The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

“We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don’t get involved any further. We’ll be listening to you.”
Introduction
In a world whereby Google Maps can place you anywhere in the world and ‘data bugs’ have become a hobby for people to find – it seems that gadgets surveillance and The Conversation are potentially out of date. Where does Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) fit in? Would he be as respected or successful in 2012? Then again, in 1998, Tony Scott released Enemy of the State, a sequel-in-spirit to The Conversation, at a time whereby gadgets were front-and-centre but again, 14 years later, looks a little out of date.
Immediate Start
The film begins immedietly. We see Harry and his team observe and record a couple – Ann and Mark (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) – as they discuss a clearly-confidential matter. The couple walk in circles and find a busy-place to meet … and even clock onto one of the team listening to the conversation. The story unfolds as Harry realises what he has been employed to do – and the morality behind it.
I believe what many people take away from the film is the ending, which turns the story on its head. The idea of surveillance was very new during the seventies and became something that could be seen as a negative and controlling influence of the government. The film seems to paint the picture that the awareness of the true amount of surveillance (in the 70’s!) drives people to paranoia or to apathy. Or, akin to the moral-stance of Burn After Reading, it often simply confuses the issue to further – which is the c\ase, as the film draws to a close.

Harrison Ford in a Pre-Star Wars role

Influences

Coppola specifically notes the influence of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and this is clear thoughout. In both films the lead actor is over-analysing an image – or in The Conversation, a tape-recording. But whilst Antonioni seems to delve deep into the multiple attitudes and changes to the art world, Coppola seems to attack the very nature of observing in and of itself.
Harry Caul is a private “bugger” (as in he “bugs” houses!) which in turn emphasizes the conflicting attitudes as, within surveillance-circles he is well-known and respected whilst outside of this, he is proud of not being known as he refuses to use a phone and acts and dresses in a manner that excludes him from society. This lonliness extends further as he is racked with guilt – and he believes he is responsible for the murder of a family (which was in response to a client finding out information, sourced by Caul). Blow-Up doesn’t truly explore the themes of guilt and lonliness that The Conversation, but the steady pacing and back-and-forth between narrative and images.tape-recording constantly force you to think about the words spoken and what they mean. By the end of the film, many of the lines you will know off by heart, because they are repeated so often.

John Cazale in the far background

Oscar-Nominated

As Philip French observes in The Guardian, between 1970 and 1979, Coppola was the best working filmmaker in Hollywood. Between Coppola’s scripted-Patton, the double-whammy of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, and then hitting a home-run in ’79 with Apocalypse Now, surely ensures Coppola as one of the best filmmakers of all-time. I don’t believe that these films, and this period in Coppola’s life can be ignored due his more-personal, but less-commercial efforts of recent years including Youth with Youth and Tetro. Indeed, The Conversation was nominated for Best Picture but lost-out to The Godfather Part II. If there is one way to lose an Oscar, it is surely to another film you’ve directed from the same year.
Personally, I love a specific actor that features in The Conversation. Every single feature-film he acted in was nominated for a Best-Picture Oscar. He worked with directors Sidney Lumet and Michael Cimino alongside starring in three Coppola films. Of course, I talk about John Cazale. A man who Al Pacino stated that “All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life”. This rounds up my viewing of all five Cazale films and he really does steal the show – an actor who was taken much to soon, dying in 1978 of lung cancer.
The Perfect Time
The Conversation is a brilliant film – but I would assume watching the film again would benefit me greatly. The recurring sequence from the start of the film, I believe, would almost become hypnotic when you watch it a second time. As if Harry Caul is wandering in a dreamlike state, as this sequence plays in his mind. I would assume, this dreamlike state was what many American’s felt when it was revealed, in 1973, that President Richard Nixon’s administration was found to be bugging his opponents offices. Named after the Hotel which was bugged, it was called the “Watergate Scandal”. To imagine how this event rocked the country in one-year before The Conversation was released, it seems exceptionally timely, premiered on 7th April 1974, in the middle of the hearings about Watergate, and before Nixon stepped down from office in August. The idea about recurring themes, I’m sure many viewers related to, as they recalled how horrendous the situation was as Nixon completely abused the trust of his country.
This film is perfectly timed and it is fascinating as an example of the climate in America – and the ongoing-controversy of surveillance.
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2 comments

  1. It's always interesting when you put films back into their historical context, and what the film meant at the time.

    I've seen The Conversation only once, but it is as you mentioned fascinating.

  2. Yeah, this is a film that is very-much of its time. I question its relevance today. But, stylistically, it is a great comparison to BLOW-UP – a film which I would deemer superior.

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