July 25, 2010
The Conversation (1974) is the slowly-gripping, bleak study of electronic surveillance and threat of new technologies that is examined through the private, internalized life of a lonely and detached expert 'bugger.' The conspiracy thriller is an effective character study that exposes the emerging conscience of an estranged eavesdropper whose work once resulted in the death of three people:
Harry Caul...an invader of privacy. The best in the business. He can record any conversation between two people anywhere. So far, three people are dead because of him.
The timely, low-budget cinematic masterpiece of the 1970s was written, produced and released by director Francis Ford Coppola before and during the Wategate era (and between his two Godfather films) - a time of heightened concern over the violation of civil liberties. Its claustrophobic themes of the destruction of privacy, alienation, guilt, voyeurism, justified paranoia, unprincipled corporate power and personal responsibility effectively responded to growing, ominous 20th century threats of eavesdropping to personal liberties.
The haunted surveillance expert, who pursues a case (seemingly of marital infidelity) that demonstrates his rarified human emotion, discovers that he has become the victim of his own technological profession and intrigue by film's end. [His last name, 'caul', literally means the protective, embryonic membrane that sometimes covers the head of a child at birth.]
After his phenomenal success with The Godfather (1972), Coppola's technically-brilliant, absorbing film was a critically-acclaimed work, but it failed at the box-office. In the 1974 Oscar competition, The Conversation competed for Best Picture with Coppola's own sequel The Godfather, Part II (1974). It had a total of three award nominations (without any wins): Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound (Walter Murch and Arthur Rochester). Notably, there were two against-type roles of young stars from Lucas' American Graffiti (1973): the philandering/murderous role of a socialite by Cindy Williams, and the duplicitous role of a corporate executive assistant by Harrison Ford.
The marvelous sound work on the film was deserving of an Oscar for Best Sound for its effective sound-mixing of interdependent elements: taped conversations, muffled voices, background and other mechanically-generated noises, musical/piano accompaniment (Harry Caul's signature theme) and other ambient sounds. The film has some similarities to director Michelangelo Antonioni's provocative Blow-Up (1966), Brian DePalma's thriller Blow Out (1981), Tony Scott's Enemy of the State (1998), and Gore Verbinski's The Ring (2002). And the bloody scene in the bathroom paid homage to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).