The Conversation (15)

Feb 21, 2007
Cranbrook Film Society

If you had asked the question ten years ago who, of the three friends who arguably created contemporary Hollywood cinema, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, was the best director, the answer would have been Spielberg, with Lucas judged to be a great talent unfulfilled masquerading as an oligarch, and Coppola, a mixture of the chaotic (Apocalypse Now), the commercial (The Godfather 3), and the crass (One from the Heart). There might even have been a sense of relief when this erratic filmmaker closed down his studio, American Zoetrope, and retired to his vineyards in the Californian hills.

Time gives perspective however, and this view began to change with the National Film Theatre’s season of American Zoetrope films in 2002. Coppola’s willingness to innovate might have created some ‘turkeys’ but it also means his successful films don’t feel dated. Good examples might be The Outsiders and Rumblefish, low budget films that received mixed reviews at the time they were released in the 80s, but launched the careers of a whole generation of stars, including Mickey Rourke and Tom Cruise, and are now recommended viewing for film students. A good time, then, to watch one of Coppola’s finest films, written and directed by him and one included in that NFT season, The Conversation.

A little remarked legacy of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland has been the extensive use, here in Britain, of surveillance techniques developed there. Going about our daily business we are likely to be watched and recorded dozens of times. Visiting the caretaker’s room at work the other day expecting to find him smoking a roll-up and looking at the racing pages of The Mirror, I actually found him laid back in his chair, like David Bowie in ‘The Man who fell to Earth’, staring at a whole wall of CCTV’s monitoring all parts of the building. Generally though, unlike the native American who thought a photograph would take away his soul, we don’t seem to mind much. We remind ourselves we’re doing nothing wrong, except possibly speeding, and we don’t take it personally.

Harry (Gene Hackman), our protagonist, above all does not want to mind. A genius of surveillance he wants nothing to be personal, including his sex life. The film ‘shares’ Harry’s enthusiasm for technology. Walter Murch, the editor, used for the first time on screen an electronically controlled zoom lens to create Coppola’s signature opening shot over the titles. In the movie proper, the cameras are apparently locked in position or pan slowly seeking out their quarry, imitating the movements of a surveillance camera. Watch the first scene in Harry’s apartment for this, but notice too the building outside through the window that is being destroyed. The sound was restored and enhanced for the re-issuing of the film for the NFT season by Murch.

Yet, unlike his venal rival, William Moran (a rivalry Harry of course does not seem to feel personally) Harry finds he cannot completely expunge a sense of morality. Perhaps his not wanting people to suffer is an aspect of his wanting nothing to be personal. Harry says he wants a ‘big fat recording ’, but having created it, through guilt and fear over how it may be used, he does not hand it over but starts to interpret it, to try to make out not just the words but the meaning. And then he’s lost because words are not big and fat, pregnant with a meaning that is given birth at the moment of communication, bouncing in your lap and undeniable. Words are rather messy, leaky about meaning, meaning intended, expressed, and received, never entirely lining up to match. You can still get to a ‘truth’, but as Harry finds, it may be horrific.

In all this, Harry believes himself innocent, but secretly knows that he’s guilty. And so we can all identify with him. We all have this tension in our lives. He goes to confession but gets no relief. The paranoid is after all under threat from someone who is always secretly himself.

During the last six years (while the street cameras proliferated) I’ve regularly been to watch my son in his school plays at the local primary school. At first we parents all recorded the performance on our videos, but now none of us do, for fear that our motives might be impugned. Perhaps our internal censor fears that, like Harry, we might have an enemy within.

Francis Ford Coppola | USA | 1974 | 117 minutes | 15