Time for a road trip across the good ol’ U.S.A., one movie at a time.
The King Kong of U.S. states, California is too gargantuan to be represented by just one film — so I’m making this a two-parter. I’ll be starting up north then working my way down the coast.
Week 5 – California (Part 1)
In 1974, Francis Ford Coppola released what many consider to be the greatest film sequel ever made, if not the greatest movie ever made — The Godfather Part II.
That is a conversation for another time. Oh. Hee hee. I just said “conversation.” That was unintentional.
Let’s talk about the other Coppola film released in 1974. Yes, the other Coppola film — The Conversation. It too was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. How many directors can claim that they’ve had not one, but two films up for Best Picture any given year? None that I can think of. We’ve talked about a number of influential directors to have come out of the American film renaissance of the 1970s — Scorcese, Rafelson. Maybe Scorcese outlasted Coppola in the end — Coppola’s career definitely went downhill from the 1980s onward — but I argue in the 1970s, Coppola was king.
The theme of The Conversation, a thriller set in San Francisco, is the idea that not everything is how it is perceived to be, especially when it comes to the behavior of other people. Ironically, that theme stretches into my own perception of the movie itself. When I heard that The Conversation was about wire tapping and surveillance, considering the political climate during which the movie was made, I expected a paranoid Cold War thriller — something along the lines of Marathon Man. What I got was something more cerebral and intimate. While The Conversation may be about spying, it is not your traditional spy movie.
First and foremost, The Conversation is a character study. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a freelance surveillance expert — essentially a private detective — who is paid big bucks to invade other people’s privacy. His skills are legendary, which is clear when he attends a trade show and is treated with awe by his colleagues.Caul is a complicated man. It’s established early on that he is highly religious. He scolds another person for using the Lord’s name in vain. Later, there’s a scene with him in a confessional booth. Caul is also extremely solitary. When he’s not eavesdropping or setting up the latest in high-tech surveillance equipment, his free time is spent playing his saxophone by himself along with old jazz records. (It is jazz music that forms much of The Conversation‘s soundtrack. More on that later.) Caul has a girlfriend, played by Teri Garr, but she’s tiring of his isolationist nature and you get the impression that she probably won’t stick with him too much longer. He has no home phone. No friends. No family. Just his business partner, Stan, played by John Cazale (Fredo of The Godfather).
Stan too is getting sick of Caul’s impersonal ways. At the very least, Stan wants to know more about this latest job that Caul has been working on. The thing is, Caul doesn’t know much about the latest job he’s been working on. All he knows is that he has been hired to record a conversation between a man and a woman in Union Square, a pedestrian area in the center of San Francisco.
This is how The Conversation begins — with “the conversation.” The first thing you see is a birds-eye view of a crowded city square. The camera pans in, but you’re not exactly sure on who or what the camera is focused. Is it the mime? No — it couldn’t be the mime. A cacophony of sound is dominated by loud music. At last a man and a woman are brought into the picture. The noise dies down and you can just make out what they’re saying through the audio distortion. The conversation seems rather dull and ordinary. Thus, the big question — who wants this recording and why? All Caul knows is that he has been commissioned by a man known as (duh) the commissioner to record the conversation.
Satisfied that he has captured all he can through multi-directional microphones carefully positioned around Union Square, Caul schedules a time to drop off the tapes and collect his $15,000 fee. When he goes to meet with the commissioner, however, another man shows up in the commissioner’s place. The man (played by Harrison Ford) identifies himself as a liaison for the commissioner. Caul senses something is not right and nixes the exchange.
Why should Caul care? What is revealed later on (and this isn’t really a spoiler, since it’s revealed on the movie poster above) is that, some time before arriving in San Francisco, Caul was living in New York City. He was hired to conduct surveillance between two people on a boat, which his associates said was an impossible job — but not for Caul, who was able to pull it off, making him an instant star among his profession. At the same time, the job had dire consequences for the people on whom Caul was hired to spy. Three people were murdered as a result of Caul’s actions. Though he claims not to blame himself — he’s just the messenger — this latest mystery job has the signs that it might be headed down the same road. This becomes even more apparent when Caul isolates one phrase from the conversation, spoken by the man: “He’d kill us if he could.” Caul is wrecked with guilt over what happened in New York City. He doesn’t want the same thing to happen again and refuses to hand over the tapes, despite the persistence of Ford’s character, Martin Stett.
I don’t want to say too much more, lest I spoil what happens next. I will say that Stett does eventually get his hands on the tapes — and at some point Caul learns that what he has come to believe about the conversation may be all wrong.
I love the set-up of this movie, even if the plot device of the mysterious recording is not new. Copolla has admitted in interviews that 1966’s Blow Up, a British film by director Michelangelo Antonionio (known for being the first British film to feature full-frontal nudity) served as an inspiration for The Conversation. (Blow Up‘s plot concerns a photographer who accidentally photographs evidence of a murder during a photo shoot in a public park. In Blow Up, enlarging the pictures revealed the evidence. In The Conversation, it’s the slowing down and enhancement of an audio recording.) Still, the mysterious recording plot device is used very effectively in The Conversation. Different snippets and pieces of the conversation are slowly revealed through Caul’s tinkering with the audio, keeping the viewer wondering what secret is hidden in the conversation. Once Caul thinks he figures out the secret, the suspense is kept going by the fate of the two people on the recording. Its climax is an incredible scene where Caul, fearing that the two people might have been murdered, tears apart a hotel room looking for any trace of evidence — some blood in the shower, maybe, or a stain on the carpet.
That being said, let’s take a step back. Don’t go into The Conversation expecting a movie that’s going to wrap itself up into a neat little package by the end credits. That’s not what 1970s cinema is about. In other words, if the one thing keeping you watching The Conversation is a search for answers, in the end you might be disappointed. Let me reiterate, The Conversation is primarily a character study. Think of the television show Lost. Many people — myself included — were disappointed in the way the series Lost ended. We wanted answers. In the end, we felt that the answers the producers of Lost gave were half-baked. Then, there were the people that loved the way the show ended. A third group of people — the fans that didn’t care how Lost ended — those fans were the ones that, no matter what answers were given to them at the series’ conclusion, would still have questions unanswered. Those fans weren’t unhappy that all their questions were not answered — they were just unhappy their favorite show was over. I don’t want to give you the impression that The Conversation does not have a conclusive ending. You find out the meaning of “the conversation.” Questions are not left unanswered. I’m simply saying that the mystery is only part of the movie. Don’t just go into The Conversation look for answers. Enjoy the ride. Marvel at Gene Hackman’s acting — some of the best of his career. Take in the sights of the various San Francisco locations the film features. Enjoy the excellent soundtrack. The jazz score — mostly a single piano — is superb.
It’s sad that time has not been good to The Conversation. Rattle off a list of Francis Ford Coppola’s films to a random stranger and it’s almost guaranteed they’ve heard of The Godfather One and Two, and Apocalypse Now. Ask them about The Conversation and you might get a blank stare. However, film historians have not forgotten it and, in 1995, The Conversation was selected to be preserved by the national Library of Congress as culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. If you’re not familiar with The Conversation or haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out.