Francis Ford Coppola is a director often remembered for launching his career with his blockbuster adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1972), continuing through two other noteworthy films, and essentially committing career suicide by following his filmmaking dreams and going over schedule and over budget on two consecutive films: Apocalypse Now (1979) and One from the Heart (1982). While The Godfather helped save Paramount Pictures from the box office rut of the late 1960s and early 70s, his last two films ensured his financial bankruptcy while his studio, American Zoetrope, was placed on the auction block. While he would make several good films over the next 25 years (his S.E. Hinton adaptations and Bram Stoker’s Dracula), he would never again reach the heights of his 70’s masterpieces.
Out of those four films, The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now tend to get the most attention. The former films completely deserve it for a list of reasons, the latter not so much. Sure, Apocalypse Now has some amazing sequences, but it’s overlong and the philosophical message is rather trite. I often find myself thinking that the story of the film’s production, as chronicled in his wife Eleanor’s documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), is more engrossing and engaging than the film itself. Why do I sound bitter about this assessment of Coppola’s career? Because it often produces an oversight of my favorite Coppola film, The Conversation (1974). Now, it’s not as if The Conversation has been completely overlooked during the last 30-odd years. In the awards season following its release, the film was nominated for Oscars in the best picture, best original screenplay, and best sound categories. Yet, the film lost out to Coppola’s other film that year, The Godfather II (1974). While The Godfather II holds a slew of awards and an intimidating cinematic legacy, ranking #32 on the last American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movies poll and #4 on the Sight & Sound canon, The Conversation holds a Golden Palm from Cannes Film Festival and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. I assume more filmgoers have seen its “re-imagining,” Enemy of the State (1998), than the original film and that thought, quite frankly, depresses me.
The film focuses on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert hired by an executive (Robert Duvall) to record his wife’s (Cindy Williams) conversations with her possible lover (Frederic Forrest). Caul is great at his job, assembling a master recording from separate microphones in a crowded San Francisco plaza, so perfectly captured by the film’s masterful opening sequences. Yet, Caul’s mastery of surveillance does not translate into a mastery of security. While he prides himself on being able to keep his life private, we watch as he continually fails to do so: Caul allows himself to be bugged by his professional rival, his triple-locked apartment is easily accessed by his landlord, and his equipment is stolen. Yet, despite Caul’s incompetence when it comes to his securing his life, the film posits that his chief weakness is the fact that he is a moral man doing immoral work. From this point-of-view, The Conversation could be viewed as a neo-noir.
Caul is drawn into a sleazy profession that he tries to redeem by emphasizing the technical aspects of (the ability to rig a microphone to a telescope for example) over the moral, and sometimes mortal, consequences of. Yet, as a devout Catholic, Caul is unable to repress the real-life repercussions of his abilities. Once, he confesses, his work led to the death of a woman and a child. Now, after hearing the two lovers say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” Caul worries his work will bring more death and he refuses to turn in his finished recording. When the tapes are stolen and tragedy does occur (don’t worry, no spoilers here), Caul is helpless, forcing him to realize his failures.
Gene Hackman’s performance as Caul stands first amongst many of the film’s noteworthy characteristics. Hackman plays the role far more quietly than his Oscar winning turn as the volcanic Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971) three years earlier. He plays Caul as a man seeking control, but not desperately. He seems repressed, but without the obvious nervous tics of someone about to crack. Hackman brings Caul’s obsession with detachment to the forefront and it’s a wonderfully understated performance. Sure, he’s good as the loud cop Doyle, but there’s something inherently more interesting in Caul. No wonder why Tony Scott cast him in a similar role in Enemy of the State. Of course, there are other performances of note in the film, including Allen Garfield as Caul’s professional rival and a young Harrison Ford as a threatening presence but, quite simply, this is Hackman’s film.
If Hackman’s performance is one of the many noteworthy elements in The Conversation, Coppola’s utilization of film form (with the help of sound designer Walter Murch and composer David Shire) is the other. The film begins with an amazingly shot and choreographed sequence in a San Francisco square as Caul attempts to capture every line of the conversation as the targets weave through the crowd. The sequence begins with a long zoom shot from one of the neighboring rooftops, giving us a full view of the plaza so we can understand where each character is spatially in relation to one another. As the sequence continues, we’re given several points-of-view on the couple, each “subjectively” rendered through audio filters that keep us from an omniscient perspective on the dialogue. Thus, when Caul discovers the conversation’s subject later on, we join him in his discovery.
Now, some cinephiles have criticized Coppola and the film for standing on the toes of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). There are some similarities as both films follow a protagonist who uncovers a murder plot via a form of media (photography in Blowup, sound recording in The Conversation). Sure, Antonioni’s film includes a sequence in which the protagonist repeatedly tinkers with a piece of media in order to tease out any more information, just as Coppola’s film does. Yet, the preoccupations of both films couldn’t be more different. The protagonist of Blowup is a snobbish, upper-class fashion photographer, giving the substance of his crisis a completely different meaning than Caul’s, which is drenched in Catholic guilt. Hell, Blowup probably has more in common with Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) than it does with The Conversation (both films are about photographers whose boredom with upper-class existence plays tricks on their imaginations). I won’t argue that Coppola’s film wasn’t influenced by Blowup, just as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) was as well, but I cannot see where those similarities keep The Conversation from being a film that stands on its own merits. After all, do critics hold back Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari, 1964) back for being a revision of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) or Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) for being an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth? No, simply due to the fact that precedence only matters when a work cannot stand on its own merits (I’m looking at you Gus Van Sant for remaking Psycho!).
Re-watching The Conversation, I cannot help but lament the direction Coppola’s career took. Unlike some other directors who flew too close to the sun, Coppola’s path of forgettable films was forged with his own participation. While I have yet to see Tetro (2009), Coppola lost his touch in 1974 when he completed the near-impossible feat of releasing two perfect films in one year. I’d like to hope that he could some day pull out of his rut, just as Paramount Studios did with the release of The Godfather. Yet, Coppola’s failures have helped prove the unfortunate fact that the complexities of his own vision often bring him back to the path. Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart were bad films because Coppola, like his friend and colleague George Lucas, lost himself in the spectacle of sequences and set-design whereas his gift was always for intimacy and performance, both of which are present in The Conversation.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.