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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A 1974 Listening Device


The Conversation Seems Older Than It Is

A real horse-and-buggy thriller from day when folks used pay telephones and reel-to-reel tape recorders, The Conversation looks to youth as Biograph shorts would for rest of us. The Conversation was referred to as an "art" film by marketers and audiences who sought to disparage it, Paramount stuck with distributing the thing so they could have more of Mafia shoot-ups from director Francis Coppolla, who did this between his first two Godfathers. Coppolla had co-formed a boutique firm with hot helmsmen (Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin) to make stuff most of a public wouldn't warm to. "The Director's Company" came afoul of internal conflict and ultimate collapse --- imagine these egos in a give-take situation, which was needed if the firm could thrive. The Conversation was no grievous flop, but Godfather grosses weren't had here, Coppola needing them to keep flow of studio blank checks. He'd next make partial artie of The Godfather's sequel, a letdown for viewers who preferred more of 1972 same, result grosses below half of what Corleones took a first time out.


The Conversation was shades of import hit Blow-Up from earlier (1966), but latter had sex, Euro novelty to overcome balky narrative. The Conversation was loner Gene Hackman tailing strangers for a faceless authority who may be planning murder, an angle that under livelier circumstance might make a good thriller, but it's mood Coppola was after, not movement. To that he succeeds, Hackman going about drab business of audio snooping with equipment we'd call hopelessly outdated, or to be kinder, charmingly quaint. There, then, is enhanced interest for The Conversation, reminder that life and making furtive living was a very different proposition in what was then thought of as modern times. This is one that could be effectively remade today on digital terms, a latter-day Hackman hacking his targets with devices unimaginable in 1974, but could such revisit maintain Coppola's restraint otherwise?


Best scenes are where least is happening, Hackman wandering among dealers at a surveillance trade show (do these still thrive?), inviting colleagues to his nerve center for listening in. The Conversation was meant to alarm us for how easy it was to be overheard, privacy a thing easily invaded and soon to disappear altogether as technology penetrated walls. How forward-seeing it was in that respect, what with modern surrender to an Internet that detects our every move, in or outside homes no longer barrier to intrusion. The Conversation was lumped among a cycle of "paranoid" pics and done years before such paranoia became simple and accepted reality of life. Was Coppola anticipating what would happen to us all in the 21st century? Seen in that sense, The Conversation is stern warning of hardship our tech gadgets would ultimately bring on. Could any 70's writer or director foresee the day our televisions would silently monitor viewing, buying, and social habits? Only difference now, it doesn't need a Gene Hackman to breech boundaries. We've willingly let these Wurdelaks in.

8 Comments:

Blogger Dave K said...

Great piece! Revisited this terrific picture last year, first time in decades. Much better than I remembered. Box office notwithstanding, Coppolla's hat trick of GODFATHER, THE CONVERSATION and GODFATHER II back to back is flat out amazing. Like you, I love all the convention stuff, especially enjoyed the unstated hierarchy of the professionals. Great film!

11:52 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Terrific movie -- and can you imagine an actor with a mug like Hackman's in the lead role of any studio movie today? It's a good thing he (and Spencer Tracy) made movies in more accepting times.

1:52 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I seem to recall an attempt at a TV series based on "The Conversation," sometime within the last 20 years, and a pilot was shot but it never sold.

2:18 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

A great film. I saw it more than 30 years ago and shortly after, Coppola went on an interview on Mexican television and stated that this one was his favorite. The technology displayed is essentially obsolete, but it is the foundation of what we have today. The ending is memorable.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Some before-they-were-famous casting that jumps out now: Harrison Ford and Cindy Williams were the couple Hackman was listening to. While checking to confirm my memory I see that Teri Garr was in there as well.

In a slightly different universe, I see the film being marketed as a sexy thriller about Ford and Williams, "the stars from American Graffitti".

5:47 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

It is a great, great movie. Showed it to my 24 year old son about a year back and he was duly impressed. He called me a week or so later asking for the name of that "eavesdropping movie". He wanted to recommend it to friends.

But Donald Benson's I.D. of the actors is slightly off. The young couple was Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest (not Harrison Ford). But Ford is in there elsewhere as Robert Duvall's studly (and seemingly gay) young assistant.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

And let's not forget the terrific John Cazale and Allan Garfield.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Kevin K: Ever heard of Phillip Seymour Hoffman? Or Jonah Hill? Or Jack Black? All of those men are (were in Hoffman's case) toplining movies.

@rnigma: There was indeed a pilot for a TV show of The Conversation, but yes, it did not sell.

4:05 AM  

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