Thursday, March 14, 2013

Movie-a-Day, Part I: The Conversation (1974)

Compared to many of Francis Ford Coppola's films, The Conversation is relatively tame, especially due to the fact that it was released in '74, two years after The Godfather. The film has one of those plots that are extremely simple and rather bland in theory, but if put in the right hands, it can go a long way — in this case, an audio surveillance expert who is hired to spy on a mysterious couple uncovers a potential conspiracy, and spends much of the movie deciding whether or not to close his eyes to it, or risk his life to save others.
What makes this movie work isn't the story itself, but the obsession in trying to understand the peculiar mind of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). He is very unsocial and secretive, and doesn't own a telephone. He tells absolutely no one a truthful thing about his career or personal life, although he is damn good at his job. The only thing that is at all human about Caul is his skills with a saxophone, which appears to be his only way of venting his emotions (by himself, of course). 

In fact, when his partner Stan (the late John Cazale), who seems to be the closest thing to Caul that fits the definition of "friend", attempts to play some recordings of his saxophone sessions, he becomes so furious to the point where it actually is the angriest he gets during the entire film, aside from another incident where he was obliviously recorded on tape. Both of these outbursts were due to an invasion of his privacy, which is obviously ironic because of his profession. Caul is a purist, but the higher the conspiracy rises to the surface, the more it is like watching a brilliantly built robot beginning to break down and start sputtering obscenities before it's ultimate demise.  

In the final scene, upon finding out that his apartment is bugged and that his secrets aren't so secret after all, he emotionlessly strips down his entire apartment. Everything from the floorboards to all of his belongings. When he finishes with failure to find what he was looking for, he resorts to unwinding, in the only form he knows how: by playing the blues.

What truly makes this an undeniably great film however, is the awkward feeling when the credits are rolling — the paranoia that no one is safe any more. If you have a secret, by god, someone will find out about it (assuming they care about your passion for Love Actually that's "under wraps", which they don't). In critic Pauline Kiel's review of the film upon it's original release, she noted:
"It's a little thin...but it's a buggy movie that can get you so that when it's over you really feel you're being bugged." 
It should be repeated that this movie was released in 1974 — 39 years ago. If audiences felt that "buggy" feeling that they could be watched at any given time back in '74, imagine how audiences feel now.

It's no secret that the whole "a-media-expert-uncovers-a-crazy-conspiracy" thing is not very original, but every once in a while there will be a film that surprises us like Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-up and Brian De Palma's Blow Out (the latter is clearly inspired by the former and The Conversation). At it's core, The Conversation is a really well-made thriller — well-made because of its, you know, thrills, but also because of it's complexity that many one-note thrillers seem to lack: depth. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to shut my blinds and turn of the lights because that old man conveniently sitting on his porch across the street from me is highly suspicious.

Honorable Mention: Harrison Ford plays a handsomely creepy, villainous businessman. Is that not reason enough alone for checking it out?

Available on Netflix