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“He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

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?


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One Hour Mark: After Hours

This is an image from 1:00:00 into one of Martin Scorsese’s less-appreciated movies, After Hours (1985). It’s an odd little entry in Scorsese’s filmography, coming amidst lots of stories about Robert De Niro’s wounded machismo; this one’s more about wounded yuppie confidence. That yuppie is Paul Hackett (An American Werewolf in London‘s Griffin Dunne), who becomes trapped on the streets of SoHo in the rain by one unfortunate coincidence after another. Hackett isn’t especially incompetent or malicious. He’s just a normal, well-intentioned schmuck, trying to gently extricate himself from these situations, but always dragged in deeper by forces beyond his control.

When this scene rolls around, Hackett’s just been through hell. He discovered that the girl he came to visit in SoHo, but later walked out on, has overdosed on sleeping pills. Then he tried to follow up on a previous deal he’d made to get some money from a bartender, only to find out that he was the dead girl’s boyfriend. Then he returned to the apartment of Julie (Teri Garr), an emotionally unstable waitress, concerned that she too might commit suicide. As you can tell, the movie’s very concerned with cause-and-effect, thanks to Joseph Minion’s brilliantly organized screenplay. Paul just wants a way to get home, but instead of finding a Good Samaritan, he finds some very eccentric, sometimes hostile people, and accidentally messes up their unexpectedly tight-knit community.

Julie is one of the most interesting obstacles in Paul’s path, largely because of Garr’s talent for playing borderline-hysterical women. As played by Garr, Julie is a little ditzy and behind the times (the bartender calls her “Ms. Beehive 1965,” and she plays Monkees records), but she’s insecure and very sincere. She wants Paul’s companionship – and probably something more – and makes that very clear. But even though Paul originally came to SoHo for sex, by now he’s very out of the mood. After all, he’s just been accused of being a burglar, seen a girl kill herself possibly as a result of his actions, and had to cope with her boyfriend’s reactions. He’s physically and emotionally exhausted, has a hard time finding a way to subtly tell Julie “no,” and it doesn’t help that she’s unwilling to take no for an answer.

In some ways, Julie resembles an old, sexist stereotype – the unattractive woman who’ll do anything to get a man to stay with her. But she’s a little more complex than that. Although the viewer already identifies with Paul, Garr still evokes some sympathy; she’s not just unappealing and man-hungry. Like Paul, she’s trying to endure in a big, vicious city, and she’s looking for a kindred spirit. She also has to put up with his refusal to directly speak the truth, whether he’s doing it to avoid hurting her or because it’s far too complicated to get across. So although she is somewhat unbalanced, and although he doesn’t have much of a choice, Paul is still partially to blame for the conflict that ensues between him and Julie.

Beyond these gendered intricacies of their brief relationship, Paul’s problems with Julie are more than anything demonstrative of how incomprehensible he finds every other character’s behavior. In this over-the-shoulder shot, we’re basically seeing Julie from his perspective; she looks strange and potentially dangerous, and Paul has no idea how best to get away from her. Ironically, she’s just about to ask Paul, “What’s with you, are you nuts or something?” Each one thinks the other is insane. After Hours is a film about a man struggling to adjust to a foreign environment, like a more darkly comic rendition of Taxi Driver. Here he’s unable to interact with Julie on the same emotional level, and it amounts to one more little persecution he doesn’t understand in the irrational maelstrom that is SoHo.

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