Monday, April 6, 2020

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation

“What they do with the tape is their own business," say Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who a colleague calls “the best bugger on the west coast.” The protagonist of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) just does his job, listening then turning over the result to his clients. Of course the complexity is that he’s a tortured Catholic who goes to confession and a saxophonist—both of which activities put him on the other side of the fence. In addition, as much as he's hired to find things out about him, there are those like a girlfriend, who want to know who this mysterious quiet, unforthcoming character with the onomatopoeic name is. Spoiler Alert: in the event you haven’t seen this classic, the tables turn on Harry and he becomes the mark. Like a lot of buggers, he ends up getting buggered. In this case, the subjects Harry's studying turn out to be running the show. The Conversation is a homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966), using sound bytes as opposed to snap shots, to get at truth. Without it, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s great The Lives of Others, which also plays on the themes of surveillance and art, would never have been made, (by the way, the movie, which was originally in the repetoire of Film Forum's spring season, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis). Interestingly, The Conversation was made between The Godfather and Godfather II. The movie also came shortly before Nixon's resignation in the aftermath of the spying on the Watergate---and is a trenchant historical footnote a la the Mueller Report. But there's one oddity. Some older films are charming because of their age. You love the Florida bound Pullman car in the "Ale and Quail hunting club" scene of Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story (1942) for its quaintness, but here the props are the story. No one uses tape recorders or rotary phones anymore. Calls aren’t made to phone booths. It’s not necessary since cell phones, though ultimately trackable, do a better job of camouflaging location. For all the brilliance of the plot, the anachronisms weigh heavily on a movie whose template is technology. One other point, it’s implied earlier in the film that Harry’s work has had consequences and that there's no way that what he does can be considered value-free. "He's the guy who told Chrysler that Cadillac was losing its fins," says one of  his employees, Stan (John Cazale) sarcastically understating the stakes. So why is this suddenly becoming an issue? Still like Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) every setup is a masterful exploration of the voyeur.

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