Top 250 Tuesday: #198 – The Conversation (1974)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #198 on the list. For a longer introduction and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll be posting that info later in the day.

conversation1To say the least, I found Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation a very curious film. For a lot of its running time, I found myself wondering just exactly what it was about it that put it on critics “Top 10” lists enough times for it to rank in the greatest 250 movies of all time. Certainly it was good, but was it great? That, of course, is why one shouldn’t judge a movie until the final frame has unspooled.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, the short version of the plot synopsis is that Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a wiretapper who  aappears to be at the top of his game. He has his own business, is considered one of the, if not the, best in hid field by his peers, and he has just pulled off a job that perhaps no one else in his profession could have.

Unfortunately, Caul is also a haunted man. I’m not going to go into why he is haunted, because that might be too much of a spoiler, but then again, if you want at least a partial clue, all you really have to do is look at the poster at the right.  This, combined with an overwhelming sense of Catholic Guilt and suspicion about what he has just recorded, and  the effect it might have on the lives of the two people involved in the conversation from which the film takes its title, leads Caul down a very dangerous path where ultimately he doesn’t have any idea who he can or can’t trust, and that includes himself and his own multiple interpretations of the aforementioned recording.

conversation3The Conversation is in no way a simple movie. Instead, it is a movie that continues to circle around itself, continuing to cause the viewer to reinterpret what we are seeing, just as Caul is continually made to reinterpret what he is hearing. At each pass through the conversation we are given more information about what may or may not actually be going on, just as each time Caul cleans up the recording a bit more his own perspective changes.

This is actually a movie that seems to be walking a tightrope, and without the strong guiding hand of director Coppola and especially the bravura performance of star Gene Hackman, it could have fallen flat at any given moment. Coppola actually takes quite a few chances with this film, as in, just to give one example, a couple of scenes where Hackman, who has been the focus of our attention, is allowed to actually walk off the screen with the camera trailing after him then catching up a few seconds later. For that matter, even the simple act of repeating so many scenes over and over, with only a slight deviation from what we have seen before indicates a director who not only has confidence in his own skill, but is willing to trust his audience to keep up with the information as he is presenting it to us.

conversation2Y’know, I’ve often considered Gene Hackman to be one of America’s most under-rated actors. I have to admit that I’ve not read many interviews with the man (and actually, perhaps that’s exactly the point, as I don’t know that I’ve really even seen that many in-depth interviews with him) but he seems to have been one of those people who are more interested in being an actor, in giving himself over to and putting everything he has into the role, no matter how uninteresting or “small” it may seem rather than being celebrated as a celebrity, and Hackman’s portrayal of Caul, like Coppola’s direction, is actually quite daring, especially when one considers the film’s denouement. I really don’t want to give too much away, but if Harry begins the film seemingly at the top, well, we all know there really is only one way to go from there, and as I noted at the beginning of this article, it wasn’t until the final few moments of the film that I was truly convinced that what I was seeing, good and entertaining though it had been, truly was one of the greats. And one that will actually, I think, reward and reveal more in multiple viewings, which, again, in light of the way the film progresses, only seems all too appropriate.

There’s a lot more that I could say about this film. I haven’t even touched on any of the supporting actors, such as John Cazale, Cindy Williams, and even a very young Harrison Ford, nor have I touched upon how watching the movie now and thinking about how much the technology has changed, or the resonances it has with the current NSA wiretapping revelations affects the viewer’s relationship with the film, but perhaps those are essays unto themselves, and I’ll leave them for someone else to consider.

Generally at this point, I’d leave you with a trailer, but to be honest, I really think that the official trailer that I was able to find online gives just a bit too much away, so instead I’m going to leave you with this short clip that I think really serves well to illustrate just what I was saying above about the skill that Coppola displays in this film. At about the 1:30 mark in this clip we see Harry pick the lock on a hotel room door and peer in, but then rather than simply watching him enter, the camera pans down and ahead of Harry, giving us a shot of the room until it eventually pans back up and reveals that Harry is now already in the room and is, like us, taking a look around. It’s a small scene, yes, but it is also a superb bit of film making.

So, The Conversation. I keep wanting to draw this little article to a close by bringing it full circle to the beginning, where I said I was wondering until the end whether it really belonged on this list of the greatest movies, but really I’ve already answered that. Or I want to elucidate my comment about not judging it until the final frame has unspooled, but I’m finding it hard to do that too. So perhaps, in tribute to that final shot I’ll simply let this find its own ending right here…

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3 comments on “Top 250 Tuesday: #198 – The Conversation (1974)

  1. […] Texas Chainsaw Massacre 197 (183) – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 198 (183) – The Conversation 199 (183) – Out of the Past 200 (183) – I Was Born, But… 201 (183) – I Know […]

  2. […] similarly-themed films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (which I wrote about here). In that film, Gene Hackman finds himself drawn more and more inevitably drawn in to the events […]

  3. […] list. Sometimes, as the film develops it becomes fairly obvious. Other times, for instance with The Conversation, it’s not until the very end that I understand the power of the movie or the skills on […]

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