Blog Directory CineVerse: Listening closely to what The Conversation has to say

Listening closely to what The Conversation has to say

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Here’s an amazing thought: Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is arguably his weakest directorial outing of the 1970s – after all, he also made The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now in that amazing decade – and it’s still a masterpiece. For proof, consider the points our CineVerse group espoused during last week’s discussion of this movie (which you can hear a recording of by clicking here):

Even though it was not a box-office hit, how was this film indicative of the period of its theatrical release and reflective of the mood of the country and events affecting it?

  • Americans were growing more suspicious of authority and distrustful of government in the wake of Watergate (in fact, the Watergate cover-up was exposed just before this film’s release), the Vietnam War, the Warren Commission findings, and the assassinations of major leaders.
  • There was a pervading, brooding sense of paranoia and cynicism in the culture, and conspiracy theories were becoming more popular to explain political mysteries.
  • Many Americans felt helpless to affect change and ignorant of what might really be going on.
  • This is one of several dark, brooding, pessimistic thrillers that examined themes of paranoia, corruption, and disillusionment in the 1970s; other examples include:
    • Executive Action (1973)
    • Day of the Dolphin (1973)
    • The Parallax View (1974)
    • Chinatown (1974)
    • Three Days of the Condor (1975)
    • All the President’s Men (1976)
    • Capricorn One (1977)
    • Winter Kills (1979)

What’s unique about this picture as a suspense film/political thriller?

  • It relies on very little action: most of the plot involves watching Harry eavesdrop on people.
  • Other thrillers typically include chases, explosions, sex, violence, etcetera, to keep your attention.
  • The villains in this story (some anonymous corporation) remain primarily out of sight; the bad guys prove to be enigmatic, elusive, and difficult to pinpoint.
    • Essayist Megan Ratner wrote: “An often neglected aspect in discussions of America in the 1970s is the shift in corporate identity. No longer were businesses merely commercial entities – they began to be individualized. Brands and the corporations behind them started to take on aspects of personality, the marketing ever more sophisticated. Sharing a Coke and wearing Levi’s jeans became more than just soda and dungarees: it was a way of life, a corporate dogma. And the corporation as grand manipulator is at the very center of The Conversation.”
  • In keeping with its voyeuristic themes, many of the shots are composed and staged from a voyeuristic point of view.
  • It has the DNA of a horror film, with its taut suspense, amorphous villain, and grisly murder elements.

What is curious, different, and unique about Harry Caul as a movie protagonist?

  • He’s actually not very good at his craft. As Roger Ebert put it: “Here is a man who is paid to eavesdrop on a conversation in a public place. He succeeds, but then allows the tapes to be stolen. His triple-locked apartment is so insecure that the landlord is able to enter it and leave a birthday present. His mail is opened and read. He thinks his phone is unlisted, but both the landlord and a client have it. At a trade show, he allows his chief competitor to fool him with a mike hidden in a freebie ballpoint. His mistress tells him: ‘Once I saw you up by the staircase, hiding and watching for a whole hour.’” Additionally, his actions may have resulted in the deaths of a mother and child. And throw in the fact that he’s a hunter who has become the hunted; a surveillance man who is now being watched and bugged himself.
  • He’s a bland, quiet, lonely, anonymous man who has very little to distinguish him as distinctive, other than his saxophone and jazz records.
  • He’s fixated on maintaining his privacy, yet ironically works as a wiretapper invading other people’s privacy.
  • He’s fittingly named: “Caul” means the membrane that enwraps a fetus, and also mean’s a spider’s web.
    • We see “Caul”-like images of various sheets, opaque surfaces, and membranes throughout the film: Consider Harry’s see-thru raincoat, the plastic curtain inside his office, the telephone booth he stands inside, the glass partition separating the hotel balconies, and the shower curtain.

What themes are espoused in The Conversation?

  • Privacy, and the limits to which we can enjoy and assume it. Coppola was quoted as saying: “I wanted to make a film about privacy using the motif of eavesdropping and wiretapping, and centering on the personal and psychological life of the eavesdropper rather than his victims. It was to be a modern horror film, with a construction based on repetition rather than exposition, like a piece of music. And it would expose a tacky, subterranean world of wiretappers: their vanities and ethics."
  • Guilt, and the extent to which we are personally responsible for the well-being of others through our actions, even if we don’t intend them harm.
  • The dangers of relying too much on technology. This story has been called an “Orwellian morality play” in which technology is employed against the person using it.

Other films that you may think of after watching The Conversation

  • Enemy of the State, which also features Gene Hackman
  • Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which has a similar plot that focuses on photography instead of sound recording
  • Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, which also spotlights a sound recordist protagonist involved in a murder conspiracy
  • Hitchcock’s Psycho, which also depicts the murder of a woman in a hotel and the flushing of a toilet as a small plot point
  • Chinatown, released the same year and featuring a similar backstory in which the main character is haunted by the consequences of his actions that occurred years ago in another locale.
  • Serpico, which delved into similar themes of corruption
  • The Lives of Others

Other films directed by Francis Ford Coppola

  • The Godfather trilogy
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Outsiders and Rumble Fish
  • The Cotton Club
  • Peggy Sue Got Married
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • The Rainmaker

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP