Ten thoughts from watching Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) for the second time:
1) Gene Hackman desexualizes himself. Where’s the virile, rugged, sometimes dumb-as-rocks sex symbol we loved in Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection, Night Moves, etc.? Here, he’s an introverted, emotionally inaccessible cold fish. In so many ways, surveillance Harry Caul doesn’t sound like a Gene Hackman role. But Hackman, wearing those glasses and that raincoat, makes himself believable as a secretive neurotic wrestling with Catholic guilt.
2) This is a masterpiece of minimalism. This observation isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it has to be made. The Conversation’s story (or what little of it we’re explicitly told) is extremely simple; the camerawork is understated but effective; and much of the score consists of just a few repeated notes on a piano. Even the film’s physical world feels minimal, as it ventures to only a few San Francisco locations: Union Square, One Embarcadero Center, Harry’s headquarters, a surveillance convention, a few apartments, etc.
3) The film creates a disorienting sense of place. A hotel desk clerk explains to Harry, “The rooms are all basically the same.” Although we’re distinctly in 1974 San Francisco, and although The Conversation’s full of tip-offs as to its time and place, it could be anywhere, anytime. The man and woman he’s stalking don’t have names; neither does “The Director,” who hires him. Neither does the company the Director directs. Harry wanders through hotel rooms, warehouses, and parking lots. All people and places are basically the same.
4) Editing superstar Walter Murch makes this movie. It’s really the ultimate showcase for Murch’s virtuosic editing talents, since the film’s power is contingent on how subtly sounds and images are played against each other, and how carefully they’re juxtaposed. Both Godfather films feature peerless sound mixing and editing, but with The Conversation, it’s really front and center. It’s the substance of both the plot and Harry’s nightmares. Murch’s jaw-dropping work brings us in and out of Harry’s head right on cue.
5) Teri Garr is a one-scene wonder. I adore Teri Garr, who mines hysteria for hilarity in a way no one else could. She’s a key piece of the ensembles in both Young Frankenstein and After Hours, and the absolute best part of Tootsie. We only see her for a few minutes of The Conversation—she’s Harry’s sort-of girlfriend, the bubbly ying to his gloomy yang—but in her giggly attempts to make him relax, she gives us a crucial glimpse of his troubled soul. She’s also a pure delight to have onscreen.
6) Coppola positions the priest as a surveillance expert. In a fun trick of mise-en-scène, Coppola puts Harry in plain sight while he gives confession, while leaving a silent priest barely discernible behind a screen. The tables have turned, and for once Harry’s on the receiving end—it’s the confessional booth as panopticon. Religion plays such a curious role in The Conversation. Harry hates it when his colleagues say “chrissake” and he treasures a plastic statuette of the Virgin Mary; beyond that we have little understanding of his religious beliefs. Catholicism is only marginally present in the film, but it’s still a vital piece of the Harry Caul puzzle.
7) Nerds in any field act the same. Harry and his coworkers attend a bustling surveillance convention, and it might as well be Comic-Con. Hundreds of obsessed specialists walk from booth to booth, examining each other’s wares and trying to make connections. They show off. They brag about their accomplishments. Comic book devotees, stamp collectors, gun nuts, surveillance experts. (Even cinephiles!) Bring a giant group of them together in a convention center, and they’ll behave exactly the same.
8) What’s up with John Cazale’s purple suit? During and after the convention, Stan (played by the doomed-but-brilliant John Cazale) is wearing a purple suit, and it’s really distracting. All the other guys are dressed in drab browns and grays, but Stan’s in purple. So far as I can tell, this isn’t really thematically meaningful, but it is a perplexing costuming choice. It also makes me think what a tragedy it is that Cazale didn’t live long enough to play the Joker. (Can you imagine that performance?)
9) Coppola is working Antonioni territory here. Yes, the obvious link is Blowup, since both are about ambiguous recordings and their consequences, but I think it goes beyond the respective storylines. Look at the scene where Harry is moving back and forth with the floozy Meredith, as columns block them in on either side. Or how Harry navigates his apartment. The way he visually relates to architecture is very reminiscent of Antonioni’s protagonists, not only in Blowup but also L’avventura and L’eclisse. Coppola is building on Antonioni’s visual and narrative strategies.
10) Harrison Ford is really good as an evil pretty boy. The Conversation came early in Ford’s career, when his only real major role had been as the hotshot racer from out of town in American Graffiti. He wasn’t yet established as the charming, heroic leading man he’d become after 1977. Here, we get a peek at the Harrison Ford that might’ve been, had he not been chosen to wield the whip and blaster. He’s a sneering, oily corporate lackey who’s embroiled (somehow) in a gruesome conspiracy, and he plays the role to the hilt. (For more on The Conversation‘s scary side, read here.)
Have you seen The Conversation? If so, what did you think?