Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Conversation (2011)

The ConversationMost of us know at least one person who can compartmentalize her or his life, separating business from pleasure, career from family, etc. Such people have exceptional focus and determination. Brilliantly portrayed by Gene Hackman, Harry Caul is such a person. (Even his girlfriend Amy, played by Teri Garr, does not know where he lives.) Harry is an expert technician who is retained to conduct electronic surveillance of those identified by his clients. In effect, he is a high-tech private investigator. What he records becomes evidence of illegal, unethical, or immoral behavior. Harry has no personal interest in the private lives he invades surreptitiously. But then he accepts an assignment and begins to suspect that the subjects of his surveillance will be murdered. The "compartments" in his life which Harry has so carefully separated begin to merge (albeit gradually) and he begins to have second thoughts about how he earns a living. Of course, he is better qualified than any other character in the film to understand (if not yet fully appreciate) the implications of an invasion of privacy. Under Francis Ford Coppola's brilliant direction, Harry begins to feel paranoid.

I view The Conversation as a dark film because its raises so many questions which seem even more relevant today than they were in 1974. How secure can any life be? Who is accumulating personal as well as professional data about whom? Why? Satellites can take photographs of a license plate. All of the data on computer hard drives can be recovered. DNA tests can determine whether or not a monarch was poisoned hundreds of years ago. In so many ways, "there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide" from modern technologies. What intrigues me most about Harry Caul is his growing sense of dislocation and vulnerability as the conflict between his personal conscience and professional objectivity intensifies. The assignment for The Director (Robert Duvall) to conduct surveillance on Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forest) serves as a trigger which activates self-doubts and insecurities which Harry has presumably suppressed and denied for many years.

For me, the final scene is most memorable because it's so ambiguous. To what extent has Harry invaded his own privacy? What has he learned? How will he now proceed with his personal life and career? For whatever reasons, only in recent years has this film received the praise it deserved but was denied when it first appeared almost 20 years ago. It seems to get even better each time it is seen again, especially in the DVD format which offers clearer image and sound as well as several excellent supplementary items such as commentaries by Coppola and his supervising editor Walter Murch as well as a "Close-Up on the Conversation" featurette.

"The Conversation" is one of those great little masterpieces of the 1970s that just so happens to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola. "The Conversation" tells the tale of Harry Caul, (geniously played by Gene Hackman) a surveillance expert who makes the mistake of getting personally involved in a disturbing assignment. Gene Hackman's performance is so subtle, underplayed, and finely-tuned that it alone makes the film worthwhile. The script is fabulous, with a twist that makes "The Sixth Sense" look like kid's stuff.

The DVD of "The Conversation" is great. To start off, it has good, animated menus. The theatrical trailer is nice, just for nostalgic purposes. There is also a featurette, "Close-Up on The Conversation". It makes for a nice, brief look at the making of the film, and it's fun to see Coppola so young. What really makes this DVD great though, are the two commentary tracks. The first is by the director himself, Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola's commentary is one of the most comprehensive I've ever heard. If you don't appreciate this movie now, you will after you've heard his commentary. The second commentary is by editor Walter Murch, which is also very good, especially if you are specifically interested in the editing process.

If you like Coppola, Hackman, or are just a sucker for a clever script, this DVD is for your collection.

Buy The Conversation (2011) Now

For my money, this is the best movie Francis Ford Coppola ever made.

Say what you will about the imitated-to-the-point-of-parody "Godfather" movies, or the often brilliant piece of film madness that is "Apocalypse Now." I'd still rather talk about "The Conversation."

Ostensibly a thriller about a professional wiretapper and his surveilance of a single conversation in what appears to be an adulterous relationship, "The Conversation" is also a a thought-provoking masterwork about secrets, lies, spies and power in Watergate-era America, and an excellent character study about the interplay between conscience and professionalism in one profoundly real, profoundly fascinating man.

The man in question, Harry Caul, is obsessed with secrets--keeping his own, and finding out other people's. Gene Hackman's riveting portrayal of Caul--a dramatic change of pace from iron-willed characters like "The French Connection"'s Popeye Doyle--shows us a man riven by conflicting emotions. Pride, obsessiveness, professionalism, lust, and good old Catholic guilt are all at war in Harry's tortured soul, pulling him in a multitude of different directions as the movie unfolds.

At the film's outset, we see him overseeing the surveilance of the conversation in question, a perplexing, half-heard dialogue between a young couple out for a lunchtime stroll in a public park in San Francisco. Snippets of this conversation loop through Harry's mind and through the movie, playing and re-playing, but he--and we--only gradually uncover its true meaning.

Gradually, Harry begins to suspect that, if he does his job right, the couple in question may be killed. In a mesmerizing drunken dream sequence, he walks after the woman on a foggy night, trying to clear his own conscience about what he has done and what he might do. To the women in his life, Harry is maddeningly tight-lipped--not mentioning his birthday until the day of, lying about his age for no apparent reason, saying nothing about his professional or personal life--but to this dream-apparition, he is willing to say everything, from his oldest memories to his darkest fears.

Haunted by those fears, and by the consequences of his past behavior in a similar situation (just like Jack Nicholson's Jake Geddes in 1974's also-excellent "Chinatown"), Harry tries to make things turn out better this time. But events soon rocket out of control on their way to an unforgettable, poetic, haunting ending.

If you don't own this movie, buy it--putting it in your Netflix queue or hopping over to Blockbuster and watching it only once will leave you cheated, though you won't know it at the time. For even if (like me) you can figure out the exact mechanics of the plot on the first run-through, added viewings reveal deeper themes and fuller layers of meaning behind seemingly insignificant snippets of dialogue. Like the conversation that loops and skips throughout the film, "The Conversation" can't be fully comprehended in just one take.

Read Best Reviews of The Conversation (2011) Here

I wasn't alive in 1974, but I can't imagine how strange and alluring "The Conversation" must've felt to those who witnessed it when it was first released. Was the surveillance technology advanced for its time? Was the culture paranoid of being watched? Did audiences fully understand the film's undertones at the time? Did people expect our culture would become even more monitored in the future?

I don't really know the answers to those questions, and in a way, I prefer not to when I think about "The Conversation". To Harry Caul, those questions are irrelevant when the story begins. He truly dedicates his surveillance to making a clear and well-produced record, and tries not to listen to the content. He sees his work as a way to record "sound", without any attention to its meaning. Only when Caul begins to ponder the consequences of his actions does his life begin to unravel.

Fans of "The Conversation" love to wonder how technology has impacted our culture. Other fans are simply engrossed in the characters and plot developments. What's great about this movie is that you ignore one of those angles and still be mesmerized. If your attention is solely on Harry Caul and how his latest job has affected his life, then "The Conversation" is a terrific thriller. And if your attention wanders towards how our lives have been changed forever by technology, specifically surveillance, then "The Conversation" will give you plenty to think about. You can be as isolated as Caul is when the story begins, and you can be as involved as Caul is when the story ends.

The premise sounds simple when you talk about plot. In short, Harry Caul (played with great restraint and insecurity by Gene Hackman) is an expert on spying on people for different clients. His latest job requires some tweaking because his targets' conversation is cluttered with all sorts of sounds from the San Francisco streets. As he tunes his recording, he begins to suspect something terrible is about to happen.

Like all great stories, "The Conversation" is effective because of the telling. Seeing a technician tune an audio recording sounds boring, but it works because since Harry Caul seems to lack interest in a social life, we want to see what he IS passionate about: His work. Or how about those annoying scenes in movies when a bunch of characters are being unpleasant drunks? In "The Conversation", there's a lengthy sequence where Harry has allowed some fellow surveillance experts into his workplace. Rather than be a bunch of idiots behave foolishly, there's a hotshot East Coast expert named Bernie (Allen Garfield) whose made a name for himself, but is borderline-obsessed with how Harry pulled off a couple of tricky jobs. His cockiness is equalled only by his jealousy, which results in some very cruel tricks as the evening goes on.

The supporting cast is top-notch, because we remember the faces we need to, and forget the faces that Coppola wants us to forget. The targets of Harry's latest job are shown just enough so that we remember their faces and voices, but don't know too much about their personalities...just like Harry does. On the other hand, Harrison Ford delivers an unforgettably creepy turn as the assistant to Harry's client. There's a scene where Harry is obviously being followed, and when Harry finally confronts the assistant, Ford slyly replies:

"I haven't been 'FOLLOWING' you. I've been 'LOOKING' for you." It's clear that it's the former.

It's not often that the sound effects of a movie make headlines, however Walter Murch's work on the sound is more crucial to the piece than most movies (Ben Burtt's work on "WALL-E" comes to mind). I have yet to watch the DVD extras with Walter Murch, but the way the conversation between Harry's targets (hence the title) fades in and out is superb. During the opening credits, the camera slowly zooms in on a town square, filled with distant music and chatter. But then a soft electronic distortion fades in and out. As the camera approaches closer to the ground, the garbled noise is even more noticable. When we get closer to the conversation and the targets, their sentences are periodically interrupted with low clarity. Sometimes what we miss is inconcequential chit-chat; other times, we miss crucial pieces to the puzzle that will change Harry's life forever.

If there's any weakness in this movie, it's one early scene where Harry visits a woman in the middle of the night. It's a sad scene where Harry confuses his ladyfriend's questions for an interrogation. She simply wants to know more about his life, and he's still shaken that someone managed to leave a present in his apartment when he thought he had the only key. The reason this scene doesn't quite work for me is because it never made sense to me how someone as lonely as Harry Caul managed to meet this woman in the first place, let alone how they managed to have a physical relationship. If this scene had been removed, the later courtship between Harry and one of the alluring partygoers still would've worked. However, that's a minor quibble that quickly resolves itself early in the movie, letting the story quickly regain its momentum.

And once "The Conversation" picks up momentum, it maintains its grip through the end of the picture, from the details of Harry's investigation to the troubling aftermath of a shocking, violent turn-of-events. To be sure, "The Conversation" has one of the most unforgettable endings (and camera shots) in motion picture history.

"The Conversation" is my favorite film from the 1970s. There is so much more I want to share with you, the sign of any great film, I think. "The Conversation" is not only filled with complexities and subtleties, you can enjoy the film as simply or as deeply as you want to. Francis Ford Coppola and Gene Hackman have stated in separate interviews that "The Conversation" is probably the favorite of their respective film careers. I couldn't agree more.

Want The Conversation (2011) Discount?

Francis Ford Coppola's masterful insight into the clandestine world of surveillance "The Conversation" was appropriately released at the time of the Watergate scandal. The venerable Gene Hackman taciturnly plays Harry Caul an intensely private world renowned surveillance expert who lives in a world sheltered from personal interactions.

Hackman is hired to record a conversation between a young couple walking through a park by a man known as the Director, played in a cameo by Robert Duvall. He ingeniously orchestrates a scheme using a four man team to record the dialogue between Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest playing the couple. While analyzing the tapes he realizes that the couple may be getting set up for execution. In his past a previous surveillance job of Hackman's resulted in the murder of three people.

Hackman suddenly comes to grips with his conscience and has misgivings about relinquishing the tapes to the Director's assistant Martin Stett played by a very youthful Harrison Ford. Hackman is set up and the tapes are stolen from him. Determined to short circuit the possible execution he sets himself up in a hotel room adjoining a room mentioned in the recorded conversation. Using a listening device he hears a violent crime being committed but not the one he expected.

Back in the safety of his supposedly bug proof apartment, Hackman gets a phone call from Ford threatening him to forget what happened. Hackman is also made aware that his fortress of solitude apartment has been wiretapped, his worst possible hellish nightmare.

As the film concludes we see Hackman sitting is his apartment which in a paranoid frenzy he has totally torn apart in search of the planted surveillance equipment.

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