Tag Archives: the conversation

“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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Horror is everywhere (1)

Since so much of the critical discourse around horror tends to describe it as a “ghetto genre,” stuck in the gutter of low budgets and low culture, it’s easy to imagine it as walled off from the rest of film. But, well, that’s just not the case – and the sooner we realize it, the happier we’ll be. Because the fact is, as I say in the title of this post: horror is everywhere. It’s not just in ’50s B-movies and ’70s slashers and monster rampages and gore. It’s all over the place in mainstream Hollywood cinema. It’s in austere art films. Only a thin, imaginary line separates the worlds of Herk Harvey, Lars von Trier, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Ingmar Bergman.

In order to demonstrate this point, I’ve gone through the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? aggregated list of the 1,000 highest-ranked films of all time, and picked out ones that show the influence of the horror genre. Because horror isn’t just a hidden, perverse bastard genre. It’s an impulse whose tentacles reach into all eras and regions. Horror touches all artists whether they like it or not. So here are some critically acclaimed films that deserve to be located within the tradition of horror.

Citizen Kane (1941) – TSPDT ranking: #1

Who do you think dwells in that far-off, menacing mansion? Maybe Dr. Frankenstein? Mr. Sardonicus? No, that’s Xanadu, the final home of the title character in Citizen Kane. In the film’s opening sequence, Welles invokes haunted house iconography, moving us closer and closer to Xanadu through a series of eerie dissolves; Bernard Herrmann’s creepy score accentuates the feeling. Welles was no stranger to scaring people (remember, he’d punk’d the nation with The War of the Worlds just 3 years earlier), and he knew how to make Kane seem distant and foreboding: introduce him with a dash of Gothic horror. Kane’s rigid, Karloffian outburst after Susan leaves him later in the film just drives the point home.

Vertigo (1958) – TSPDT ranking: #2

Like Welles, Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to horror. He flirted with the genre throughout his career, producing movies that were terrifying and mysterious, but still better categorized as “suspense” or “thrillers.” Still, he made one of the earliest serial killer movies (The Lodger), and helped establish the slasher and killer animal subgenres with Psycho and The Birds. In Vertigo, often considered his masterpiece, he even dabbled with the supernatural through a red herring reincarnation story. Sure, Madeleine/Judy turns out to be a total fake, but the film still contains moments of potent psychological horror – like the wonderful dream sequence pictured above, which is easily one of my favorite cinematic nightmares.

The Rules of the Game (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #3

I’m not trying to suggest that Renoir’s playful, lusty tragicomedy is secretly a horror movie. But I just really love Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, and I love Renoir’s very theatrical take on it. This macabre little dance routine is performed by members of the nobility for the benefit of their friends, and also for us, the audience. In a movie where trivialities and misguided passions lead to serious consequences, it only makes sense that skeletons and ghosts should be reduced to characters in a brief entertainment.

The Third Man (1949) – TSPDT ranking: #30

Postwar Vienna is a scary place. At least, that’s the lesson learned by hack writer Holly Martins after he pays the city a visit. In addition to dealing with international politics, canted angles, and the maybe dead, maybe evil Harry Lime, Martins and his not-quite-girlfriend Anna have to evade this creepy little Austrian kid who’s accusing them of murder. Throughout the film (which is one of my favorites ever), director Carol Reed pours on the expressionism, to the point that you’re not sure whether Holly and Anna are coming or going. The war-damaged state of the city’s streets and buildings doesn’t help. Combine this disorientation with a demon child right out an Austrian version of The Omen, and you’ve reached the point where noir meets horror.

The Conversation (1974) – TSPDT ranking: #166

Most of Francis Ford Coppola’s least-recognized masterpiece sits in “lonely paranoid thriller” territory, very much in line with the ’70s work of others like Scorsese, Pakula, and Polanski. But toward the end, as Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert Harry Caul realizes the complexity of the conspiratorial web he’s trapped in, the movie has some hallucinatory moments of real horror. Caul glances around an empty hotel room where he suspects a murder has been committed, then innocuously flushes the toilet… and out pours blood in a Shining-style deluge. We’ve also got Robert Duvall’s bloody handprint smeared on a window.

Initially, The Conversation‘s iciness and formal refinement may seem light-years away from the off-the-cuff gruesomeness of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But really, to paraphrase Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, they’re “sisters under the mink.” Or, to put it in more prosaic terms, they’re “surprisingly similar after you disregard artificial notions of high and low culture.” Whether you love or hate horror movies, it’s time to set aside these false distinctions, break through the self-imposed barriers, and realize that all of cinema is interconnected. And to hammer that point home, I’ll have more “Horror is everywhere” for you each week throughout October.

Pleasant nightmares, all!


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