Saturday, February 17, 2007

Film Review #84: The Conversation
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Terri Garr

It may take awhile until it reaches Syracuse, but last week it was hard to miss national print and radio enthusiasm about a young first-time German director’s film called The Lives of Others. Just opened in New York City and Los Angeles, and Oscar-nominated for best foreign picture, The Lives of Others is about the East German state police – the Stasi – and how one of their dedicated, crack agents penetrates the lives of a playwright and his leading lady in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This film has enjoyed unusually large audiences in Germany as public soul-searching about the GDR’s old Communist regime accelerates. The Lives of Others comes here during debate over Bush administration policies like warrantless wire-tapping.

There’s an older, quintessentially American film worth seeing. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation opened in early April 1974 with Gene Hackman as the sax-playing electronic eavesdropping specialist, Harry Caul. Coppola wrote his script in the 60s and largely shot the film in 1972 (the Watergate “plumbers” were arrested in June 1972), but consider national events as The Conversation first played US theaters. In late April, the White House released edited transcripts of secret tapes. In June, Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men was published. In July the House Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment. On August 9th, Richard Nixon quit. Coppola’s film has just split-second mention of Nixon – frenzied Harry turns on TV news in a hotel room to blot out what he thinks he just overheard – but in 1974 no US viewer would miss it.

Cinematically The Conversation anticipates The Lives of Others too. Coppola says he wanted to show both the technology of surveillance and the people involved in such work. Both films depict radically, compulsively solitary men, the best in their business, moved to intervene to rescue their subjects. Both films depict a man who confidently assumes his immunity and later tears his home apart searching for the bug that betrayed him. And each film makes striking use of music in telling its story.

In The Conversation’s long opening, Harry’s team records a young couple we assume are having an affair. Mark and Ann (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) circle San Francisco’s Union Square during a Christmas season lunch-time Dixieland jazz performance. The meaning of their conversation hinges on the intonation in what Mark says about Ann’s tycoon husband (Robert Duvall) – “He’d kill us if he had the chance” – as they apparently plan a romantic meeting that Sunday afternoon in at the Jack Tar Hotel.

Coppola says he owes much to Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), in which a photographer enhances a photo to reveal a murder. The more obvious reference is American jazz. Harry tinkers with the tape’s sound so he can retrieve Ann and Mark’s exchange while visual scraps and audio phrases of that original conversation repeat jazz-like throughout the film. Punctuating David Shire’s meditative piano score, Harry plays along with various tenor sax artists from his record collection in his sunny bay window. This is more than background music. Coppola brilliantly uses jazz to embody how Harry experiences and thinks through the disparate evidence he has and recalls. This illustrates with equal briliance how jazz itself is a process of musically thinking through an idea.

This reaches its most satisfying in the complex, suspenseful scene when Harry hosts an impromptu late-night party in his office, housed on the remote upper floor of an otherwise empty warehouse. There’s a weekend convention of surveillance industry types where Harry meets his greatest rival, the entrepreneurial William P. Moran (Allen Garfield), who’s just tried to hire Harry’s disgruntled assistant Stan (John Cazale). As soon as all arrive, Harry knows this was a bad idea. Amidst the confusion, the alcohol, Moran’s challenges and revelations about Harry’s past and his assistant’s amorous pursuit of Harry, Harry’s attention returns obsessively to the week’s assignment and his fear about the safety of “these two young people.” When the scene comes to rest, you know before Harry stumbles over to the tape deck that those tapes are gone.

I hope The Lives of Others wins that Oscar. Meantime, American cinema has richly addressed similar concerns. The Conversation is one tip of that iceberg. The 2000 DVD has excellent commentaries by both Coppola and supervising editor Walter Murch, whose 1995 book, In the Blink of an Eye, has been a basic primer for many younger filmmakers.

Written for the 2/15/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly for “Make it Snappy,” a weekly column reviewing recent films that never opened locally and older films of enduring worth.