THE CONVERSATION (1974) – Review by Andrew Sarris

2017-11-23T09:49:45-08:00 November 23rd, 2017|Categories: CINEMA, FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA|Tags: , , |
  • Gene Hackman in The Conversation directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1974

by Andrew Sarris

I

It came over the car radio while I was driving out to wintry, stormy Long Island for the Memorial Day weekend. The Conversation had won the Grand Prize at Cannes, The Sugarland Express had been singled out for its screenplay, and Jack Nicholson had been named best actor for his tangy tour-de-force in The Last Detail. A few crumbs were tossed to the French Film Industry in the form of a nostalgia award to Charles Boyer for his stately presence in Stavisky, and a female acting award to some French actress or other (Marie-Jose Nat, I think) for her performance in a reportedly happy story of French Jews during the Nazi Occupation. The irrepressible Italians were palmed off with a “visual” consolation award for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Thousand and One Nights, and Carlos Saura was felicitated vaguely for continuing to persevere in Spain while an aging Franco was still breathing (or is it now wheezing) down his back. But the message was clear: American films are now considered the cream of the crop not only commercially as heretofore, but artistically besides. Is this really true? Or does it merely mean that the pendulum of snobbery has swung from a middlebrow American overestimation of European films to a middlebrow European overestimation of American films? It’s hard to tell. The American films at Cannes this year tended to fall into the category of blown-up B pictures, very accomplished stylistically, but not very ambitious thematically, fairly deep in some instances, but never very complex. Unfortunately, the European films in competition at Cannes were not very good on any level, be it the profound, the pleasurable, or the pornographic, and thus the American entries shone by comparison.
Also, the Hollywood moguls of the supposedly good old days used to sneer at Cannes and all other film festivals with the smug assurance that their expensive product had no business competing with some half-assed home movie turned out by a commie existentialist in his garret on a roll of toilet paper. By and large, the American movies at Cannes this year were commercially in-between items with a pressing need for artistic prestige and critical commendation. There was no Sting or Exorcist among them in the way of guaranteed grosses, and, indeed, Mean Streets had already premiered in the New York Film Festival, and The Sugarland Express had opened the New Directors’ series at the Museum of Modern Art. On the Croisette a critic for Positif talked about Robert Mulligan and Robert Altman the way an earlier generation of critics from Cahiers du Cinema would talk about Nicholas Ray and Don Weis. But this kind of esoteric auteurism is not and never has been the mainstream of Cannes thinking, which I would describe as a process of compromising impossible ideals, among which are such droll notions as the internationality and universality of filmmaking ability, the convenient conjunction of art and entertainment, personal expression and social edification, and the existence of a consensus of good taste among the right-thinking and high-spending.
Why then and how then did The Conversation win the grand prize? For one thing, it’s not a bad movie, and placed, as it was, near the end of a dreary festival, it was bound to seem like manna from heaven. More important, it seemed to be very pertinent to Watergate, though Francis Ford Coppola has denied up and down that he had anything like Watergate in mind when he first conceived of the project back in 1966. I believe him. The Conversation seems to have very little to do with Richard Nixon’s Watergate, and very much to do with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Not that Blow-Up necessarily gave birth to The Conversation, but that the Antonioni at least made the Coppola seem more feasible as the colorful projection of an artistic confessional, sound in Coppola’s case as spectacle was in Antonioni’s.
I don’t wish to stress the connection between The Conversation and Blow-Up merely as a means of demeaning the originality of Coppola’s creative achievement. In many respects the two films are very dissimilar, as dissimilar indeed as San Francisco and London, as dissimilar as hung-over seventies and stoned sixties, as dissimilar as Cindy Williams as a femme fatale on the one hand (Coppola’s) and Vanessa Redgrave on the other (Antonioni’s). Also, whether as nonheroes or antiheroes, the conscience-stricken wiretapper in The Conversation and the culturally ambitious and morally ambiguous fashion photographer in Blow-Up are not precisely brothers under the skin. The purpose of the connection then is quite simply to explain why, in my view, Blow-Up succeeds as dramatic spectacle and The Conversation fails.
Blow-Up was adapted by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra from a then little-known short story by Julio Cortazar, a fact the daily reviewers were never allowed to live down by the literati of the little magazines with infinitely longer deadlines. The differences in the two versions were very striking. In the short story, the writer-raisonneur-photograper-protagonist is aimlessly taking pictures along the Seine when he records an intimate scene, almost but not quite an embrace, between a young, innocent-looking male student and a slightly older woman of a chic sophistication which seems incongruous in this context. The woman demands the picture: the author refuses. The young boy runs off. A sinister man emerges from a car nearby. The author suddenly realizes that the woman was actually procuring the boy for this older man, and that the author’s intervention with his camera has thwarted the intended seduction of an innocent. A few days later the author blows up his photograph, and it comes to “life” in his studio as a motion picture with depth and movement and the dimension of inexorable time. The dramatic spectacle of innocence preserved is reenacted for the writer-photographer-hallucinator, and his tears of joy end up through a kind of subjective transformation of . the objective as cleansing rain on his photo-turned-movie.
Cortazar writes in the self-consciously Borgesian mode of the mirrored sensibility struggling through the labyrinth of its own conceits. Hence, Cortazar’s multipurpose character is more histrionic than the subjects of his spectacle. The “ending,” such as it is, is “happy,” “moral,” and “creative” all at the same time, but the emotion expended on what is essentially a homosexual fantasy—the loving mother-figure leading the son with her caresses toward his sordid destiny—seems artistically disproportionate to the stylistic apparatus of the story. Unfortunately, I have not read Cortazar’s other works, and I did not read even his Biow-Up until long after I had seen Antonioni’s adaptation.
The movie, of course, changes the homosexual intrigue of a foiled seduction into a heterosexual triangle culminating in a murder. Antonioni’s protagonist (David Hemmings) becomes directly and physically involved with the woman in his picture, but his intervention with his camera does not prevent the murder, but rather provides unexpected evidence that the murder is about to occur immediately after the picture has been taken. Antonioni’s blow-ups excite us because they are suspended in time, and because they keep reminding us that a man’s life hangs precariously in the balance in the interval between the taking of one picture and the non-taking of another an instant later. The agonizing helplessness of the Hemmings character is thus transformed from the moral-psychological (Should he call the police? Should he tell someone? Should he feel remorse for being so emotionally detached from the fate of a human being who happens to be on the other side of his lens?) to the aesthetic-metaphysical (How does one reclaim lost time when a movement forward would have led to truth whereas a movement backward led only to mystery and uncertainty? Is the artist part of reality when he is in the process of recording it or does he occupy a privileged portion of the universe beyond scrutiny and judgment? Does the artist in photography or in cinematography transcend his machines or do his machines transcend him?).
The major difference between Antonioni’s Blow-Up and, say, Hitchcock’s Rear Window is that Antonioni’s camera seems to function as a substitute for character, ego, libido, and subconscious, whereas Hitchcock’s camera functions as an extension of impulses shared by both the characters and the audience. Thus, whereas Hitchcock is closer to Gothic romance, Antonioni is closer to the more alienating forms of science fiction. Not the least of Antonioni’s achievements in Blow-Up is to make the characters in a photograph more vivid than the characters in the surrounding cinematograph. Antonioni’s blow-ups are friezes unfrozen, and an essential element in our appreciation of these melted stills is the relative passivity and indistinctness of Antonioni’s on-screen voyeur-protagonist.
By contrast, where Coppola has gone wrong in The Conversation is in overloading his wiretapping virtuoso with so many complexes that we begin to worry about which side of the keyhole to take up as our point-of-view position. Significantly, the best shot in The Conversation is the stunning opening shot with its slow descent into the sights and sounds of a locale which we await eagerly to explore for the deadly secret it contains. Gradually, we separate the hunters from the hunted, the snoopers from the transgressors. It is an opening aria from which Coppola will develop many variations. He will even manage to trick us to a certain extent by switching the inflection on a crucial sentence, or so it seemed to my relatively untutored ear with the life-and-death words “kill” and “us.” But his blown-up sounds (on the good-old Watergate-vintage Uher 5000) and his cyclical images never pack the emotional wallop they should because Coppola has too little faith in the profundity of his mystery to allow it to mesmerize his snooper-protagonist out of his own excessive self-absorption.

II

In what amounts to a program note in the credit sheets for The Conversation, writer-director Francis Ford Coppola makes the following declaration:

I don’t remember how I first became interested in the sub|ect matter, but right from the beginning, I wanted to make a film about privacy, using the motif of eavesdropping and wiretapping, and centering on the personal and psychological life of the eavesdropper rather than his victims. It was to be a modern horror film, with a construction based on repetition rather than exposition, like a piece of music. And it would expose a tacky-subterranean world of wiretappers; their vanities and ethics; the conventions that they attend; the magazines that they read; and the women they value. Ultimately, I wanted the film to come to a moral and humanistic conclusion.
I had no idea of what was to come in 1973. White House plumbers, Watergate, Ellsberg files, of course, were unfamiliar phrases to me, and even row I’m not completely sure of how these names and events relate to this film, despite so many coincidences and prophecies (the “Uher 5000” tape recorder).
As I think about it now that it’s done, I realize that I wasn’t making a film about privacy, as I had set out to do, but rather, once again, a film about responsibility, as was The Rain People.

I have quoted the filmmaker at length in order to stress that he cannot be blamed if reviewers insist on drawing a providential parallel between his film and the current headlines. Aside from a brief, forced reference to Nixon in a newscast, Coppola has not pressed the parallel unduly. So for the moment my quarrel is more with certain reflex reactions to the film than with the film itself, at least on the level of what the film seems to be saying explicitly.
And what is The Conversation saying explicitly? Let us examine the plot for some clues to its thematic intentions. When we first encounter Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, he projects a seedy, nondescript presence right out of one of those gloomy Graham Greene thrillers about guilt-ridden, world-weary detectives and spies. His shoulders sag and slouch as if he were huddling into his all-seasons plastic raincoat in search of an inner warmth that he can never locate in his grubby soul. Even before we know what Harry Caul is up to in the narrative, Hackman and Coppola are very busy building up a crumby character out of bits and pieces of ironic incongruity. First of all we literally look down on the character in the little-man-big-world mode of the descending camera on a crowded outdoor scene in a public park dominated by the counterculture sound and spectacle of bongo drums and street theatre. (There is even a brash mimic of sorts left over from Blow-Up.)
In this lazy atmosphere of letting everything hang out, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul epitomizes every contained creep who keeps everything bottled up until it finally explodes one day like a malignantly middle-American Molotov cocktail. On the iconographical level, Gene Hackman seems to be refining his overstuffed persona in Scarecrow, but only at first glance. His movements, gestures, and expressions are too purposive to accommodate the kind of allegorical wanderer for whom the whole world is an open road and an open book. Harry Caul starts out, at least, as the kind of character who is defined more by what he does than by what he is. Elarry Caul is a wiretapper and eavesdropper. Anti he works for whatever the traffic will bear.
As the opening unfolds, a young couple emerge from the crowd as the target of Harry Caul’s surveillance, and it is their conversation which is to become the crux of the film’s mystery. Coppola induces us to imagine that the rights of this couple are being violated both by what he shows and by what he allows us to infer. Indeed, the director encourages us to draw on some of our oldest and some of our newest moviegoing prejudices. In the ancient category is the audience’s assumption that good-looking people are morally superior to bad-looking or even just so-so looking people. Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams as the stalked couple are not exactly Mr. and Miss America, but they virtually shine with well-scrubbed virtue next to the funkiness of the street-theatre types, and to the frumpiness of Caul and his covert crew of snoopers and eavesdroppers. Caul has four or five people working for him, anci Caul himself has been hired by an organization with vast resources, and thus the young couple can seize immediately on the audience’s instinctive sympathy for inferior size and number (a criterion which seems to operate everywhere except in the Middle East). Also, Mark and Ann (the token names of the Forrest and Williams characters) look much younger than Caul and his crew, and youth still retains cinematicaily its association with relative innocence next to the visually damning furrows and wrinkles of age.
Of the newer audience prejudices, the most decisive is the liberal knee-jerk rejection of any kind of electronic surveillance whatsoever. The loftier libertarians do not see the world in Manichean movie-genre terms of gangsters and criminals at war with the decent elements of society, but rather as a series of medieval murals in which presumptively innocent citizens are menaced by a cruel and capricious sovereign. Of course, a great deal depends on who is the hare and who is the hound, which is to say that in a quarter of a century we have witnessed the metamorphosis of a hound (red-hunting Representative Nixon) into a hare (Watergate-wallowing President Nixon). But at what point on the political spectrum does an unconscionable invasion of privacy become a courageous exposure of secrecy? Or is it simply a question of Our Privacy versus Their Secrecy, a question the answer to which helps separate the lofty libertarian from the pragmatic partisan.
Both ethics and ecology enter into the equation. It is bad enough to spy on your neighbor; it is presumably even worse to use modern machinery in the process. When Justice Holmes castigated wiretapping as “dirty business,” he may have been thinking as much of the apocalyptic advance of technology as of the Constitutional rights of the individual against the State.
There has been a pastoral bias in American libertarian thinking since Jefferson’s time with the result that the logical left in America has often been split between the liberals and the populists, as between mind and body and as between aims and needs. In this respect, The Conversation follows the relatively liberal San Francisco school (Coppola, Lucas, Korty, et al.) as opposed to the relatively populist Hollywood tradition. Indeed, when Coppola declares: “Ultimately, I wanted the film to come to a moral and humanistic conclusion,” he sounds more like Bellocchio or Bertolucci than like Capra or Borzage. Not that the latter were any less moral or less humanistic than the former, but what to Capra and Borzage was a natural sentiment becomes for more self-conscious artists like Coppola, Bellocchio, and Bertolucci a stylistic flourish. With Capra and Borzage, the major characters are as one with the human condition; with Coppola and his contemporaries the major characters tend to be alienated from their own humanity by their debased function in the social structure.
Hence, Coppola’s young couple become increasingly sinister and conspiratorial as we probe deeper into their mysterious conversation. Mark looks bland and plastic and yet manipulative behind his glasses; he has that look of the young executive on the make. Again, as with Hackman, the director has intentionally deadened an attractively sensitive actor with the numbing Novocain of the System. The Ann of Cindy Williams tends to become less and less convincing in her postgraduate course in well-tailored bitchery here after her emotional initiation in American Graffiti. The visual duet of Mark and Ann begins to strike sour notes of conformist calculation, and our attention and sympathy are diverted forcibly to the increasingly harried Harry Caul.

III

Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul functions in The Conversation as a kind of push-pull-in-and-out-of-focus character with no clear line of development. We never learn exactly why he is what he is or even why he does what he does. Francis Ford Coppola’s attitude toward his apparent protagonist switches from scene to scene between the derisive-objective (Caul as snoopy caricature) and the delirious-subjective (Caul as sniveling conscience). Caul’s problems and hang-ups, however, seem only marginally related to his particular line of work. In the contemporary cinema no line of work is especially creditable except as a comical cover for a caper (vide the wall painters in The Sting, the ice-cream vendors in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the road crew in Gravy Train, et al.). In The Conversation, moreover, Caul and his eavesdropping elves seem less sinister than their supposedly legitimate employers. These facelessly corporate types are both slicker and slimier than the buffoonish spies they recruit for the wretched tasks of industrial espionage. If in The Godfather Coppola tended to treat business as a crime, and not just any business, but all business, except possibly show business, even here Coppola may be implicating himself somewhat in Caul’s confessional booth. Coppola is not as brutally explicit about the innate ruthlessness of big business as Kurosawa was in The Bad Sleep Well, but there is, if anything, even more disdain in Coppola’s attitude toward the trappings of capitalism than there is to be found in Kurosawa’s angriest attacks on the system.
And since the system itself is rotten beyond redemption, Caul’s very virtuosity in serving its most vicious needs is his spiritual undoing. Indeed, the whole plot hinges on Caul’s extraordinary ability to rescue a crucial conversation from tapes teeming with noises. People with some experience of their own in sound recording assure me that some of Caul’s technical feats are beyond belief. Even so, there is no joy in Caul’s effort, no joy and no pride of accomplishment. Whereas the sleuthing photographer in Blow-Up engages the audience in his quest, there is something so unsettling about the way Caul clutches the tapes of the conversation as to make the whole operation seem as ill-advised as the opening of Pandora’s Box. Since we are living in an age when anything done well ends badly, the safest thing is to do nothing, to sit alone in a room belting out old jazz standards on a self-centering saxophone. It is at this point of modishly alienated narcissism that Caul comes into focus most clearly as Coppola’s mouthpiece, literally and figuratively. We do get the director’s musical signature, but the artistic flourish is more affected than affecting. It is as if Coppola were concerned more with the cultural credentials of his enterprise than with the creation and illumination of a character.
Caul’s relationships with women are clearly cases of don’t-Caul-me-I’ll-Caul-you. As it happens, Caul limits his activities to dames rather than girls since his profession presumably incapacitates him for any genuinely deep involvement with the Other. Nonetheless, after the two sexual encounters we are privileged to witness, the first dame deserts him, and the second betrays him much as Vanessa Redgrave betrayed David Hemmings in Blow-Up. With the supposedly sweet young thing of Cindy Williams on the tapes turning out to be a murderess rather than a victim, the sexual (or rather heterosexual) pattern of The Conversation degenerates into paranoia and sexo-phobia unlimited. But it is here that Coppola comes closest to outright banality. After all, there is nothing particularly unusual or idiosyncratic about Caul’s cautiousness and suspiciousness in dealing with women. A man does not have to be a wiretapper in order to yearn for a one-way relationship with a woman with no strings attached. Bogie even made Bacall walk around him in To Have and Have Not to establish the absence of strings. And what man has not at some time or other in his sordidly carnal strivings echoed Ambrose Bierce’s bitter lament: “Woman would be more charming if one could fall into her arms without falling into her hands.” Caul’s misogynous misadventures are therefore simply the latest variation on the old something-for-nothing shell game between the sexes.
In other respects, however, Caul is very much the product of Coppola’s realistic concern with the rootlessness and instability of modern life. Coppola is compassionate enough to show pain in his character, and yet is also sophisticated enough to prevent the pain from becoming a form of dramatic paralysis. Life and death go on in a Coppola movie, pain or no pain. Nonetheless, The Conversation strikes me as the least successful of Coppola’s trinity of very personal projects. In retrospect, You’re a Big Boy Now was a more fully rounded and more keenly articulated projection of adolescence and young manhood than was the wildly overrated The Graduate. It just happened to be Coppola’s misfortune that Peter Kastner did not give You’re a Big Boy Now the mythic boost that Dustin Hoffman gave The Graduate. Not that everything worked as it should have in You’re a Big Boy Now. The humor, especially, seemed to wobble uncertainly between giddiness and heavy-heartedness. It was as if Coppola’s visions were too cloudy and too complex for the chiaroscuro contrasts of a knockabout farce on roller skates. With The Rain People, Coppola seemed to have come of age artistically in that he had found reasonably complicated characters to function in a relatively mobile milieu. He had escaped Hollywood in every sense. His directing and screenwriting were anticliché to the point of being anticlassical as he took to the road like a Charles Kuralt with ants in his angst, and he was free to improvise to his heart’s content. His casting—Shirley Knight, James Caan, Robert Duvall—was as nonjudgmental and as nonstellar as his conception, itself a model of morbid compassion for people truly and profoundly cast out from themselves. Again, the paying customers didn’t show up in large enough numbers, and Coppola might have been permanently written off by Hollywood’s new demimoguls if his fairy Godfather had not intervened at an opportune moment.
The most disconcerting flaw of The Conversation is the tendency of its plot to cover up its own improbabilities with facile flourishes of absurdism. It is hard enough to accept the premise that the whole conversation was merely staged to deceive Caul and his employer (and the audience as well). It is even harder to understand why Caul and all his electronic gear were hauled into a simple murder plot in the first place. Why is it so necessary for the corporate conspirators to lure Robert Duvall’s cameo tycoon into a hotel room laboriously designated on the tape of the conversation? Coppola never lets us in on any of the tactical details. Obviously, he opts for surprise over suspense, but even his surprises are muffled by his solemn gaze. In the end we are asked to believe that Caul’s erstwhile employers have penetrated his own jealously guarded pad with an electronic bug and even a hidden television camera. (A spectacularly unmotivated camera movement simulates the hidden video viewer with a kind of spectral imitation of HAL’s lip-reading eye-movement in 2001.) Again, why should ruthless industrialists content themselves with merely spying on a most dangerous witness to murder when it is so much easier and cheaper to kill him? It is, of course, ironic that Harry Caul should be obsessed with his own privacy after a hard day invading everyone else’s. Ironic and even plausible. But never very funny.
Coppola is hitting too close to home in that Caul’s isolation is a mirror image of Coppola’s introversion. And are not Caul’s doubts and fears simply fantasized extensions of the doubts and fears of a . contemporary filmmaker in search of new truths to replace the old formulas? Is there not a bit of a snooper and the eavesdropper in every filmmaker, and, indeed, in every narrative or dramatic artist worth anything at all? Eric Rohmer, for example, is said to have written many of his scripts after listening to taped improvisations of his actors in the roles they were going to play. Indeed, as I watched the first shot of The Conversation, I wondered whether Coppola had stage-managed the whole scene with self-conscious extras or had instead snooped on a real-life setting with a few “ringers” (Hackman, Forrest, Williams, et al.) from his cast.
As a modern filmmaker, Coppola must face up to the representation or simulation of the most sacredly intimate moments of existence. Orson Welles once declared in an interview that he could never believe in the emotional truth of sex or prayer on the screen because in his mind’s eye he could see the production crews hovering about a supposedly private experience. Such an attitude may sound quaintly mid-Victorian today, not only because of changing mores but also because of changing technologies. As Marshall McLuhan once suggested, did we ever really believe that we could string up so much electric wire without connecting some of it to our innermost souls?
I believe that Coppola is very aware of these gray areas in the intellectual-industrial complex of which he is now such a prominent part. But he has not broken through the barriers of his own self-consciousness in The Conversation. Hence, Harry Caul, who enters the movie as a mere extra, eventually emerges as a massive enigma, I settling down neither as the audience’s Everyman, nor as the artist’s ego. As he tears apart his apartment in search of that elusive electronic bug, I thought of the furniture-smashing frenzy in Citizen Kane, of the red-wall-into-firewood demolition derby in The Red Desert, of the systematic stripping down of living-room surroundings in Life Upside Down. Indeed, I thought of the entire age of absurdism with all the gloom and doom and Weltschmerz.
Still, it struck me that art has never been absolved of its obligation to be more illuminating than life. Even as an ignoble, ignominious descendant of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, the guilt-ridden Harry Caul remains a private eye from whom the audience expects a full accounting. Unfortunately, Coppola has not thought through the plot twists of The Conversation on their own terms. He has instead retreated into the inner space of the supposedly suffering artist as if there were nothing more to be done with the outer space of this wicked world. Nonetheless, he has posed a mystery for the audience, and all mysteries have the property of awakening an atavistic yearning for a rational order in the universe. Movies themselves are so inquisitive and indiscreet that the moviegoer becomes irrevocably implicated in the prying and probing of the medium. Once the projector starts turning it is too late to turn back with the prim attitude that certain secrets are best left unseen and unheard. The truth must be known, and it had better make sense. The Conversation could have used a great deal more vulgar curiosity about its own plot and its own characters. Coppola’s good taste has been misplaced on this occasion, but he remains one of our most promising new filmmakers nonetheless.

The Village Voice, June 6, 1974

RELATED POSTS

Leave A Comment