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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Conversation'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“The Conversation”
Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
Criticwire Average: —

A paranoid thriller about the surveillance state and a meditative character study of a professional observer, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” never quite tips its hand as to what it’s really about, preferring its trenchant themes and unsettling ironies to bubble up to the surface like blood in a toilet bowl. It starts out as a simple story of a surveillance expert trying to keep his demons at bay and ends up being about everything from perception vs. reality to Watergate (even though the film’s relationship to the political scandal is entirely coincidental). Compared to Coppola’s other work, it’s a small film about a small man, but one that has a great magnitude of insight that still rings true over forty years later.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman in one of his very best performances) is a private surveillance technician who runs his own company out of San Francisco. He prides himself on his work and is very respected within his profession, but his job has rendered him a paranoid — he lives alone in a bare apartment with a triple-locked door and a loud burglar alarm, he claims he has no home telephone, and he dislikes most personal contact or personal questions of any kind. Harry prides himself on simply recording people’s conversations without actually listening to the content, as doing so would make him complicit in his client’s later actions. On his most recent assignment, Harry and his colleagues Stan (John Cazale) and Paul (Michael Higgins) are spying on a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk through a crowded Union Square. Once he cleans up the recording, Harry is disturbed by the emotional implications of the couple’s speech and believes them to be in danger, so he stalls on turning over the tapes to Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), the assistant to The Director (Robert Duvall), the commissioner of the surveillance. But like another disastrous event in his past, Harry’s actions have far-reaching consequences and those in power soon conspire to ruin his inner life.

“The Conversation” seeks to consume the audience with the paranoia that Harry feels on a daily basis. Coppola’s long shots convey Harry’s loneliness in the world, as well as the tight, alienating close-ups on Hackman’s face illustrate his outsider status (not to mention Harry Caul’s entire visual aesthetic, which screams out-of-touch, socially-challenge loner), but much of the credit goes to Walter Murch, the supervising editor and sound designer. Murch’s sound design consists of fractured dialogue from the couple’s recording, sometimes distorted and always out of context, as it clashes against David Shire’s tonally-variant piano score, creating an aural nightmare that papers the entire film, which forces the audience to constantly hear a recording without fully understanding its meaning, just like Caul. “The Conversation” is wall-to-wall dread, but it’s never quite clear where it comes from. Is it Caul’s lingering guilt over his unintentional involvement with a triple homicide back in New York? Is it the shadowy organization that employs Caul to spy on two seemingly innocent people? Is it Caul himself? It’s difficult to pin down, but every frame of the film shudders with the fear of being watched.

Though Murch is the clear stand-out from a technical perspective, Hackman’s performance is stellar and he perfectly conveys a man who’s job is to react to his surroundings, not act upon them. Caul observes for a living, and as such, he keeps mostly to himself. His Catholic guilt coupled with his professional guilt keep him alienated from the few people in his life, but it’s not his loneliness that gnaws at his soul, it’s that he’s complicit in what eventually happens to the people he watches. He keeps telling himself that it’s not his job to listen to the conversations, but he does listen to them, and he’s a part of his subjects’ eventual fate whether he wants to be or not. Caul is a participant as much as an observer, and soon the couple haunts his dreams, as he knows full well what will happen to them if the tapes get in the hands of the Director.

Despite “The Conversation’s” script being written in the mid-1960’s, its parallels to the Watergate scandal are difficult to ignore. The film was released a few weeks before President Richard Nixon would resign in disgrace for his involvement with the Watergate break-in, and the nation was thrust into a state of paranoia with the knowledge that its leaders were monitoring the actions of everyday civilians. The American public’s mistrust of the government seeped into all sectors of the culture as it became clear that the freedoms of the 1960’s had completely given away to more a guarded surveillance state. “The Conversation” captures the tenor of the culture perfectly without once ever referencing “Watergate” or “Nixon” by name. It’s not simply the wiretapping or the creeping conspiracy, the paranoia lives in Harry’s apartment, in the foggy confessional dream sequence, in the shocking murder that the audience sees coming but doesn’t quite yet understand. It’s Antonioni’s “Blowup” complete with all of its themes about the ambiguity of meaning and perception’s effect on reality but updated for 1970’s America.

It’s “The Conversation’s” devastating ending that illustrates the uncomfortable irony of living in a surveillance state: It breeds fear and suspicion in both observers and the observed. Once a person’s privacy has been invaded, no one is safe from the eyes of those who wish to exploit and profit off of those powerless to fend themselves. When Harry finally realizes the true meaning of his recording, he’s threatened by Martin Stett into keeping quiet once Stett lets him know that he’s being watched. The final shot of a lonely Harry playing his saxophone in a ransacked apartment knowing that he’ll never truly be safe is the most succinct metaphor for America in 1974, and unfortunately in light of NSA’s illegal domestic surveillance operations, America in 2015 as well.

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

Coppola, who wrote and directed, considers this film his most personal project. He was working two years after the Watergate break-in, amid the ruins of the Vietnam effort, telling the story of a man who places too much reliance on high technology and has nightmares about his personal responsibility. Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work. The movie works on that moral level, and also as a taut, intelligent thriller. It opens with a virtuoso telephoto shot, showing a San Francisco plaza filled with people. Faraway music mixes with electronic sounds. There is a slow zoom in to the back of Caul’s head, and then the camera follows him. Other shots show a man with a shotgun microphone, on top of a nearby building, holding in his cross hairs a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) who are the subject of the investigation. Eventually we go inside a van packed with electronic gear, where Stan (John Cazale), Harry’s assistant, is waiting. “Who’s interested in these people, anyway?” Stan asks. One of Harry’s crosses is that Stan is irreverent about their work, which to Harry is a sacred calling. Later we find out who’s interested: Harry has been hired by the director of a large corporation (Robert Duvall), although at first he deals only with the man’s assistant (Harrison Ford). It becomes clear that Ann, the young woman, is the director’s wife, and Mark, the young man, is her lover. But what will happen next? “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” says Mark. Will he? Harry plays the tapes back and forth, juggling a bank of three tape recorders, in a scene Coppola says was partly inspired by the photographer trying to coax the truth out of his prints in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” Snatches of conversation advance and recede, maddeningly mixed with a band in the plaza that’s playing “Red, Red Robin.” Read more.

Scott Tobias, The Dissolve

The Conversation” is a movie of the moment, no question. It’s the first in a series of 1970s thrillers like “The Parallax View” and “Three Days Of The Condor” to articulate the creeping paranoia and dread that was gripping the country. But it’s really a much more personal, character-driven piece than that, sharply departing from the more expansive visions of the “Godfather” movies that bookended it. Like Antonioni, Coppola was wrestling with the properties of his chosen medium and showing how art can conceal and deceive as much as it can tell us something plain and true. Beyond that, though, “The Conversation” is about the many walls of Harry Caul, who builds a fortress around himself, but can’t stop the barbarians at the gate. All the Catholic guilt and mortal danger that comes crashing down on Michael Corleone in the “Godfather” movies applies to Caul, too, even though he’s operating with a moral compass that points closer to true north. 
Caul’s stance with regard to private surveillance is that he isn’t responsible for anything that happens beyond the parameters of the job, which protects him from knowledge of any unsavory consequences. This is how scientists might rationalize The Manhattan Project or any other pursuits of knowledge that harness the dark forces of nature. But for Caul, it’s a form of self-deceit that cannot be sustained. Before the film even opens, he’s been morally wounded by what happened to him in New York, and there’s no coming back from that, because he knows he helped instigate a triple murder, and he knows such a result in San Francisco would chip away at his soul even further. His visit to a confessional is a desperate, ultimately hapless attempt to gain absolution, but his conscience will not let him off so easily. He cannot do his job, because he ultimately must know how his recordings are being used, even before they’re stolen from him. Read more.

Benjamin Strong, Slate

The Conversation” opens with mercenary listener Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) eavesdropping on a cryptic exchange between a visibly tense man and a pretty woman in a red coat, as they walk in circles in a crowded square at lunchtime. It’s Harry’s policy not to inquire about his clients’ motives or to pay any attention to the content of the tapes he makes: “I don’t care what they’re talking about, all I want is a nice fat recording.” That’s what he says, anyway. But when a single inscrutable line in this particular conversation eludes him, he refuses to hand over the tapes to the young Harrison Ford, who plays the menacing assistant to a nameless corporation’s nameless “Director,” the guy who hired Harry. So, our anti-hero keeps listening, until at last he deciphers the ominous passage (“He’d kill us if he got the chance”) that turns out to be the key to the rest of the conversation. 
Whether or not Coppola intended Harry to be an onscreen placeholder for Nixon, another paranoiac, it is difficult to ignore the resemblance between the two. Ultimately, though, Harry is a sympathetic character, a decent man unraveling in insecurity. And who can blame him? He knows better than anyone what a total illusion your privacy is. When he destroys his apartment in “The Conversation’s” final scene — ripping out the walls, moldings, light fixtures, even the floorboards — the bugs he’s looking for and can’t find are actually there. Read more.

Don Drucker, Chicago Reader

Gene Hackman excels in Francis Ford Coppola’s tasteful, incisive 1974 study of the awakening of conscience in an “electronic surveillance technician.” Coppola manages to turn an expert thriller into a portrayal of the conflict between ritual and responsibility without ever letting the levels of tension subside or the complicated plot get muddled. Fine support from Allen Garfield as an alternately amiable and desperately envious colleague, plus a superb sound track (vital to the action) by Walter Murch — all this and a fine, melancholy piano score by David Shire. Read more.

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

It could be that Mr. Coppola really wasn’t aware how good a movie he was on the verge of making in “The Conversation.” Perhaps he only wanted to make a better-than-average melodrama, which might explain some beautifully photographed but basically foolish dream sequences and hallucinations. Such devices, even in Hitchcock, are usually cop-outs of one sort or another, or such overly simplified Freud that they hardly bare scrutiny except as comic-strip psychiatry. Everything about “The Conversation” prompts you to demand better than that. The nightmare situation that Harry finds himself in is both funny and compelling, and although I’m not much taken by the sort of “Blow-Up” ambiguity that Mr. Coppola eventually has recourse to, the movie leaves you wanting more, which is a nice change from all the other movies that send you groggily from the theater feeling as if you’d been force-fed on jelly beans. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The Man Who Viewed Too Much

Structurally it’s still magnificent, with the opening surveillance sequence functioning like an overture whose multiple themes subsequently recur in varying combinations — I don’t think more than a few minutes ever elapse without our hearing snippets of it, often as aural wallpaper. Furthermore, Hackman is still great, the post-convention workshop party remains a tour de force (there’s a cut from a wide shot of Harry and the woman wandering that cavernous empty back room to an equally wide shot of Harry alone that took my breath away), and the ending, while perhaps a bit pat in its irony, nonetheless shredded my soul yet again. But I found myself cringing repeatedly this time at how bluntly Coppola presents Harry’s paranoia, and newly aware of how little there is to the man apart from being paranoid. Teri Garr’s arm’s-length girlfriend exists only to provide clumsy exposition, improbably dumping Harry the instant her function has been exhausted; John Cazale defects to the competition the same day, suddenly pissed off that he hasn’t been trusted with sensitive information about the jobs they do. That these crises happen concurrently with Harry’s fear for the safety of the couple he bugged, even though both relationships are clearly long-term and Harry’s obviously been sealed off since the womb, makes the film feel thin and schematic…as does the backstory about the job Harry regrets, which actually finds him muttering “I can’t let it happen again” even as he’s being boned. And I apparently repressed all memory of the Fogtown dream sequence, which is just plain embarrassing. All in all, it feels like a slightly bloated adaptation of a perfect short story, masterful but straining too hard for weight. Read more.

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