BBC iPlayer is currently screening The Conversation, a 1974 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman. I watcehd it and I loved it. First, I loved the look of the film. 1970s America. Big old cars, bashed up buses and massive street signs. Fantastic! Hackman is steady, understated and perfect for the role. Supporting actors include John Cazale and Harrison Ford.
The story centres around Harry, a repressed private detective who specialises in surveillance and wil get audio evidence for anyone who wants it. Harry is a loner, he lives alone and doesn’t get close to anyone. At the start when Harry is discussing the risk of fire in his apartment and the loss of his possessions, he says: “I don’t have anything personal, nothing of value”. Harry is also isolated in the film in that he is the only character completely drawn. Though we encounter other characters they are transitory and always from Harry’s perspective. The world is held at a distance.
Harry has trouble passing some audio tapes to his client and against his own rules he becomes interested in the content of the recordings. As he digs deeper, what he discovers scares him.
Cinematography is by Bill Butler. The opening scene of people moving around a San Francisco park shot using a long lens from a distance is very distinctive and sets the mood for the rest of the film; paranoia. In film making there is a bit of standard camera grammar when two people have a conversation. Usually the camera switches back and forth between two “Point Of View” (POV) shots as each person speaks. In The Conversation, when a girl tries to become intimate with Harry at a party, he is awkward and doesn’t know what to say. As they get closer the camera comes in close for these POV shots but rather than cutting back and forth, the camera starts from Harry’s POV and then swings around to her POV. Coppola repeats this several times. The camera always swings back so that it is Harry who is being observed.
The only exception to the fantastic cinematography is the oddly clichéd dream sequence but hey, this was the 70s! When talking to friends about The Conversation they praised the music (by David Shire) and I had to admit I couldn’t remember it at all. It occurred to me that this was either because it was boring and nondescript or because it was perfectly fitted to the mood of the film. Listening to the theme on youtube, I am glad to report it was the latter.
The ending is a bit strange for me but it is a film that makes you think. About Harry and the way his work has affected his life. About the plot and how much of it we know and how much we have merely inferred. In the end, much of what we believe to be the story is just guesswork. Like a detective we have fitted together a few peices of jigsaw and then guessed at the picture. Perhaps most of it was in Harry’s mind?