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Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation starring Gene Hackman

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David Hast and Scott Vander Werf talk about The Conversation. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, the film that was ahead of its time looking at privacy and surveillance

[Clip from The Conversation]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen The Conversation?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen The Conversation many times, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay starring Gene Hackman. I saw it after I had seen The Godfather, The Godfather 2, and I think even after I'd seen Apocalypse Now. And it's one of my favorite Coppola films.

DH: It is, it's not as well remembered, but it's a wonderful, in some ways, a masterpiece, like those others. I mean, I think we've talked about this before Francis Ford Coppola had this unprecedented run of films in the 70s from 72 to 79. In consecutive order, he made The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part Two, and Apocalypse Now.

SVW: And it's interesting because The Conversation is this, really in a sense, a small, quiet film nestled between two epics, The Godfather and The Godfather 2.

DH: I think the story is that he was, it was so much pressure on him. I mean, you know, that when you go back and the story of Francis Foracopla, he was a fairly untested director. He hadn't done a lot. And Paramount hired him to do this, you know, massive, huge budget Godfather thing. They almost fired him during it. And it was really a tremendous amount of pressure on him. And, uh, so he did this one in his hometown of San Francisco, shot with a small crew on just regular locations in San Francisco, just like almost like you're returning to his roots as a student filmmaker doing something easy but a brilliant script and brilliantly made movie.

SVW: And it's a pretty simple plot. It's an espionage, a surveillance movie and Gene Hackman plays Harry Call who is considered one of the best if not the best in the business of surveillance.

DH: Yeah, and I love that he gives him the name Caul. It's spelled C-A-U-L in the script, but of course it makes you think of Call as in phone call because he's tapping phones and things like that.

SVW: But the whole film is set up with the opening sequence, which is, why don't you tell us about it?

DH: Well, Harry Caul is a guy who spies on people for wealthy clients or whoever, the government if they hire him. And the opening scene is Plaza with lots of people during their lunch break in San Francisco walking around and his assignment is to record the conversation between a couple. He knows nothing about them or why his client is hiring them, but it's a young couple a man and a woman and they're discussing something and he has to be find a way to record this conversation while they walk around in a crowded Plaza and you see him do it with three different microphones in different placements, a guy hiding one in a bag and walking behind them, that sort of thing. And then he ultimately, for a great deal of the movie, we then see him trying to put together this conversation with the three different sources in his post-production warehouse where he's got all these tapes.

SVW: And he's a man who's invading people's privacy as his business, but then he himself is probably the most paranoid person I've ever seen depicted outside of insanity on a movie screen.

DH: Yeah, he is paranoid and part of what makes this movie so great is his performance and also the fact that the movie is very much about his character and the character development of him, at the same time showing this paranoid story. And we find out as the movie goes along that he's got a history, that there was a job he did once in the past where the people ended up getting killed because of the recording he made. And so now he's just completely committed to the idea that he has nothing to do with what's going on. I am uninvolved. I don't want to know what's going on. And in his own personal life, he's completely shut off from people. He has all this security in his apartment to sort of hide from the world. But of course, what happens is he becomes emotionally involved in this job.

SVW: Yes, at the beginning we meet his girlfriend, Terry, who's played by Terry Garr, and she's asking him questions, and he won't even answer. He doesn't even want people to ask him questions.

DH: Yeah, she essentially breaks up with him because she can't find out anything about him, about the guy she's dating. He won't tell her anything about himself, and he basically pays for an apartment that he sort of keeps her in and doesn't see her outside of that setting. It's interesting you mentioned Terry Garr because this movie does have some wonderful performances early in their careers from a lot of great actors. John Cazale, who was Meryl Streep's boyfriend who died tragically very young, but who's also in Dog Day Afternoon and The Godfather and The Deer Hunter. Harrison Ford's in this movie, way before, well, a few years before Star Wars.

SVW: And Cindy Williams before Laverne and Shirley. Also Alan Garfield, who was one of the great character actors of the 1970s.

DH: I believe he actually won an Oscar for this, for like best supporting actor. He plays this slimy like sort of rival of Harry Caul, who's also an eavesdropper and a wiretapper. But you can tell he's not as good as Harry and he wants to steal Harry's secrets.

SVW: Now this was edited by Walter Murch, who's particularly admired for sound editing. And it's interesting because the movie is about a guy who's editing sound.

DH: Yeah, Merch has talked about by people in the industry and so forth as a model, an incredible editor. Particularly, he edited sound in ways no one had before, both in this movie, which is all about sound and sound editing, and in Apocalypse Now as well.

SVW: Now, I love epic movies. I do love to sit down and watch. I saw Killers of the Flower Moon, the recent Scorsese film. Big, huge movie, but this movie is an hour and 34 minutes, and that's perfect.

DH: Yeah. And like you said, it's a small film, but it has everything you look for in a movie.

SVW: But it also reflects, it's one of the great movies of the 70s, it sort of reflects how things were culturally, the paranoid post-Vietnam, post-civil rights, you know, when Richard Nixon is leaving office in disgrace. And so you have these number of films, including the real life film, All the President's Men in 76, Parallax View in 74, Three Days of the Condor in 75 and Executive Action 73. And The Conversation is right there at the top of the paranoid films of the 1970s.

DH: Yeah, there was kind of a genre or sub-genre that was born really about people, you know, the fear and distrust of both government and corporations and how they're behind so many things. This film reminded me of another kind of film, two films in particular, Blow Up from 1966 by Michelangelo Antonioni and Blow Out, which is basically a remake of Blow Up. Blow Up is a story about a photographer who accidentally takes a shot of a murder in a park. And then he's blowing up the picture in his dark room to larger and larger sizes to try and zoom in on what's going on. So it's about the technology, the visual technology of photography. And then Brian De Palma essentially remade it in 1981 with John Travolta as the movie Blow Out, which refers to the sound of a tire blowing out as a car goes off a bridge and like an executive is killed. And Travolta is a movie sound recordist, he's out gathering like ambient sound, just recording stuff to use in his, in his editing, and he, he accidentally records the sound of this blowout and then starts playing it back and suspects that it was a gun rather than a tire blowing out.

SVW: And one of the things about this movie that you can't escape talking about is the fact that this, when it came out, this was very very effective for the audience because it was so scary that people could their privacy could be invaded so easily by technology and we are now in that world I mean we now have drones that are so high that you can't see them or hear them and they can record conversations much much easier than the way that Hackman's character does in this movie and then in terms of facial recognition and all of the visual surveillance techniques that are depending in which country you live in are very prominent in in in our world now.

DH: Yeah, that's another reason to see this movie. I mean, it's 50 years old and and it's about technology spying on us. And the technology is almost laughable, you see these giant knobs and dials and big tape recorders and stuff, but that doesn't matter. The point is, without even knowing it in a way, he was looking, pointing to the future, to a world we live in now where we walk, everything we do, we assume someone can spy on us. Everything, every... key type on the computer, everything visual. It's almost like we assume everything we're being spied on by corporations and the government all the time, and we just do the best we can to live with it. Thanks for joining us. Okay, thanks, Scott.

[Clip from The Conversation]

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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