News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: The Conversation

This week’s movie was Francis Ford Coppola’s New Hollywood landmark The Conversation, one of the three films produced under the auspices of The Director’s Company, a partnership formed by hot-off-celebrated-hits Coppola (The Godfather), William Friedkin (The French Connection), and Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show). The arrangement with Paramount Pictures – modest budgets in exchange for complete creative freedom – was the big brass ring of the New Hollywood, akin to the deal that BBS reached with Columbia that resulted in films like Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. But despite the fact that Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon was a hit and The Conversation justly showered with accolades (it took home the Palme d'Or at the 1974 Cannes film festival), the partnership fizzled. Bogdanovich’s next contribution, Daisy Miller, flopped, and Friedkin – we will mention this forever – hated The Conversation, and never provided a film for the Director’s Company, preferring instead, like Johnny Rocco in Key Largo, to reach for more.  And so there are nine seventies films fewer in the world than there might have been.

But we’ll always have The ConversationWe have discussed this one before, but as our admiration for this film is unbounded, we’ll sing its praises (at least) one more time here, with a particular emphasis on its seventies-ness. The cast was a virtual who’s-who of the period, with great performances from top to bottom (but note the especially fine turns by Gene Hackman, John Cazale, and the seething, preternaturally intense Allen Garfield). A deeply personal project for writer-producer-director Coppola, as a New Hollywood movie should be, the film was also crafted by Walter Murch, prominently credited as “Supervising Editor” and for “Sound Montage & Re-Recording.” (It was Murch, for example, who repositioned Harry’s discovery of the crucial element of the tape immediately after his confrontation with Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), and immediately before his trip to the confessional. That is cinematic storytelling.)  And the decision to leave the last half of the film virtually dialogue-free also adds to The Conversation’s increasing dream-like quality, intensifying suspense, and extraordinarily emotional power.  

The Conversation is also a seventies film in that it favors character over plot.  Which is a bit of an understatement in this case, as this is a movie which sees little need to explain itself (things I still don’t know: who knew about the tapes; what really happened in the hotel room (we see it as Harry imagined it, not as it happened); and of course, the unresolved puzzle at the end, a direct descendant from Blow-Up, one of the inspirations for this film).  But that’s ok—we’ve got something better on our hands, one that hits the sweet spot of the New Hollywood: a flawed protagonist in crisis. And what a crisis, as Harry, at odds with his loyal assistant, abandoned by his girlfriend (Teri Garr), and stalked by the operatives of a shady corporation, finds himself working on a case that reminds him of the great professional trauma of his career. On the job, Harry repeatedly insists “I don’t care what they’re talking about . . . all I want is a nice fat recording,” and that he is “in no way responsible” for the consequences of the surveillance he so brilliantly performs. Or so he says.  But three years previously his work led to the deaths of innocents, an event which sent him fleeing clear across the continent, leaving New York City and setting up shop in San Francisco, where no one had heard of the horrifying tabloid tale.

But he didn’t run far enough—he could not escape the New Hollywood, a movement that renounced not just the myth of the heroic investigator, but rejected the very possibility of the investigation.  And so Harry Caul shares a stage with similarly situated protagonists from those despairing years, like Harry Moseby (Hackman again) in Night Moves and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown.  With Gittes, he is desperate “not to make the same mistake twice.” But like Moseby (and Gittes), Harry got it all wrong: he “didn’t see it,” and so “played something else, and he lost.”  Really, he never had a chance.  Forget it, Harry, it’s the seventies film.


All Harry Wants is a "nice, fat recording" (Gene Hackman with John Cazale)



"I don't have any secrets" (Hackman with Teri Garr)



"Those tapes are dangerous Mr. Caul" (And Harrison Ford Really Wants Them)



Confronted by Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield)


Harry Has to Know

Harry Has to Know


Better off not Knowing

Maybe He Was Better Off Not Knowing . . .