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All things movies – news, reviews, and podcasts

Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Conversation

Hi everyone,

As the title of this blog may have given away, I’m going to be talking about a subject that’s near and dear to my heart: movies! I’m not going to restrict my choices too much; I’m hoping to cover a fairly broad spectrum as I pile up the blog entries. So one week might be about a film noir from the 1950s, and the next week could be about an indie from the 1990s. I’ll be talking about movies I liked, movies I didn’t like, obscure stuff, mainstream stuff, upcoming stuff, new stuff, old stuff… In short, I basically like all kinds of movies, so hopefully there’ll be something for everyone here to talk about.

Anyways, I could probably go on for awhile about what I hope to get done with this blog, but rather than blather on, I’ll just show you. So with that, it’s time to get to this week’s movie.

This week I’ll be looking at “The Conversation,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola is an incredibly talented director. He was the man behind both “The Godfather” (which, truthfully, I feel is a bit overrated, but perhaps we’ll save that for another post) and “Apocalypse Now.” Most people have seen these movies, or have at the very least heard of them at some point. Few people, however, know about “The Conversation.” This is really a huge shame, because it is an excellent movie.

I guess this is a good spot to interject something about spoilers. As a rule, I hate spoilers. Nothing makes me madder than some blabbermouth ruining the ending of a film I’ve yet to see. So with that in mind, I’ll try my best to avoid giving away major plot twists and such in my discussions. If I am going to say something that I think gives too much away for those that haven’t seen the movie, I’ll make sure I put “SPOILER ALERT” or something similar as a warning.

Alright, now that I’ve covered my ass, back to “The Conversation.” It was released in 1974, and it stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who specializes in bugging. As the film opens, we see a busy public park from high above. Gradually, we zoom in and spot Caul at ground level, looking for someone. We see that he’s not alone, and in fact he has an entire team working with him. Some of them are at ground level, and some are looking down on the crowd through zoom lenses. We see the crowd from several perspectives, each one representing a different team member. I thought this was a really clever way of introducing the audience to the world of surveillance. It illustrated the point that people can spy on you from a short distance, or from quite far away.

After awhile we see the targets of all this attention, a young couple. We see and hear the couple primarily through the eyes and ears of the team. Their conversation (which is, in fact, the titular conversation) is rather garbled. This again puts us in the shoes of the surveillance team as we try to pick out what details we can. Various team members isolate a few words here or there, and most of what comes through seems innocent. But the couple is nervous… About what, we don’t know.

After a few minutes, the conversation ends, and Caul returns to his lab to piece together the tapes. Thanks to having multiple recordings of the conversation from his different team members, Caul is able to work quickly to decipher most of what is said. He finds himself stuck on a particular phrase for awhile, but he performs some audio wizardry, and through the use of various filters he is able to make out the missing words: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Caul is shocked. He resists in turning the tapes over to his employer, a man referred to only as “The Director” (played by Robert Duvall). He’s worried that the tapes will be used to hurt the couple. In the end, The Director gets the tapes anyway. Caul feels compelled to do something, so when he learns that The Director is meeting with the couple, he decides to spy on that meeting, perhaps hoping to help the couple if they need him.

What happens from there is truly startling. It’s set up with a brilliant shot that lasts about a minute. The Director is in a hotel room with the young couple, and they are arguing. Rather than place the camera in that room, Coppola puts it in the next room, so all we see is a simple shot of Caul as he eavesdrops on the meeting. The camera starts out showing his entire body as he crouches next to the wall, then slowly zooms in on his face as things start to go wrong next door. The choice to put the camera away from the action and focus instead on Caul’s reaction really helped to show how powerless he was. He must have gone to the meeting with some clue as to what would happen, but in the end all he could do was sit and listen.

Now you might be thinking I’ve given a lot away here, particularly after that whole thing I said about hating spoilers, but I can honestly tell you there’s actually a ton of stuff I haven’t said, particularly about the final 20 minutes of the film (let’s just say I’ll never look at bathrooms the same way again). So hopefully I’ve given you a bit of an overview and highlighted some scenes I thought were noteworthy.

That’s it for this entry, see you next time.