The Conversation

THE CONVERSATION—“Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep” sayeth the classic Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth”, grooving awareness into transistor radios back in 1966. By 1974, with a sweaty paranoid in the White House, it was time-on-target for anxiety and suspicion on the big screen. Just when murky mischief was splayed across headlines and TV via Watergate, corruption, deception and disillusion colored the slate of some of the years biggest hits and featured in some less commercially successful but critically acclaimed offerings. Eavesdrop this methodical meditation, written, produced & directed by Francis Ford Coppola. *

Renowned in his select and sketchy circle of snoops, surveillance master ‘Harry Caul’ (Gene Hackman) and his team are on assignment from “the Director” to film and record the meetings and conversations of a seemingly innocuous young couple. As the work gets closer to completion, elements in it spur Harry’s guilt over past jobs, and his already bare-bones personal life suffers. Celebrating with fellow buggers (prominently John Cazale and Allen Garfield) doesn’t assuage his building unease, especially when a tryst with a ‘party favor’ (aced by Elizabeth MacRae) reinforces his isolation. The twist ending is superlative.

Elizabeth MacRae as ‘Meredith’. “Too good to be true” usually is.

Inspired by Blow-up, Coppola actually worked up the script years earlier: the timing for its eventual release was fortuitous. Though its downbeat nature and meticulous pacing didn’t draw a wide audience, the $4,400,000 gross covered the minimal cost factor of $1,600,000. Critics blessed it, and Oscar nominations went up for Best Picture, Screenplay and Sound (the masterful Walter Murch).

Besides giving Hackman a plum role, Coppola brought along several of the players from American Graffiti (which he produced); Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, George Meyer and Al Nalbandian.

With Michael Higgins, Frederic Forrest, Teri Garr and Robert Shields. Robert Duvall has an unbilled bit as “the Director.” 113 minutes.

Ford, 32, looking closer to 20

* As this intimate, low-budget film was being edited, Coppola was working on a battleship, his epic, generations spanning The Godfather Part II, the year’s 9th most-seen film. Corruption from high and low in ’74 with The Godfather Part II (9th), Chinatown (17th), The Trial Of Billy Jack (28th) and even Duke’s McQ (37th). Not as audience-seizing, The Conversation trailed at 69th, a few spots lower than the excellent nail-biter The Parallax View. Whether or not you are transfixed or impatient with the drama in Coppola’s capture of electronic-assisted angst, it’s  certainly one of those movies that can lay claim to being ahead of the curve, grimly foreshadowing the time we now inhabit, where the only privacy you have left is inside your head.

Hackman revisited the ‘can’t escape it’ territory 24 years later, as an Enemy Of The State.

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