Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Genre Spotlight #1.3: The Conversation

Every decade brings new worries, and genre films are particularly good at capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist of the time. Every month, Genre Spotlight takes a look at a genre in a particular time and place, shows a certain director or screenwriter approached said genre, and tries to shine some light on what the cultural significance of the movement was. This month takes a look at the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

Grade: 97 (A)

Some films tie into national or world events intentionally, often to evoke recent happenings for greater relevance. In terms of paranoid thrillers, Three Days of the Condor and The Day of the Jackal qualify. Often more effective, however, are the films that predict events as they happen by chance. Francis Ford Coppola’s towering masterpiece The Conversation falls in the latter group. Released in the first half of 1974, The Conversation was seen as a commentary on the 1972 Watergate break-in and the scandal that followed (culminating in President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974). Coppola, however, maintains that he had been planning the film since the mid-60s, and that he had finished filming the movie before the implications of the far-reaching Watergate scandal were known. This only adds to the fascination of the zeitgeist capturing film. Of all the terrific political thrillers of the 1970s, The Conversation stands head and shoulders above the rest as the best.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a highly private surveillance man working in San Francisco. He has no close friends, no comfort among people, and he holds his closest associate (John Cazale) at a distance. Harry is hired to follow and record a conversation between two young people (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) for a mysterious executive (an uncredited Robert Duvall). While editing the tapes together, Harry finds reason to believe that the two young people are in great danger.

The Conversation taps into the mindset of the paranoia-filled 70s by way of a compelling character study. Hackman could be a forceful and frightening actor (see: his Oscar-winning roles in The French Connection and Unforgiven), but his performance as the reclusive, introverted Caul is perhaps his best work. Here is a man whose job encourages voyeurism, but the very nature of his work has forced him to retreat from any semblance of a public life. He invades the lives of others, but he’s intensely private, deeply paranoid, and isolated from the rest of the world.  He has no home telephone. He doesn’t do small talk. He doesn’t get involved with clients. His one romantic relationship is so lacking in intimacy that the woman who loves him reluctantly breaks it off, knowing that she’ll never really know Harry. Coppola frames Caul isolated from nearly everyone else- here is a lonely, sad, prickly man with no emotional outlet. His very soul has been eroded at through his years at work.

Coppola’s documentation of the meticulous process of surveillance is hypnotic- the film opens on a wide exterior shot of San Francisco’s Union Square, slowly zeroing in on Caul. He seems out of place amongst the happy crowd, but then, he’s at work. Forrest and Williams pass by; they discuss their fear of being watched and followed. Caul and his team use multiple microphones to capture the entirety of their conversation. Later scenes show Caul syncing all of the tapes together to one master tape- there’s a meticulous recreation of the event as Caul realizes the implications of their conversation. In a series of bravura recreations, Coppola and editor Walter Murch show how someone can dig through all the murk, feedback, and background noise of a recording to present a perfect document…or so it seems.

A feeling of paranoia permeates throughout The Conversation. There’s someone always watching, and information is king. Forrest and Williams are paranoid that someone is following them- Williams worries that her phone has been tapped, and that something terrible could happen. Caul is so worried that his work could be used against him that he has virtually no personal life. He has several locks on his door, and he never reveals details about his personal life. When a rival surveillance man bugs him as a joke, Caul is outraged. It’s not just out of vanity- he knows what can happen to those being watched.

Caul’s paranoia is informed by his guilt- he’s haunted by a previous job he did that saw innocent people murdered. He had worked for the government, and now a new powerful organization has hired him, headed by a shadowy figure (an uncredited Robert Duvall) and a creepy sycophant (an unnervingly young Harrison Ford). Now comes his chance to use technology for good. The problem: these are murky times, and point-of-view can be easily clouded. The conspiracy at the center of The Conversation seems relatively simple compared to other conspiracy films, but the film proves that the misinterpretation of an event can have drastic consequences, leaving innocents dead, lives upturned, and the hero with no one left to turn to and nowhere to hide.

The Conversation is modeled after Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, a film which saw a fashion photographer stumbling upon an attempted murder; Antonioni’s film was another portrait of alienation and the elusive nature of reality, but Antonioni wasn’t particularly interested in solving the crime itself.  The crime is the center of The Conversation, a film which turns the murder framework into high tragedy. At the center of the conspiracy are two human beings: one whose life hangs in the balance, another whose soul is at stake. At the end of the road: oblivion.

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