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Somewhere between the twin peaks career achievements of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), director Francis Ford Coppola took time off to work on a small scale, personal film he had been contemplating for years. "I wanted to make a film about privacy," Coppola stated (in the biography Gene Hackman by Allan Hunter), "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..." The resulting film, The Conversation (1974), went into production prior to the media's exposure of Watergate but was released just after the incident became public knowledge. While this might have seemed like a welcome publicity coup at the time, it didn't really improve the film's commercial prospects and the film was barely noticed by American moviegoers. Many critics, however, consider The Conversation to be Coppola's masterpiece despite its deceptively modest design and the film went on to win the Golden Palm as Best Film at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. Now, The Conversation is more timely than ever with the implications of the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 sanctions on our personal privacy and freedom.
In a plot that bears similarities to Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) except that the focus is on sound recording and not photography, a reclusive surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) stumbles across what he believes to be a murder plot. It begins when he is hired by a client (Robert Duvall) to record a conversation between a young couple and through repeated playbacks of their dialogue suspects they may be in great danger. Then the tapes are stolen and Harry, feeling guilty over what he has uncovered, becomes increasingly obsessed with the couple (played by Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest). Should he warn them? Should he try to intervene somehow? As Harry's paranoia escalates he is driven to investigate a reference to room 773 at the Jack Tar Hotel, the site of a planned murder. His discovery of the truth leads to a shocking denouement and the realization that he has become a victim of his own profession.
According to Coppola, "he first conceived the idea for The Conversation in the mid-1960s while listening to director Irvin Kershner (The Flim Flam Man, 1967) discuss espionage and state-of-the-art surveillance tactics...He told Coppola about long-distance "shotgun" microphones that looked like rifles. They were so powerful that when they were aimed at the mouth of each speaker they could actually record a conversation between two individuals, even in the midst of a crowd." (from Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola by Gene D. Phillips). This particular detail so fascinated Coppola that it became a key element in the elaborate opening sequence in The Conversation in which Harry records a couple's conversation in a crowded public park in downtown San Francisco.
In developing the central character of Harry Caul, Coppola read extensively on wiretapping and surveillance experts such as Bernard Spindel, a legend in his field, and Hal Lipset, a San Francisco native, who was eventually recruited as a technical consultant on the film. The director also incorporated some autobiographical details into Caul's background; in high school, Coppola was a science geek and president of the radio club. One time he even planted hidden microphones around his own home so he could eavesdrop on family conversations. He envisioned Caul as someone who was an oddball in his youth, always tinkering with gadgets like himself. Even the character's name reinforced his hermetic nature. "I called him Harry Call," Coppola said "but she [the transcriber] had typed Caul. When I saw what she had typed, I decided to keep the spelling, since I knew what a caul is. It is the membrane that surrounds a fetus until it is born. Through most of the movie, Coppola continues, Harry wears a translucent plastic raincoat, a visual symbol that he is still insulated inside a caul." (from Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola by Gene D. Phillips).
Gene Hackman was Coppola's first choice for the role of Harry. "He's ideal because he's so ordinary, so unexceptional in appearance," Coppola said. "The man he plays is in his forties, and has been doing this strange job for years." Despite Hackman's brilliant performance in the role, it wasn't a pleasurable experience for him. "He was really a constipated character," Hackman recalled, "It was a difficult role to play because it was so low key." This, of course, was a challenge to Coppola as well - how to make a taut, compelling film with such a cerebral character at the center?
The one person who helped Coppola transform The Conversation from a static portrait of a loner into a riveting, Hitchcock-like thriller was Walter Murch, an ingenious sound engineer who had previously worked with him on The Rain People (1969) and American Graffiti (1973). The director stated "although the film was about privacy, sound would be the core element in it. So I suggested that he [Murch] edit the picture as well, which he hadn't really done before and didn't think of as his specialty. He agreed. And that was when I got to know Walter as a filmmaker..." As a result, the sound in The Conversation adds a disturbing and disorienting texture to the movie that gives it tension and a constant edge. Murch points out, for example, "you don't know what the point of view is at the opening. It's clear only that you are high up looking down on Union Square in San Francisco, hearing those soft, billowy sounds of the city at lunchtime. Then, like a jagged red line right across the view, comes this distorted - you don't know what it is - this digital racket...you will learn what it is soon enough, and you will learn that what you assumed was a neutral God's-eye point of view is in fact the point of view of a secret tape recorder that is recording all of this, picking up these distorted sounds that are the imperfectly recorded voices of the targets, the young couple's conversation sometimes muffled by the sounds of the square."
Initially Haskell Wexler was hired as the cinematographer on The Conversation but became so combatant and opinionated over how the film should be shot he was fired and replaced with Bill Butler who had worked with Coppola once before on You're A Big Boy Now (1966). Wexler's Union Square sequence, however, which was extremely difficult to shoot, remains in the film and sets the appropriate tone of paranoia that runs throughout the film. Other than the Wexler incident The Conversation was a harmonious production. Coppola was able to shoot the film in his hometown of San Francisco (the warehouse used for Harry's workspace in the film was only five blocks from the director's American Zoetrope studio) and work with his own repertoire of actors, many of them on the verge of major career breakthroughs - Harrison Ford, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, John Cazale, and Teri Garr. Robert Duvall, who was already a well-established character actor and Best Supporting Actor nominee (for The Godfather), agreed to appear in an important but unbilled cameo.
Though dwarfed by the success of the two Godfather pictures, The Conversation still managed to attract the attention of the Academy voters and garnered three Oscar® nominations including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Sound. It deserved more and certainly Gene Hackman should have been nominated. But the critics definitely took notice with Time magazine stating, "For Hackman, Caul presents a substantial challenge. It is a largely interiorized role in contrast to the action parts in which he has recently built his career. He responds with the most substantial screen performance he has done." Newsweek proclaimed the film "brilliantly original in its basic style and mood and prophetically American in its vision of a monitored society," while The Hollywood Reporter noted "a film of triumphant style and overwhelming passion, white hot with American anguish." And The Conversation is no less relevant today.
Producer: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Roos, Mona Skager
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola
Cinematography: Bill Butler
Film Editing: Richard Chew
Art Direction: Dean Tavoularis
Music: David Shire
Cast: Gene Hackman (Harry Caul), John Cazale (Stan), Allen Garfield (William 'Bernie' Morgan), Frederic Forrest (Mark), Cindy Williams (Ann), Michael Higgins (Paul), Robert Duvall (Director), Teri Garr (Amy), Elizabeth MacRae (Meredith).
by Jeff Stafford
Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola by Gene D. Phillips)
Gene Hackman by Allan Hunter