Our Hackman in the Seventies series closes with what is arguably the man’s greatest film, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.
Review by Aaron Vehling.
In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is renowned for his unparalleled ability for audio surveillance, and for the blood on his hands as a result of his services. His latest case, the focus of the film, starts out as a fairly straightforward success story that culminates into a subtle but psychotic game of “Telephone.” The National Security Administration should take note.
The film was released in 1974, which was not only the same year Coppola released the second Godfather but also the year Richard Nixon resigned from the office. The nation had weathered a lot of trauma in the previous decade, and Nixon’s leaving office because of Watergate solidified a widespread mistrust in institutions.
The government had a relationship with its people along the lines of “do what I say and not what I do.” Caul is essentially a personification of this. He is the a master of his trade, establishing increasingly complex ways of listening in on people despite the technical limitations of the day. He cares nothing for the privacy of others, but protects his privacy with a ferocity.
Caul barely connects with people, even his staffer Stan (John Cazale), who knows him the best, doesn’t really know him at all. Caul sleeps with women, whom think they are his girlfriends. Although if they ever ask him any questions neither of them are getting lucky that night. He doesn’t like talking about himself, won’t use a home phone and keeps his doors triple-locked.
This is Caul’s way of dealing with his guilt. A previous wiretap job resulted in the death of three people, a fact fellow surveillance folk remind him of on occasion. Wracked with guilt, the deeply Catholic Caul creates a world around him in which he can fein a lack of responsibility while staying in the business. As he says, he’s not responsible for what his clients do with their tapes.
This is where Coppola’s writing and directing take a masterful turn. When Caul produces perfectly clear recordings of a conversation between a man and a woman (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), he becomes concerned about the meaning of the conversation. He does not have any context, but he hears a series of buzz phrases that trigger his memory of the three he indirectly killed.
Among them is “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” It’s a refrain that echoes in his brain and convinces him that either his client, The Director (Robert Duvall) or The Director’s assistant, Martin (Harrison Ford, with ankle intact), is keen on killing the couple.
Caul’s guilt causes him to endure painful nightmares. He looks at Cindy Williams through a mist and tells her, “I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.” Eventually, The Director’s men begin to follow him, invading his privacy and turning the “bugger” into the “bugged.”
Suddenly Caul’s existence — as an empty vessel for other people’s information — consists of his running around like nothing is safe anymore. Any sense of stability he had is lost and eventually he tears his whole world apart, smashing the prim and proper edifices all around him. It all happens under a deliberate, careful and often quiet pacing that Coppola crafts in a fashion that primarily went away since quick edits became custom.
The Conversation was nominated for three Academy Awards, losing best picture to The Godfather Part II, a rather insane scenario that only further secured Coppola’s role as a leading member of the New Hollywood movement. Five years later he would create Apocalypse Now, a movie that would ensure that no matter how improperly he approached filmmaking in the decades to come, Coppola was a master at his craft and was seated at the forefront of turning the political mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s into artful and horrifying films.
Aaron Vehling is a journalist and musician who loves the music of Johnny Jewel and New Order and the films of David Lynch and Lars von Trier. Though he’s from Longfellow, Minneapolis, he now lives in Harlem, New York, on the same block as the mansion from The Royal Tenenbaums.
The Conversation screens Friday and Saturday at 7:00 and 9:15, Sunday at 5:00 and 7:15. Purchase tickets here.