Feature: The Conversation (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola
As a reminder of how fragile the world of genius may be, I decided to precede the Coppola feature presentation with a glimpse of some of his later work — in this case the 17-minute 3-D short Captain EO.
In this Made-For-Disneyland gem, Michael Jackson plays an interstellar…erm…well, I’m not sure what his actual job is, but he’s supposedly not any good at it, at least by the implication of the scowling holographic boss-man we see towards the beginning of the film. He and his band of muppets (and by band, I mean it literally, the one pictured below somehow plays a bass approximately 10 times its own size) crash land on an alien planet, and through a sequence of singing, dancing, screaming “woo!”, wiping his nose, and shooting light out of his fingertips, he transforms the Borg Queen into Anjelica Huston and her minions into a nice dance troupe for his next concert tour, all in semi-glorious 3-D. Check out the reused Star Wars sets. Awesome! The landing scene on the planet was almost enough to make me scream out “Pull out Wedge, you can’t do any good back there!”
After a 7-year period (1972-1979) when Francis Ford Coppola released four films, all of which were nominated for Best Picture (The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part 2, and Apocalypse Now) he quickly fell into a bit of a decline, producing the schlocky Captain EO for Disney, the unwatchable Bram Stoker’s Dracula (I almost walked out of that one in the theaters), and gradually increasing the screen time he gave to the Worst Actress In The World, his own daughter Sofia. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a pretty good director (The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation) but even Coppola couldn’t keep putting her in his movies after her dismal turn in The Sequel Which Never Happened. It Never Happened. And then he decided to buy a chunk of Napa County and make wine. The end.
It happens to the best of us.
The Conversation, on the other hand, came during Coppola’s height and is a tight psychological thriller starring Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford, and using son Gian-Carlo rather than daughter Sofia in the obligatory family cameo appearance. Harry Caul (Hackman) is a famous wiretapper/professional snoop working out of San Francisco, tortured by memories of his previous surveillance on the east coast that resulted in several deaths. The movie opens with a magnificent sequence in Union Square which starts quite ambiguously — the most standout character is a mime — and gradually develops until it becomes clear that surveillance is being performed on a couple. Caul, head of the surveillance team, brings the tapes back to his office and works with his partner on clearing them up so that all of the couple’s dialogue is audible. Caul is a very private man, and this in concert with the deaths associated with his previous surveillance leads him to treat the case as nothing more than a job. (In fact, he’s so private that he and a clandestine lover break up because she asks too many questions, such as “what do you do?”) However, the woman in the recording is troubled by the scene of a homeless man sleeping on the street (“Every time I see one of those old guys, I always think the same thing. I always think that he was once somebody’s baby boy…”) and Caul gets emotionally involved in the case. He has trouble isolating one sequence but finally resolves it as “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” and realizes that his employer on the case, a banking director, is spying on his cheating wife. In an attempt to avoid bloodshed, he refuses to turn over the tapes to the director’s assistant.
But it’s never that easy. After he meets a woman at a surveillance convention, she seduces him and uses his post-coital coma as an opportunity to snatch the tapes, apparently on behalf of the banking director. This turn of events cranks Caul’s paranoia into high gear (not that he shouldn’t have known, I mean how often did this middle-aged guy have random chicks just throwing themselves all over him, anyway?), and he deduces that the banking director will take his chance at murder at a potential hotel rendezvous mentioned in the recording. Having little other hope to stop the imminent murder, he obtains the room next door and sets up surveillance through the adjoining bathroom.
It is at this point where the narrative becomes a bit non-linear, a characteristic it retains to the end. He begins to hear snippets of the conversation he recorded in Union Square through his bug, and after hearing a struggle rushes out to the balcony where he sees a bloody hand come against the window. Convinced that the cheating wife and her paramour have already been murdered, he lapses into a frenzied state, turns the television up loud to drown out any noise, and loses consciousness.
When he comes to, he breaks into the adjoining room and finds evidence of blood (in the toilet, no less, in a vivid if unrealistic scene). It is only during his attempts to contact the presumably guilty banking director that he finds he has been played — it is the director who is dead (staged as a car wreck) and the wife and her lover are alive. Retrospectively, it seems that in fact the director may not have ordered the surveillance at all, as his assistant seemed to run the show, continually refusing Caul access to the supposed employer. In an unbugged flashback to Union Square a critical error in Caul’s reconstruction of the audio is revealed: he got the emphasis wrong. “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” the lover said — the whole bug job was apparently a trap to lure the director to a vulnerable location.
Finally, the director’s (former) assistant phones Caul at home (on a phone he has always insisted didn’t exist) and informs him that he knows Caul is on to them, but they’re watching him, so he’s to keep his mouth shut. Caul, convinced in his paranoia that his apartment has been bugged, tears it apart, ceiling to drapery to flooring trying to find the device to no avail, and the film ends with him despondently playing his saxophone in his ruined living room.
The film itself is far from perfect, but the ambiguous ending is quite effective. Caul, at the height of his game through the first half of the film, is reduced to a fugitive state, both physically and emotionally, and there we leave him.