Thursday, 3 September 2015

"The Conversation," Francis Ford Coppola, Film Review

"The Conversation," Francis Ford Coppola, Film Review

It's a pleasure to watch a review a great film under the control of a great director after the past few weeks' reviews of dodgy mid-table IMDB Top 250 films.  One of Coppola's strengths is his ability to show the messy complexity and sophistication of modern city life.  He did it in The Godfather two years earlier, and he does it here in The Conversation.


The surveillance theme of The Conversation resonates nicely with recent news events in the UK and US.  Many ideas from the film have proved to be just as true today:  the use of nerdy social misfit superbrains to spy on normal society; the inevitable temptation of the operators to abuse their power (nicely illustrated here when two girls pucker up to the mirrored windows of the surveillance van while the operators inside leer at and photograph them); the ridiculous lengths the operators will go to in order to get what they want – achieving what might be reasonably assumed as impossible by throwing resources and technology at the problem.

Review continues below...

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Throughout the film, the music is great and nicely woven in.  The piazza music, characters humming tunes, the main operator, Gene Hackman's Caul, playing along with jazz records in his apartment on his saxophone.

Shot after shot is beautiful and thoughtfully done, the complexity of city buildings, underground carpark columns, office structures all adding gorgeous complexity to the frame.  Also, shots are often obscured (by curtains etc) to echo with the surveillance theme.

Gene Hackman pulls off a nice social misfit performance.  The arrogance of his character comes over.  He trashes his flat at the end looking for a bug, yet the tap was probably produced by technology he'd seen earlier at a rival's stand at a trade show, which transforms telephones into bug devices.  He dismissed the technology on display as rubbish, preferring his own handmade devices.

The stripped flat seems to represent Caul's stripped psyche by the end of the film, with old childhood wallpaper exposed and rough floorboards revealed under the thin flashy veneer.
And his destruction of a religious figurine in his search for the bug seems to characterize some wider betrayal of his religious beliefs caused by his work.

His religious beliefs in turn seem linked to a childhood near-death experience we hear about in a dream sequence.

It's this kind of character complexity that rewards repeated viewings and which gives a sense of real life spilling messily through the artificial structure of a film script.

Harrison Ford's performance as a gay assistant to the sinister Director who commissioned Caul's surveillance is another gutsy onscreen effort.

Everyone has gone the extra mile in this film to produce outstanding acting, cinematography, music, script, plot and sets – they're all great.

Perhaps it's too much misdirection to have Cindy Williams' character, Ann, one half of the couple under surveillance, as such a saintly sweetheart in the recorded tapes.  She begs a quarter from her partner for a busker and then she gets upset at the sight of a homeless man.  It's a bit much that she turns out to be a calculating killer for money.

And on the subject of women characters, all three of the main women are whores, which gives a misogynistic undertone to the film.  Caul pays his girlfriend's rent.  The showgirl who seduces Caul to steal his tapes is a hooker (it's a nice touch that she earlier tells Caul not to worry about the ethics of his work and to treat it like turning a trick), and even saintly Ann has married her balding older husband presumably for his money and ultimately she plots his murder with her real lover.

Personal Score: 9/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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