Friday, August 21, 2020

Talking ‘Bout “The Conversation”

 In early 1974, between the release of The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed a small film that had big implications for life in these United States. The Conversation—which hinges on the covert taping of private speech—has a clear, though subtle, tie-in to the presidency of Richard Nixon, who would resign from office in August 1974, partly due to the secret tape recordings he made in the Oval Office. The events of  Watergate, of course, came to a head 46 years ago, but The Conversation still feels fresh, even if the technology used within the story now seems dated. In focusing on secret surveillance and the bugging of private conversations by electronic means, the film suggests how vulnerable we are to outside tinkering with our lives. At a time when we’re all watching out for identity theft and bemoaning the way social media has robbed us of our privacy, The Conversation has a lot to say. It’s a paranoia classic wholly fit for our current age of anxiety.

Gene Hackman as Harry Caul is the film’s ostensible everyman hero. But it’s not that the good guys and bad guys are clearly distinguished. That’s something else that seems all too modern: the ambiguity of the moral choices made in the course of the action. Harry is, by trade, a professional security guy, which means he’s an expert wiretapper and someone who knows how to delicately separate incriminating speech from background noise. Unfortunately for him, his one stab at taking a moral stand basically ends up making things worse. That nice young couple in the park: what are they really up to? And how can he, basically a loner who doesn’t have much use for other people, square his job  description with the prickings of his conscience?

I’ve heard that Coppola was inspired by Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in which a British photographer (David Hemmings) finds what he thinks might be evidence of a crime hidden within a casual snapshot he took in a local park. Coppola’s film is less exotic and less existential than Blow-Up (yes, a mime is briefly present in his park too, but that mime is not playing tennis with an imaginary ball). Yet, for all of that, it’s fascinating how in these films two masters of cinema both look at the tools of their trade—whether photography or sound recording—afresh, recognizing that these have the potential to lead less to truth than to confusion and even  danger.   

Along with Hackman (coming off his Oscar for The French Connection), Coppola has cast such pros as Teri Garr (just prior to her breakout role in Young Frankenstein), John Cazale, Frederick Forrest, Cindy Williams, and (in a small, sinister part) the young Harrison Ford. I have to particularly mention the fine character actor Allen Garfield, who plays a hustling surveillance pro: this past April, he died of COVID-19 at the age of 80. And yes! that’s an uncredited Robert Duvall, stepping away from his Tom Hagen identity in the Godfather films, in the shadowy but essential role of a business tycoon known only as “The Director.”

Though The Conversation never attracted Godfather-sized box office, it was not overlooked by the members of the Academy. It was nominated for three Oscars: for best picture, best original screenplay, and (appropriately) best sound design. Alas, it received no statuettes. The big winner that year: Coppola’s other project, The Godfather, Part II. Amazing that two of the five best picture nominees for 1975 were directed by the same not-yet-forty-year-old man.


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