#603) The Conversation (1974)

#603) The Conversation (1974)

OR “Don’t Bug Me!” 

Directed and Written by Francis Ford Coppola

Class of 1995

The Plot: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert based in San Francisco. He is highly regarded as one of the best in the business and, somewhat ironically, is intensely private about his own life; rarely opening up about himself or volunteering personal information. Harry’s next assignment is to record a conversation between a couple (Frederic Forrest & Cindy Williams) walking through Union Square. Harry successfully pulls off the recording through three separate microphones, but while fine-tuning the results, suspects that the couple may be in danger. What starts as an uncharacteristic bit of curiosity leads to full-blown paranoia and a delve into Harry’s troubled past.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the artistic high points of the decade and of Coppola’s career”. An essay by film critic Peter Keough tries a little too hard to qualify “The Conversation” as a B-Picture.

But Does It Really?: This is definitely in the “minor classic” category of NFR films. “The Conversation” isn’t Coppola’s definitive movie on this list, but those willing to seek it out will not be disappointed. The film is a taught thriller told from the perspective of what is seemingly the most inconsequential character, digging deep into what makes this kind of person tick, and the result is an exhilarating movie experience. With great performances, incredible sound design, and a tension that quietly builds throughout the movie, “The Conversation” is an underrated film that – while only referenced today in conjunction with Coppola’s other ’70s filmography – is more than deserving of its NFR designation.

Wow, That’s Dated: Of course, there’s the analog technology Harry is using, but the most dated aspect is the idea of being “off the grid” as a normal part of life. Not to turn all Andy Rooney on you, but with cell phones and computers these days everyone’s under some kind of surveillance. Imagine what this movie would be like with the advancements surveillance technology has made in the last 50 years.

Seriously, Oscars?: After winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes (one of the few NFR movies to do so), “The Conversation” received three nominations at the 1975 Oscars, but went home empty-handed. Coppola lost Original Screenplay to Robert Towne for “Chinatown” and Best Picture to…himself for “The Godfather Part II” (Coppola was the second director to helm two Best Picture nominees in the same year). Most egregiously, Walter Murch’s Sound Design lost to the team behind “Earthquake” and its gimmicky Sensurround system. Of the unnominated, the biggest outcry was reserved for Gene Hackman’s omission from the Best Actor category.

Other notes

  • Coppola wrote the screenplay for “The Conversation” in the late ’60s, inspired by (though some critics would say blatantly ripping off) Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking film “Blowup“, about a photographer who may have documented a murder in one of his photos. As an independent producer, Coppola was unable to get the film financed, but once “The Godfather” became a blockbuster hit, Coppola convinced Paramount to finance and distribute “The Conversation” as his next project. The film was produced in late 1972 by Coppola’s The Directors Company, shot on location in San Francisco and at Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studio (also in San Francisco). 
  • Shoutout to Walter Murch who, in addition to his impressively intricate sound design, also supervised the film’s picture editing (with Richard Chew) when Coppola became busy with the production of “Godfather II”.
  • The legendary Haskell Wexler was originally tapped as the film’s cinematographer, but was fired after creative differences with Coppola and replaced by Bill Butler. All that survives of Wexler’s work is the opening sequence, which would have been too costly and complicated to reshoot. Wexler would go on to be the cinematographer for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“…where he was fired after creative differences with Miloš Forman and replaced by Bill Butler.
  • Speaking of that opening sequence, [chef’s kiss]. The first 10 minutes are a complex visual cacophony, with every element helping set up the jigsaw puzzle Harry spends the rest of the movie putting together. Plus, you can never go wrong with the grittiness of ’70s San Francisco. Added bonus: The background Christmas decorations qualify this film for my “Die Hard Not-Christmas List” (although Union Square is lacking its annual ice skating rink).
  • Hackman is, of course, crushing it with his performance. A lesser actor would make Harry a total cipher, but with Hackman you always get the danger element lurking under this character’s seemingly boring surface. I’d even argue this is Hackman’s best film performance, his restraint impressing me more than his usual explosive energy.
  • One of my notes reads “Okay, but something’s gonna happen, right?” Like many a ’70s movie, “The Conversation” takes its time getting started, and patience is truly a virtue.
  • This movie boasts several “before they were famous” stars in supporting roles. For starters, the couple being spied on are future TV star Cindy Williams and future Oscar nominee Frederic Forrest. Teri Garr shows up for one scene as Harry’s…girlfriend? It’s funny to think that both Garr and Hackman are a few months away from their 180-degree comic turns in “Young Frankenstein“. And of course, The Director’s assistant is played by a young Harrison Ford; the rare performance in his career devoid of his leading man sensibilities. We don’t even get a finger point!
  • I’m enjoying David Shire’s minimalist score, a single piano to symbolize Harry’s growing isolation. As is often the case with Coppola, it’s hard to cry nepotism when the results are this good (Shire was Coppola’s brother-in-law at the time).
  • This is the fifth and final NFR movie I’ve covered to feature John Cazale. His work here as Harry’s easygoing colleague Stan adds another dimension to his screen performances and is a reminder to be grateful that his work has been so well preserved.
  • I’m a fan of any movie that explores Catholic guilt, in this case the guilt that Harry’s religious upbringing still preys upon him. 
  • The convention subplot detours the movie a bit, allegedly the only remaining subplot in the final film (the original cut was over 4 hours!). Allen Garfield delivers a nice, naturalistic performance as Harry’s former co-worker, and we come closest to seeing Harry at his most vulnerable. Now will someone please explain to me what a “Princess Telephone” is?
  • That’s an uncredited Robert Duvall as “The Director”. Duvall’s post-“Godfather” star status helps solidify the sense that Hackman is a minor character in someone else’s movie. 
  • The Director’s office building is located at One Embarcadero Center, which I walk past on my way to work every morning. The exterior looks remarkably similar today; I recognized it before the camera pulled back to reveal the address.
  • I went into “The Conversation” unaware of any of the film’s plot points, so the ending was a pleasant surprise to me. I don’t want to spoil any of it for a first-time viewer, so I’ll just leave you with these very vague notes: 1) This is the second most intense movie scene to take place in a hotel bathroom, and 2) Hackman is definitely not getting his security deposit back.

Legacy

  • While not successful at the box office, “The Conversation” was well-received in its day by critics, and the one-two punch of this and “Godfather II” helped solidify Coppola’s standing as one of his generation’s best directors. Coppola’s next project: an adaptation of “Heart of Darkness”, which I’m sure went smoothly for everyone.
  • Both Francis Ford Coppola and Gene Hackman have reflected in recent years that “The Conversation” is one of their favorite movies from their respective careers.
  • After production wrapped on “The Conversation”, news broke of the Watergate scandal, and Coppola was surprised to learn that much of the technology he had used for the surveillance within the film was also used by Nixon’s team to spy on his enemies. “The Conversation” was released a few months before Nixon’s resignation as President, and many (then and now) have described the film as a reflection of Watergate-era paranoia, which Coppola repeatedly states is pure coincidence.
  • Coppola has attempted at two different times to adapt “The Conversation” to a weekly television series. A pilot shot in the mid ’90s for NBC starred Kyle MacLachlan but was never picked up to series. Another attempt in the mid-2000s, written by Christopher McQuarrie and updated to the present day, never made it past development at ABC.
  • Tony Scott’s 1998 political thriller “Enemy of the State” has been cited as a spiritual successor to “The Conversation”, particularly the casting of Gene Hackman as a former NSA agent. Photos of Hackman in “The Conversation” were used as the younger version of his “Enemy of the State” character.

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