Friday, May 5, 2017

THE CONVERSATION 1974

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis. If you've never 
seen The Conversation and are interested, don't spoil your fun. The mystery is too good.


Although Francis Ford Coppola began writing his script sometime in the late ‘60s, and the film went into production well before all the details of the Watergate scandal became known to the public (it was released mere months before then-President Nixon’s resignation); few ‘70s films capture the wary pessimism of post-Watergate America quite like The Conversation. A small-budget, studio-interference free, auteur project Paramount granted Coppola in a bid to secure his services for a film he wasn’t interested in making (that would be The Godfather Part II); The Conversation is a detective film crossed with a character study, reimagined as the quintessential 1970s paranoid thriller.
Gene Hackman as Harry Caul
John Cazale as Stan
Harrison Ford as Martin Stett
Teri Garr as Amy Fredericks
Cindy Williams as Ann
Frederic Forrest as Mark 
Robert Duvall as The Director/Mr. C./Charles
Harry Caul (Hackman) is a career wiretapper. A skilled audio surveillance man who’s (ironically) well-known in the spy-for-hire field of surreptitious information-gathering. A loner and an outsider, Harry is ideally suited to his craft not only because he’s a man of such unprepossessing countenance that he doesn’t even seem to occupy the space he’s inhabiting, but because he lives his life by the credo: "Don’t get involved." Amongst the many complex gadgets and devices in his professional arsenal, Harry’s emotional detachment and studied lack of curiosity are his most valued. Indeed, “Nothing personal” could be the byline on his business cards. That is, were Harry the type of man to actually use business cards. I’m sure he'd think they divulge entirely too much personal information.

Like defense lawyers who revel in thrust-&-parry courtroom skirmishes, triumphant in victories, yet heedless of the drunk drivers and hardened criminals their legal machinations assist in getting back on the streets; when it comes to gathering secret information, Harry sees himself simply as a techie. He enjoys solving the strategic and electronic puzzles posed by his job, but never gives a thought as to why his clients want his services, what they will do with the material he provides, or whether or not he is in any way culpable for any misfortune that might befall others as a result of his actions. "I am in no way responsible" and "It has nothing to do with me" are his professional mantras.

But unless one is a sociopath, indifference to human suffering always comes at a price. And for Harry (a man haunted by the memory of the part his work played in bringing about the brutal torture deaths of an entire family) the price is that he has become a man who strives not to be seen or known by others because he most vehemently wishes he didn’t have to see or know anything about himself. 
Nowhere Man
Harry’s trademark professional detachment is put to the test when a logistically complex, otherwise routine surveillance job (involving the recording of a conversation between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s crowded Union Square) unearths a probable murder plot. In listening and re-listening to his recording of what on the surface sounds like a wholly innocuous conversation between two clandestine young lovers (Williams and Forrest), Harry comes to believe, with mounting certainty, that he is once again in a situation where the plying of his trade will bring about the deaths of innocent people—in this instance, a young couple who speak as though they live in dire fear of someone.

Compelled by equal parts empathy (the woman reminds him of Amy, his neglected girlfriend), the dread of history repeating itself, and the chance for (self)absolution; Harry breaks his cardinal rule of not allowing himself to feel anything about the subjects of his surveillance work. Thus, devoid of any clear plan of action, he resolves to do what he can to prevent what he still only just suspects, but most certainly fears.

As Harry Caul delves deeper into an investigation of the mystery, The Conversation chillingly reveals that there’s more to matters of comprehension, interpretation, and perception than meets the ear.
"He'd kill us if he had the chance."
The virtuoso opening sequence was shot by cinematographer Haskell Wexler (although Bill Butler shot the rest of the film). The contributions of  film editor Richard Chew and the brilliant Oscar-nominated sound work of Walter Murch & Art Rochester can't be overstated.

If post Depression-era films are typified by their reinforcement of the principle that the individual and common man still wields power and influence (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe), that the Little Man, through noble means and honesty, stands a chance of triumphing against corrupt institutions and governments; then post-Watergate cinema hammered home the impotence of the average man in the face of widespread moral decay and venality. The Vietnam War and Watergate forced America to lose its illusions about itself. Thus, sixties films like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, then later, the ‘70s films The Parallax View and Chinatown (both released the same year as The Conversation) all supported the notion that no matter what one does, the decks are stacked, the die is cast, and human intervention is futile in the face of evil's ascendancy.

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown has a lot in common with The Conversation in that both lead characters (Jack Nicholson’s private eye/Gene Hackman’s wiretap expert) start out as individuals already corrupted by a degree of moral cynicism, but whose fortunes only take a turn for the worse once they develop a conscience.
Allen Garfield as William P. "Call me Bernie" Moran

The Conversation’s Harry Caul is the living embodiment of Vietnam America: a willing, guilt-ridden participant in morally dubious activity who rationalizes the sometimes deadly ramifications of his actions by deluding himself that they have nothing to do with him. This spiritual deal-with-the-devil clearly plagues the devoutly religious Harry in his day-to-day life, resulting in his living a paranoid, loner’s existence of arms-distance friendships, inarticulate romances, and a near-constant suspicion of the motives of others.
Elizabeth MacRae as Meredith
(Best known to folks of my generation as Lou-Ann Poovie,
Jim Nabors' girlfriend on Gomer Pyle: USMC)

But Harry’s Achilles heel and one tragic flaw is that (despite best his efforts) he really hasn't become as callous and indifferent as he would wish. He's a man who struggles with his humanity (he goes to confession) in a world which continually reassures him that feelings...all feelings...are a liability and source of pain. Harry's uncharacteristic” decision to involve himself in trying to save the lives of the two lovers in the park is an attempt by Harry to save his own life as well. The source and substance of his dread is the fear that should his assignment turn out like the other, with innocent lives lost, he may well find his soul irretrievably lost and banished.

"This is no ordinary conversation. It makes me feel...something...."
A prevailing characteristic of the '70s paranoid thriller is how they provide no reassurance that conspiracies aren’t real. Nor do they contradict the notion of paranoia as a rational, reasonable response to a reality of diminished privacy and corrupt authority figures.
Conceivably as a means of conveying to the audience Harry Caul is a better man than his choice of profession would belie (he's more a gadget-geek than a spy), The Conversation establishes from the get-go that Harry is singularly ineffectual when it comes to keeping his life private; is not nearly the stealthy, opaque character he imagines himself to be; and in the end, rather than being too paranoid, the film suggests that Harry is perhaps not paranoid enough.
For example: In spite of multiple locks on his door, an alarm system, and a failure to divulge personal information to anyone, Harry's landlady not only finds out his birthday and how old he is, but manages to leave a gift for him inside his apartment when he is away. This scene, coming as it does after the opening sequence which details how anyone can be observed anywhere, is notable for the open blinds in Harry's apartment, revealing a moving construction crane ostensibly working outside of his window (an element made more obvious in the original script). A point that later plays into answering a third act disclosure revealing Harry’s mysterious employer has always had an ominous awareness of his comings and goings.
Harry grows uneasy when his girlfriend Amy lets on that she knows
 he spies on her and listens to her phone calls
A recurring motif contributing to the bleakness of The Conversation's world view is that Harry, for all the effort expended insulting himself, is really the most vulnerable person in the film. Unable to connect with anyone (not even the couple he's trying to save), he is easily followed, bugged, tricked, spied upon, and, in those moments when he does try to open up, too easily betrayed. In the end, it's clear Harry is both a victim and a (unwitting?) victimizer at risk of dying by the very sword he lives by.
Barriers

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM 
The Conversation is an intriguing, genuinely chilling thriller. Made all the more compelling by having the tropes of its genre structure (that of a plot-driven, detective suspense thriller) being applied to what is essentially a character study. And while people take precedence over plot in The Conversation, what a doozy of a plot! (In 1975, Gene Hackman would play a private investigator in Arthur Penn's Night Moves, another nihilist '70s spin on the 1940s film noir.)
The film is at its most successful when drawing the viewer into questioning the significance of banal dialogue or mundane-appearing activities. The Conversation mines the suspense in the bland characters and gritty squalor of their lives in a way that reminds me of what Alan J. Pakula did with New York lowlife in Klute (1971). And for evoking paranoia and isolation, the purposeful use of San Francisco locations in The Conversation recall for me Philip Kaufman’s brilliant 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
There's a big retro kick to be had seeing the primitive sound equipment on display

PERFORMANCES
The Conversation was not a success when released in April of 1974, and come December’s release of Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II, it was all but forgotten. It did garner three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Original Screenplay, & Sound), but in a tough acting year crowded by the likes of Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Al Pacino (The Godfather, Part II), and Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express), Gene Hackman's commanding and sensitive performance was crowded out. (I love Art Carney, but his Harry & Tonto nomination and win is baffling in context of what was around in 1974.)
All the supporting performances in The Conversation are outstanding, but
Elizabeth MacRae as the sad-eyed trade-show model is surprisingly good

In Harry Caul, Gene Hackman (2nd choice after Marlon Brando turned down the role) gives what I consider to be the best performance of his very impressive career. Portraying a closed-off character is always a challenge; playing one who must convey to the audience the gradual reawakening of conscience is something else again. The entirety of whatever dramatic effectiveness or potential for audience involvement The Conversation has rests on the credibility of Hackman’s transformation (tellingly, the film doesn’t require that you like Harry). On that score, Hackman—with the inestimable contribution of the film's uniformly remarkable cast—is nothing short of extraordinary.
Not sure if it's true, but I remember reading that Hackman gained weight and partially
 shaved his head for the role. The latter proving so problematic in growing back that it contributed to
his refusal to shave his head for the role of Lex Luthor in Superman: The Movie (1978)

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
If you’re familiar with The Conversation at all, you’ve likely read or heard about the fortuitous transcription error which resulted in the original last name of Gene Hackman’s character being changed from Call (perhaps a little too precious for a serious film about a wiretapper, anyway) to the homophonous and oh-so evocative Caul; the name given that transparent protective membrane surrounding a fetus. Not one to spit in in the eye of serendipity, Coppola builds upon this happy spelling error and uses it as both an allusive reference to Harry’s overly self-protective personality, and a springboard for a series of recurring visual motifs dramatizing the human instinct to emotionally insulate out of fear, regret, and guilt.
Rain or shine,  the emotionally embryonic Harry is rarely seen without 
his "protective" transparent plastic raincoat
The motif of protective membranes simultaneously protecting and isolating individuals is further conveyed in The Conversation's use of obfuscating veils of semi-transparent surfaces. It also suggests Harry, in being so wound up in his inner conflicts, doesn't see things clearly and has a blurred perspective of events and people.
In this scene depicting a cagey Harry talking to a colleague he doesn't trust (Garfield)
Hackman is filmed through a plastic sheet that could just as well be a barrier
The crucial details of a harrowing event are obscured behind a gauze curtain
A glass partition  prevents intervention while revealing only enough to horrify
A figure lies shrouded in a membrane of clear plastic

Coppola and cinematographer Bill Butler (Demon Seed) frequently rely on wide-angle shots to cut the frame into sections, dramatically emphasizing The Conversation's themes of isolation, loneliness, and the inability to communicate or emotionally connect.
The wide angle and strong vertical lines created by the support beams in Harry's vast warehouse work space create a sense of  emotional desolation while simultaneously conveying a feeling of being hemmed in 
In this office set, vertical lines once again create isolated frames distancing the characters from one another. Meanwhile, the membrane motif is recalled by the clear plastic window shades, the central image dominated by an instrument of privacy invaded (the telescope)
Separate, Yet Connected
One of my favorite images from the film, Harry stands on the balcony of the Jack Tar Hotel
in San Francisco, its design and layout creating a wall of isolated, sealed-off environments

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Beyond its obvious Watergate-era appeal and glimpse into a cultural zeitgeist I still remember vividly; I have to say that what most makes The Conversation a film I can rewatch endlessly (per my tendency to gravitate to films from which I can glean insights into the human condition) is that it is a powerful and persuasive allegory about the risk in allowing oneself to be vulnerable.
Watched
Characters in The Conversation are fond of repeating phrases like “You’re not supposed to feel anything” and “Nothing personal”; but as (I hope) we all know, life is very personal, and any attempt to connect authentically with another human being is fraught with risk. It hurts; it’s messy; it invades your space and disrupts order; it leaves you exposed to betrayal, misunderstanding, and rejection. And worst of all, it comes with no guarantees. On the contrary, it comes with the unequivocal assurance that the closer you get to someone…the better they know you…the more open and exposed you allow yourself to be...the greater the potential for them to do you harm.
Watching
But what of the alternative? Is it possible to exist among others with life’s only objective being the hope that your path never intersects with another; that “nothing personal” transpires to invade your heart and cause you pain? As Harry Caul learns, not only does one embark on a course of self-isolation at the risk of losing one's soul and humanity, but the biggest irony is how life has a way of happening to you no matter how diligently you try to keep it at bay. As the saying goes, no one here gets out alive.
Watcher
The Conversation is a peerless ‘70s paranoia thriller, one certainly not lacking in present-day parallels. But the film's paranoia/conspiracy theme is but one of the many layers making up this intelligent, superbly-crafted film. Like the audio tapes that plague Harry throughout the movie, The Conversation imparts more information and more insights the more you watch it.



BONUS MATERIAL
This is the stationery letterhead for Coppola's American Zoetrope San Francisco offices when they were housed in the Columbus Tower on Kearny. Someone familiar with Coppola's history should help clear this up, but the letterhead graphic (depicting a dog with a camera in the center of a plate) is a image a child's dish set from Coppola's youth or that of his father. I'd written to them in my senior year in high school inquiring about film schools.


Elizabeth MacRae in a 1967 episode of Gomer Pyle: USMC highlighting the character of aspiring singer Lou-Ann Poovie.


Professional mime Robert Shields, then a real life annoyance, er...I mean, entertainer in San Francisco's Union Square when I was a kid, appears as himself in the film's opening sequence. He teamed with wife and fellow mime Lorene Yarnell in 1977 for the Shields & Yarnell variety show on CBS. Both are very skilled and talented, but since I'm personally terrified of mimes, their having their own hour-long TV program constitutes one of those "only in the '70s" phenomenons.

The Conversation on DVD & Blu-Ray
I haven't heard the commentary Francis Ford Coppola supplies for the most recent DVD release of The Conversation, but from what I've read, it offers a wealth of info into the making of the film (Harrison Ford got a bead on his character when Coppola informed him that Martin Stett was gay), and what was ultimately cut from the film (Harry is revealed to be the secret owner of the apartment building he occupies, he is plagued by overly-friendly neighbors, there was a subplot involving a niece [Mackenzie Phillips], and the betrayal Harry suffers at the hands of a character was not as conspiratorially sinister as it is in the finished film).

Copyright © Ken Anderson

8 comments:

  1. Wow, what a cast. I didn't know Harrison Ford was in this too, and Cindy Williams actually did something besides American Graffiti and L & S. Not being a Gene Hackman fan I avoided this movie like the plague but your (once again) great essay gives me the motivation to check it out. It's on Amazon for a song. LOL on Robert Shields. I wonder how many times he's gotten punched in the face, not that that's a good thing of course.

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    1. Hello, Loulou
      Yes, the cast is really something,isn't it? Before obscene levels of fame and fortune derailed Coppola and George Lucas from the kind of independent, people-based films they professed to be most interested in making, they shared a kind of mini-repertory company of players they used in their early films.
      It's nice seeing a big star like Hackman underplay (you've got to tell me sometime why he's not much of a favorite. I tend to like him depending on the role), or Harrison Ford in a small role against "type."
      And you mentioned Cindy Williams: I take it you've never seen her singing and dancing in "The First Nudie Musical"? (Very '70s movie, and not necessarily in a good way)
      I avoided "The Conversation" for years as well. I thought it was just going to be just another detective thriller. Then I saw it at a revival theater in the 80s and was so pissed I missed seeing it when it first came out. I was bowled over and very nicely surprised.

      And yes, Robert Shields...violence is never good, but mimes are sort of asking for it, anyway, aren't they? Like clowns.
      Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you enjoyed the essay!

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  2. Hi Ken,

    It’s spooky how often our movie viewings are syncing up. Last week I got a handful of 1970s films on sale on DVD and this was one of them. I had never seen The Conversation before but it was an amazing movie. We’ve talked before about how the 1970s were a particularly fertile time for movies and this is a great example of what was possible then. This story could certainly be told in film today but not in this way. The low-key but pervasive dread and the grim, almost hopeless feel of the ending would surely be replaced with a more flamboyant paranoia, with lots of chances for scenery chewing, and a car chase or two. The scene towards the end where Gene Hackman tries to get past the security guards and they just carry him down the stairs and let him walk out of the building is a chilling example of how ineffectual the villains think he is. And they are right.

    Your screen grabs, as always, are excellent and do a fine job of highlighting the visual excellence of the movie. But as good as the movie looked, I though the sound design was stellar. The scenes where Gene Hackman was working on the tapes trying to isolate the voices was masterful. I loved the way that as the words became clearer and easier to understand their meanings became more ambiguous. It takes a great director to make a scene of a middle-aged balding man fiddling around with tape recorders feel so tense and thilling.

    And, as you mentioned, the cast was wonderful. Elizabeth McRae reminded me a bit of Art Carney in The Late Show, of how with just a subtle change of inflection an actor known for comedy can deliver a performance of depth and sadness. The scene at the convention when she was demonstrating the phone was wonderful. I loved how when she was demonstrating the phone she balanced the flirty sexiness of a model with thinly disguised contempt for everyone who was watching her. I want to know more of her story.

    The scenes of 1970s San Francisco were a nice bonus. My grandmother used to take the family to the City of Paris every December to look of the Christmas tree in the rotunda before our annual viewing of The Nutcracker. And while I do understand your antipathy towards mimes, I do want to offer a weak defense of Robert Shields. The brief period that Robert Shields was working in Union Square was something. I saw him a handful of times back then and he did a lot more than just mimic the people walking past. He would create little vignettes that he would play with the onlookers and more often than not they were wonderful. He was careful not to mock the participants and he himself was usually the butt of the humor. But as he became more famous the tenor of the crowd changed. More people began showing up who wanted to be part of the act, and the spark went out. Sadly, that brief moment when one talented man figured out a way to successfully perform mime in an improvised, public setting has led to armies of semi-talented folks pulling unseen ropes and trying to get out of invisible boxes on the sidewalk where I’m trying to walk. Robert Shields didn’t ask for mimes to become a public scourge but he did inspire them and one day he will have to answer for that.

    Michael

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    1. Hi Michael
      Nice to read such a thoughtful take on one of my favorite movies. I especially cite your comment regarding how a film like this would certainly be made today, but that its low-key elements would certainly be dramatized. They always have "ordinary" men behaving in insanely superhuman ways in movies (Die Hard comes to mind). One of the reasons I like "The Conversation" so much and why it stands out as one of the few male-centric films among my favorites, is due to its lack of stroking the male ego. Harry is shown to be vulnerable and conflicted, and his response to crisis (the marvelous scene in the hotel room where he tries to blot out all sound) is confined to very human scale. No macho grandstanding. The confrontation with the security guards you mentioned is a perfect example; it plays out like it would in real life. Nowadays I could see Johnny Depp or tom Cruise punching out these guys and racing up the stairs in victory.

      And indeed, the sound mixing is almost the real star (or co-star) of the film. it carries us along in an almost Hitchcockian way, making us hear things as harry does, revealing information only as he gets it, creating this enormous bond of identification. it's really masterful how cinematic it is. I recently saw "Personal Shopper" a film that makes extensive use of cell phone texting as a means of conveying information. It's accomplished, but nothing like the tension and dread Coppola squeezes out of his film. You're so right when you say: "It takes a great director to make a scene of a middle-aged balding man fiddling around with tape recorders feel so tense and thrilling."

      Glad to read that Elizabeth's McRae's performance struck a chord with you, too. You describe well precisely the levels she brings to her performance that make her brief screen time so intriguing. I love when supporting characters are written in a way as to make it easy to imagine them existing outside of the central narrative narrative. Virtually everyone in "The Conversation" comes across that way to me.

      And thanks for providing a balance of perspective regarding mimes. I know everyone can't have as strong an aversion to them as I, so it's nice to present the other side. Especially since you actually remembering seeing him, too! (great memory about going to City of Paris, by the way).
      just brilliant that you just recently watched this! I'm glad you did and were able to contribute such fresh observations. Much appreciated, Michael. If we sync up on my next post, we'll have to look into ESP studies!
      Thanks!

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  3. Felix Gonzalez, Jr.May 12, 2017 at 6:03 PM

    Hi Ken,

    As always, you have written a fantastic essay. I remember watching this movie in a film course called Mavericks of 70s Cinema (not sure if it was my first time seeing it, but if not it was most likely my second). I always thought the scene in which Hackman is in the hotel room trying to hear what's going on next door was one of the most masterfully crafted scenes I've ever encountered. It's so fraught with tension, uneasiness, and ambiguity. And the moment he flushes the toilet and the blood rises up absolutely scared the hell out of me! Such a great film, and probably my favorite from Coppola.

    I also have to put in a word for David Shire's score. It's so simple, perhaps minimalist (I'm not a musical person, so I'm not sure if that's the correct term), but so haunting. I wonder if you've ever seen the 1985 Disney movie "Return to Oz"? It was the sole directorial effort of Walter Murch, the sound designer on "The Conversation," and also features music by David Shire. It's a notoriously depressive children's movie, almost as much an examination of loneliness and social disconnection as 70s films like this and "Taxi Driver," plus it even features some distorted dialogue effects similar to those heard in this film.

    Cindy Williams' casting is the only thing that truly distracts me here. Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with her performance, but as a 90s kid brought up on endless reruns of Laverne & Shirley on TBS and Nick at Nite, I've just never been able to see her as anyone other than Shirley Feeney. Even when we watched the film in my college course, I'm pretty sure we just referred to her character as Shirley in our class discussion the next day!

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    1. Hi Felix
      Thanks a heap for mentioning David Shire's terrific score. It really is one of those wonderfully invisible score that adds so much to the mood of a film, even heightening the tension and pulling our emotions toward a stronger reaction to a scene. but it does so in such an unshowy way, you almost have to check the film out again to realize that you were "hearing" it all the time without listening to it. Not to put down Bernard Herrmann, whose stuff is brilliant, but this is the antithesis of that style for me.
      I have seen the marvelous film "Return to OZ" and I agree with you about what a strangely downbeat children's movie it is. I've seen it several times but it's been years. I had no idea it was directed by the sound man for this film.
      Like you, I too think that hotel sequence is rather virtuoso in mixing tension and ambiguity. And the buildup to the bathroom scene is a killer. So chilling. I love how at that point in the film, we're as confused as harry as to what has transpired, so it all comes as such a shock.
      I can well understand the Cindy Williams thing. For all the fame of Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall, hers is the most cemented to a single character. I lucked out in never having watched the show, and so the quality she brings is of appearing to be very ordinary, but sympathetic and guileless. However, given how Williams' look seemed never to change (and she never seemed to age) I can well imagine her being impossible to separate from her Shirley persona.
      Thank you very much for your complimentary words, and I'm very glad you enjoyed the piece. I appreciate your contribution here, adding a younger person's perspective of a very '70s film.

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  4. OUTSTANDING essay. I've been a fan of this film for several decades, thanks for the great screenshots as well!

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    1. Why, thank you very much! Gratifying to have a longtime fan of the film read my post. Appreciate your stopping by and taking the time to comment!

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