The Conversation (1974) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
Scoop's notes in white
This film must hold the all-time record for generating the widest range of opinions. The following two men both wrote intelligent and articulate reviews to defend diametrically opposite positions. Joe Chamberlain says it is, "quite possibly the worst film ever made. 0/10", while Drew Hanks says, "The best American film ever made? Absolutely." The critical reactions have shown me that few of you will be lukewarm about this film. Half of you will think it is a masterpiece and the other half will think it stinks. I'm going to try to tell you why these differences of opinion exist, in order that you may determine to which half you belong before you invest your time and money on it.
Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, the world's greatest expert on electronic surveillance. His current assignment is to produce an evidence-quality tape of two people holding a conversation as they stroll through a public square, surrounded by hundreds of people, band music, and traffic noises. No problem for Harry. He devises an elaborate multi-mike system, and he splices together bits and pieces from each source, ultimately producing a perfect record of the conversation.
In earlier times, an amoral Harry strove for technical perfection and didn't really consider the ethical side of his actions. He never listened to what was on the tapes, but concentrated strictly on the fidelity of the recording. But life is changing him. Now he thinks of more than whether he has the right words on tape in the right order, or whether they are audible and clear. He thinks about the human lives - the lives of the invaders of privacy and the invaded as well. He has started to obsess about the ultimate consequences of his work. For example, suppose you're the world's greatest eavesdropper, and you can tap a conversation that the participants think to be unbuggable - they're out on a rented rowboat, far from land, discussing an illegal matter entirely between them. What might happen if you bug such a discussion? When that conversation is compromised, each of the men - eliminating the possibility of eavesdropping - will think the other leaked it. If one or the other is desperate enough, the result might be murder. In the specific case Harry was working on, the result was multiple murder. One of the parties killed not only the other guy, but the man's entire family as well.
Harry has also begun to worry about an even darker side of his profession. He never knows whether he is working for the good guys, who are trying to defend themselves against insidious forces, or for the bad guys, who are using Harry's skills to endanger innocent people. In the case of the young couple strolling through the public square, he fears they may be murdered by the people who hired him.
Obsessing about these matters has pushed Harry into an advanced state of psychological deterioration. The knowledge he possesses has taught him that it is virtually impossible to be free from eavesdropping, so he has become paranoid about his own life. He never tells anybody about anything. All his thoughts stay firmly locked inside him. This proves to be wise in some ways. For example, when he gets a little tipsy and has an intimate conversation with a woman, it turns out that one of his own business rivals taped the conversation with a fountain pen microphone which Harry took willingly as a souvenir from a convention. Harry had always been paranoid, but the fountain pen incident drove him to the edge of insanity. On the other hand, it's just as well that Harry is cautious, because nothing is really as it seems in the film. Harry is right to be paranoid, but all wrong about the details, and he's always aligning his attitudes on the wrong side of things. It turns out that his real enemy is not his blowhard enemy, but the very woman he has been romancing and protecting. She finishes a night of sex by stealing his tapes after he falls asleep. Harry's ultimate mental deterioration occurs when he realizes that his own apartment has been bugged. The ending reminded me of Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart." Like Poe's character, Hackman tears up his floorboards at the end of the film, vainly trying to expose the bug, as if it were "the beating of his hideous heart." In a figurative way, it is. It is the sound of his own voice, magnified a hundredfold in his mind. He tears apart everything he owns and leaves the room in a condition approximating the look of Berlin in the last days of WW2. In the stylized final scene of the film he sits amid the debris in a rickety chair, playing a forlorn saxophone solo while the credits roll.
That's what the movie is all about.
The film was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and shot during the period when he also made the first two Godfathers. It was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but lost out to another Coppola film, Godfather, Part 2. (FFC had a helluva year!) The Conversation also earned Coppola a nomination for best original screenplay, but he lost that one to the author of Chinatown.
The critics seemed to agreed that the premise was excellent, and everyone seemed to love the masterful first scene during the opening credits, in which Harry created an ingenious solution to the problem of taping the strolling people in a public square. Where the critics started to follow divergent paths was in evaluating the execution of the idea. The idea behind the film is to show the gradual deterioration of Harry's mind, and to show how his paranoia is fueled in equal parts by correct and incorrect assumptions. Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola elected to portray this process through Harry's mind rather than through the view of an omniscient narrator. Since Harry's mind is deteriorating and he is unable to distinguish real clues from red herrings, the film's narrative structure is complex. Some of the scenes seem unnecessary, and some of the characters seem irrelevant to the development of the plot. The film's defenders would argue that these things are necessary to illuminate Harry's state of mind, because he himself can't see the connections, and he doesn't know where the real threat is coming from.
The film makes a powerful case that the invasion of privacy is even more insidious than we think, because our own rights are at stake. Harry could be hired by our boss or our wife, and his work could be used against us. When this door is opened, the storm rages through the room, and nobody can stay sheltered inside. The right to privacy shelters nobody or everybody. The Conversation was released in 1974, the same year Nixon resigned, during a period of heightened global awareness of taped conversations. Nixon himself was the ultimate paranoid.
If you would like to see a detailed examination of a paranoid man's state of mind through his own confused eyes, you will consider this a brilliant and daring film, creepy and chilling. If you prefer more conventional narratives with plenty of action, you might hate this film and think it is slower than continental drift, because nothing much happens. My first reaction to it was tepid, but I watched it again a second time - not every scene, but the scenes I really liked, which were numerous - and I ended up very impressed by the craftsmanship on display. Then I watched the documentary, then listened to some of the commentary, and the damned thing really hooked me in. If you keep an open mind, The Conversation can be engrossing in its own non-traditional way. It really left a lot of images with me.
There is some interesting casting:
Tuna's notes in yellow
The Conversation (1974) was conceived, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The idea started when he thought about using repetition within a film as a plot device, and then hit upon the perfect method to use this plot device. This is the sort of "personal film" that he had always really wanted to make, and he had it in mind for years, but he couldn't even finance The Conversation until the Godfather made him the greatest thing since sliced bread. He might have made far more, but he was forced by subsequent financial pressures to make commercial films instead.
Gene Hackman plays the greatest wiretapper and eavesdropper in the world. He developed his own electronics, and is a legend in the industry. As the film opens, he is eavesdropping on a conversation between a young couple in bustling Union Square. This scene was filmed and recorded just as if the movie company had been real eavesdroppers. Afterwards, the Hackman character expertly combines and mixes the filtered output of several recordings into one intelligible one. When he goes to deliver the tape and get paid, the "Director" isn't there, and the paranoid Hackman won't turn the tape over to an underling. He becomes convinced that the young couple is in mortal danger, probably from the agency who hired him to make the tape. As events unfold, we hear the recording time after time, but with new knowledge each time, we interpret it differently each time we hear it. We hear "The Conversation" in the beginning of the film, but I doubt that anyone arrives at the logical conclusion ahead of schedule.
Hackman's portrayal of a terribly flawed paranoid genius was spot-on, and Coppola's idea of repetition worked perfectly here. The underlining theme of the erosion of personal privacy is even more valid now than it was in the mid 70s, making the film age very well.
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