The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola

I decided to add film to this collection of writings and begin with Francis Ford Coppola's relatively unknown classic, 1974's The Conversation, with Gene Hackman, Cindy Williams (yes, from Laverne & Shirley), and Harrison Ford. Coming off the success of the first Godfather, Coppola surprisingly made a relatively low-budget film with, at the time, mostly unknown actors. Gene Hackman later reprised this role in 1998's Enemy of the State, loosely a 90s remake.

The movie centers around Harry Caul (Hackman) a surveillance man in San Francisco and his growing interest in a conversation he tapes between a woman (Williams) and a man (Frederic Forrest) she is apparently having an affair with. Their conversation takes place in a crowded downtown park at lunchtime, chosen for its level of anonymity and safety. The fact they are able to be recorded by Harry, (with two directional mics, located in adjacent buildings, and a man following with a mic in a shopping bag) gives the film a strong underlying theme of the vague boundary between the private and public realms. Harry Caul's isolated and workaholic existence complicates the issue as his expertise imbues a paranoia deep in his psyche.

We travel with Harry as he compiles the three recordings into a final, clean copy for his client, the woman's husband. Although the techniques (reel-to-reel tapes) are outdated by recent standards, these scenes are fascinating as more and more of the conversation becomes apparent. Harry's interest in the couple grows as he encounters each, on separate occasions, at the office building where he is supposed to deliver the final tape, peaking when he realizes the couple believes they are in danger. His obsession leads to action, unusual in Harry's typical detachment from his client's business, and the film's climax.

Although not as visually impressive as The Godfather, Coppola finds an appropriate means to express the paranoia of the main character, and hence the whole film. The constrictive and isolated nature of interiors dictates that most scenes take place indoors, with the exception of the park (which reverses our usual senses). Through a combination of cinematography, slowly revealing the conversation, and manipulation of the viewer Coppola is able to surprise us, a supreme goal for any storyteller.