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The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola 1974) – Blu-ray review

November 2, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 1 Comment

I’m reviewing two Coppola movies this week. First up, the masterpiece everybody forgets about from the director’s 1970s purple patch, new to Blu this week in an edition ripe with commentaries and stuff.

The Conversation Francis Ford Coppola 1974 Gene Hackman

The Conversation
(Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1974)

Proof that sometimes a whisper can match a scream, this quiet character piece has held its own as both conspiracy thriller and 70s Coppola movie

It shows the range and ambition of Coppola’s filmmaking during the 70s (and, indeed, that of the decade as a whole) that the director behind the operatic Godfather films and the flamboyant excess of Apocalypse Now could also be capable of something as withdrawn and claustrophobic as The Conversation.

By accident or prescience its subject matter chimed with Watergate and made it a talking point, but in conception it couldn’t be further away from the self-conscious grandstanding of fellow conspiracy thrillers such as The Parallax View. The clinical feel of the film has the air of a technical exercise – to see if a film could be based around sound in the same way as Blow Up (a clear inspiration) was based on an image – and there remains a trace of academic coldness to the sequences of Harry Caul at work. Yet there is also real dynamism and excitement in Walter Murch’s complex, deceptive montages of sound and vision, and it’s to Coppola’s credit that he didn’t forget to spin a strong story around the premise.

The film benefits from a very literate, clever script, immaculately plotted in the way that it reveals its secrets but leaves others unsolved. Rather neatly, the accumulation of incident that fuels Caul’s paranoia about being bugged has the exact same effect on the audience, leaving us to ponder whether the lengthy sequence with rival bugger Moran provides a clue as to the film’s resolution, or a red herring?

Nonetheless, the thriller works not through the plotting but because it’s predicated on Caul’s character, where perfectionism has come at the expense of his soul. It’s a film about a man terrified of losing control, but who probably never really had it – the first thing we see in the film is Caul being mockingly shadowed by a mime artist. The irony of the backstory is that Caul is so obsessed with preventing history from repeating that he fails to hear the wood for one particular tree.

Gene Hackman is outstanding, not least because he was coming off the back of two blustering bullies – The French Connection‘s Popeye Doyle and The Poseidon Adventure’s Reverend Scott. Caul in contrast is a man uncomfortable in his own skin, only animated by his obsession with sound and music, and his terse irritability makes him an unusual protagonist even in the leftfield arena of the 1970s. It’s both a tribute to Hackman’s performance and a symbol of Hollywood’s shift towards conventional heroes that the character was deemed worthy of an (admittedly unofficial) reprise as a supporting character to Will Smith in Enemy of the State two and a half decades later.

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