmail. Haunted by a previous job he did in New York City that had a family killed, Harry feels he might happen again yet he can't let his own feelings get involved. Harry continues to work through every word and sound of the conversation as he shows up for the convention. After meeting some colleagues that included Stan, Paul, and an east coast rival in William P. "Bernie" Moran (Allen Garfield) who has been a really successful surveillance man. Harry learns he's being followed by Stett, who sends a message for the tapes to be presented to the director the next day.

A post-convention party at Harry's warehouse is held with a couple of hookers where Meredith (Elizabeth McRae) flirts with Harry as Bernie toasts Harry for his work yet keeps asking about the job he did in New York. Bernie also reveals to be a very innovative bugger who has created a bugging device shaped like a pen as he had recorded some of the conversations Harry had as he destroyed it. After Bernie, Stan, Paul, and a hooker left, Harry tried to listen to his tapes but ends up being seduced by Meredith. Dreaming that he has met Ann where he talks about his childhood illness, he wakes up learning that the tapes are gone. Then he gets a call from Stett that Meredith took them to Stett for the director to hear. Harry goes to meet Stett and the director to hear the tapes as he was given his fee. Learning that a murder might go on, Harry tries to figure out what's going on not only endangering the lives of those involved but also himself.

While comparing The Conversation to The Godfather movies is incomparable in its tone and style, both do have similar internal conflicts for its protagonists. Whereas Marlon Brando's Don Corleone is wanting a better life from his family from the mob, Harry Caul is conflicting with trying to save the life of some people in a plot that he had instigated. While The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are the more popular films, The Conversation is really Francis Ford Coppola’s best work. Bringing a diverse style in his directing were in some scenes, the camera is placed in detach setting while his close-ups and zooming in are very entrancing. It's directing at its masterful while as a screenwriter, Coppola delivers a script filled with surreal moments, especially in the third act and a restrained suspense that makes you build up for what happens. Each suspenseful moment is very unpredictable after watching it for the first time yet you're not sure if anything that you see is real. It's undoubtedly one of the best scripts ever written.

If The Conversation works in its suspenseful writing and directing, it also works in its technical achievements. The film is also a technical spectacle thanks to a wonderful film crew that includes a few of Coppola’s regular collaborators in production designer Dean Tavoularis and editor Walter Murch. The cinematography of Bill Butler (who shot most of the scenes except for the opening park scene which was done by Haskel Wexler) is wonderfully exquisite in some of the film's surreal moments along with its wonderful, dreamy lighting in the night interior scenes at the church and Harry's warehouse during the post-convention party. Dean Tavoularis also shines in the film's visual department with his wonderful detailed look of the scenes in the convention and in Harry's warehouse while getting some of the sound equipment used for the recordings that Harry works on that is very dead-on with the times.

Many of the film's genius, aside from its look and its wonderfully yet manically-paced editing of Richard Chew and Walter Murch, is the sound. The film is a masterpiece in sound thanks to the team of Murch, Art Rochester, Mike Evoe, and Nat Boxer. The sound design not only gives the film an eerie tone but also plays off with its suspense and its manipulation. There's moments where you're thinking you're hearing one thing but through its filters and distortions, you hear a whole lot more as it's a great film of sound. Also working well in the film is the film's score by David Shire that is filled with a smooth, jazz-like suspense and tone that really send chills through the film as it plays off with the sound design as well, even in the soundtrack of jazz cuts by Duke Ellington, Johnny Green, and Dave Brubeck.

The film's small, ensemble cast is excellently well-played with some small but memorable roles from Michael Higgins as one of Harry's bugging pals, Teri Garr as Harry's secretive mistress who keeps asking questions about him, and Elizabeth McRae as the model who flirts with Harry. Allen Garfield is wonderfully humorous in the role of Bernie Moran with his swagger and sneering attitude that is a great antithesis to Harry Caul. Robert Duvall is excellent in his brief role as the director while Harrison Ford brings a dark presence to his role as the director's assistant. Frederic Forest and Cindy Williams are excellent together in their complex roles as the couples of the conversation that is recorded, especially with the film's memorable line that Forest says, "He'd kill us if he had the chance". The late John Cazale delivers a great yet small performance as Harry's assistant who often asks questions about why they're recording and is seems to be the one guy who tries to get Harry out of his shell. It's really one of the more overlooked performances in the film.

The film's central performance that is widely regarded to be the best in the movie belongs to the always great, always versatile Gene Hackman. Hackman gives a very guarded, troubling performance as the secretive, paranoid, and moralistic Harry Caul. Hackman brings a sense of restraint to the role along with an intensity whenever he's driven by paranoia. We see that he's not a great man, he is very protective from himself, the way he treats women, his colleagues, and how acts towards people. Yet, we know that his life wasn't great, he also has a past that troubles him. It's really one of Gene Hackman's finest performances as an actor and he is the reason that he is considered to be one of the greatest American actors on the silver screen.

When The Conversation came out in early 1974, it was hailed by critics as a masterpiece and when it premiered internationally that year at the Cannes Film Festival in France, the film won Coppola his first ever Palme D'or (the second would be Apocalypse Now where he tied with another film in 1979). Despite the acclaim for the film, The Conversation got lost in the shuffle commercially since many film goers were anticipating the second Godfather movie. Still, 30 years since its release, it's been hailed a cinematic classic and is often considered to be Coppola's best film.

The 2000 DVD release which includes a wonderful widescreen presentation along with a remixed audio sound by Walter Murch and those at Zoetrope studios is a must-buy on DVD. The film looks even better on DVD while it includes a few features like the film's original trailer and an eight-minute featurette on the making of The Conversation where Coppola and Gene Hackman give a glimpse into the making of a few scenes. The DVD also include two audio commentary tracks, one from Coppola, and the other from sound wizard Walter Murch. Coppola's commentary on the film reveals some of the film's mystery along with some of his reasons into making the movie while giving his own feelings on why he loved The Conversation than most of his film. Walter Murch's commentary provides some more technical pointers into the film as well as his own insights into the movie. Murch admits that the gadget Harry used to filter the sounds for that infamous line doesn't really exist while he talked about some of the editing strategies he used from Coppola's notes while he was away doing work on The Godfather Part II. Murch doesn't reveal some of the secrets on the film anyway though he did mention a funny story involving him and porno magazines as a young kid.

Now thirty-years later since its release, The Conversation is still hailed as a cinematic classic thanks to Francis Ford Coppola's mind-bending script and eerie direction along with the great technical work of Bill Butler, Walter Murch, Dean Tavoularis, and company. With more recent films influenced by The Conversation that included Brian de Palma's widely underrated film Blow-Out starring John Travolta and Tony Scott's big-budgeted 1998 thriller Enemy of the State with Will Smith and Gene Hackman. The Conversation at repeated viewing remains intriguing along with the great performance from Gene Hackman and the supporting cast that includes Harrison Ford, Allen Garfield and the late John Cazale. While The Godfather movies may be his most well-known and popular work to date, The Conversation is a must-see film for anyone interested in cinema.

Francis Ford Coppola Films: Dementia 13 - (You're a Big Boy Now) - (Finian's Rainbow) - (The Rain People) - The Godfather - The Godfather Pt. II - Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux - One from the Heart - (The Outsiders) - Rumble Fish - (The Cotton Club) - (Peggy Sue Got Married) - (Garden of Stone) - (Tucker: The Man & His Dreams) - New York Stories - The Godfather Pt. III - Bram Stoker's Dracula - (Jack) - (The Rainmaker) - (Youth Without Youth) - Tetro - (Twixt)

© thevoid99 2011

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