THE CONVERSATION (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Agonizingly slow, arty, heavy-handed, writer-director Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation wraps a survey of obsessive surveillance inside a tricky marital murder-mystery plot. Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), to which it pays homage, it took the top prize for its year at Cannes. Perhaps Monica Vitti, a member of the jury, waxing nostalgic, pressed for this outcome. (Should have won: Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul.)
     The “trick” is to decipher a conversation, between a young woman and her lover in San Francisco’s Union Square, that surveillance expert Harry Caul misinterprets with disastrous results. We are set up to share this misinterpretation. Afflicted with the Chinatown-syndrome (Roman Polanski, 1974), the film gives Caul a past in which his professional activities led to multiple murders. Haunted by this past, Caul lives an exceptionally insulated, lonely life. His compulsion for privacy—some see this as a reflection of Watergate-era insecurities—finds him dismantling his apartment to uncover electronic bugs which invade this privacy. Is the bugger himself being bugged? Caul’s paranoia, running thick, will likely remind many of a certain U.S. president. However, the film is teasing us; it really has nothing to say about anything or anybody. It is so shallow an enterprise that we, thirty-five years later, cling to the minor excitement of seeing Harrison Ford, then in his early thirties, in a small, highly unsympathetic role.
     A friend of mine, way back when, described something that Coppola shows in the film as “one of the great nightmare images”: in waking daylight, a flushed hotel room toilet overflowing with blood from a grisly murder. At the time I agreed. Today, the image, anemic, barely registers. Stronger: the murder itself, where we “see” something other than what is actually occurring.
     Gene Hackman plays Caul fastidiously and superficially.

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