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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
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 The Conversation

THE CONVERSATION (1974) - JULY 7

I'm fairly certain "sandwich movie" isn't a real term in Hollywood, but it's the phrase I've chosen to apply to Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 masterpiece, The Conversation. Coppola made the film--he wrote and directed it--in between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. Once you've seen it, I defy you to name me a better "sandwich movie."

Describing The Conversation, it sounds as if it were ripped from the headlines last week: it deals with issues of privacy and the growing paranoia of a surveillance expert. He's Harry Caul, played with restrained anxiety by Gene Hackman. Harry becomes increasingly obsessed with a conversation between a couple he wiretaps. He becomes certain they're involved in a crime, possibly a murder. His investigation ultimately leads to a shocking conclusion, one that seems eerily prescient in this era of meta-data collection.

The success of The Godfather--and Coppola's frustration with making it--spawned The Conversation. We screened The Conversation in April at the 7th annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, where Coppola recounted to me his difficulties on the set of The Godfather. The studio interference was so intense, such a constant presence in his life, that when Paramount came to him to make the sequel, he refused, saying he'd be willing to produce the movie, but wouldn't direct. Paramount kept at him. Eventually, Coppola asked for $1 million to direct, figuring Paramount would turn him down. To his surprise, he got paid.

Recognizing his power, before making the second Godfather movie, Coppola turned to The Conversation, a script he'd written in the '60s and had long wanted to make. A much more intimate film than The Godfather, it's the story of an enormously competent and respected man slowly losing his grip on the highly structured life he's established for himself.

The movie represents a breakthrough in the use and understanding of sound. Not only is it about audio surveillance, it relies on sound far more than sight to drive the drama. Coppola told me at the festival that in the opening sequence, shot in San Francisco's Union Square, he used the same audio surveillance technology to shoot the scene that Harry Caul uses in the movie. The result is an effectively uncomfortable and disorienting movie, a claustrophobic and anxious viewing and listening experience, but one you aren't likely to forget.

Coppola also spoke of Hackman's co-star in the film, John Cazale. Cazale made just five movies before he died of cancer - and every single one of them earned a nomination for Best Picture: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. That's a legacy.

The Conversation stars Terri Garr, Allen Garfield, Robert Duvall and Harrison Ford, in a part Coppola made bigger because Ford added so much to the role. Put them all together and the result is almost certainly the finest sandwich movie in Hollywood history.

by Ben Mankiewicz