Thursday, January 26, 2012

Flick of The Day: The Conversation

When celeb thrash magnate TMZ broke the news a couple of weeks back that Gene Hackman had been knocked down while cycling in Florida, I suddenly realised that I hadn't seen him on the big screen in quite awhile. One of the all time greats, Hackman is now semi-retired having not appeared in a film since 2004's lacklustre Welcome to Mooseport. Turning 82 next week though, he has surely earned a rest with a fine career behind him including such memorable roles as The French Connection and more recently The Royal Tenenbaums. Today's flick of the day is another one of his classic roles in  Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.
Made between the first two Godfather films which cemented his reputation as one of the best of the 70's auteurs, this is no less a masterpiece from Coppola though very much more of an art house film then those aforementioned pictures. Hackman is his usual reliable self as surveillance expert Harry Caul, the best in the business but a man wracked by the guilt of the damage caused by his telephone tapping and hidden cameras. Paranoid about everyone he meets, he is unable to relate to friends or make close connections because he can't get close enough to tell them any secrets about himself and his life. He takes on a case involving recording the conversation of a young couple in a busy San Francisco square though wary of the consequences. Together with his operative Stan, played by the late and truly great John Cazale, he records the conversation. At first glance it appears innocent enough but as the film progresses and Harry gets more and more detail, we learn that this is a dangerous conversation. Harry delivers it after a fashion to the large corporation that has requested it represented by an effete minion played by Harrison Ford and the Director played by an uncredited Robert Duvall. Harry fears for the young couple and attempts to keep his investigation ongoing, deeply worried about the consequences of his actions. However there is a twist in this tale and after all how closely did you listen to the conversation?
It is a crying shame that Coppola's career as a director took such a sharp downturn after his 70's heyday, reduced to making studio schlock like Jack, for when he was good he was very good indeed. A product of the short lived Director's Company, an attempt by Coppola to gain some freedom in his film making by bypassing the studio system, The Conversation is one of the true gems of 70's Hollywood. Making great use of the burgeoning sound technology, it weaves a fine tale of deceit and paranoia largely through the use of sound editing which makes the audience question what they are hearing, to question the nature of privacy in the modern world. This is something which is as relevant if not more relevant today as it was then.

Harry Caul: [upset, walking over to Martin seated] What are you doing here? 
Martin Stett: Take it easy I'm just a messenger. I brought you a drink. 
Harry Caul: I don't want your drink. Why are you following me? 
Martin Stett: I'm not following you I'm looking for you. There's a big difference.

Of course it helps when you assemble such a fine cast. Duvall, Hackman, Ford and Cazale all on one screen and all giving nuanced performances from a fine script which plays well on the audiences own fears. 

A commercial failure on release, perhaps lost between the success of the Godfather behemoth. it has since come to be seen for what it is. A ground breaking classic. Before this film, soundtracks were for dialogue and music. Coppola makes the soundtrack the heart of the film. Snippets of conversation, street musicians busking and the general hubbub of urban life are captured perfectly. It brought subtlety to how something was said, showing that the little inflection in speech can turn in a conversation on its head. Indeed, this is the root cause of the last minute twist which causes the audience the reassess what they heard. 
Perhaps today this film would not get made and even if did it would not have some of the biggest stars of the day in it. It would be a shame because for smart, well acted suspense, you really don't have to look any further. A classic

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