Update 2018: I know Coppola’s film is famous for its sound, but there’s an indescribably elegant moment in the middle of the film that not only encapsulates The Conversation but sums up the American New Wave. When Hackman’s character witnesses what he believes to be a murder after a drawn-out waiting game, a bloody hand lashes out at the frame, the film graphically matches to Hackman’s hand rising in terror, and the rest of a scene which had so elegantly wound-up its suspense in perfect continuity style now unwinds itself into a pit of abjection, the continuity of the editing ripping to shreds as if the film is scratching at its own celluloid in itchy paranoia. Hackman returns into his hotel, his fears clarified, but he can not ensconce himself in the safe haven of continuity cinema anymore. The film practically undoing itself before our eyes, it’s an incredible visual, and an even more incredible visual metaphor for the US in the ’70s.
Francis Ford Coppola arguably had a more sterling streak than any American director, or any director bar nation, throughout the 1970s. Partially, this is because he brought only four films to screen during that decade, but this argument elides the quality of those films. 1972 brought the most famous, the romantic, classicist The Godfather which moved with rhapsodic, soulful flourishes, and its 1974 sequel only went further by adding on narrative heft to the point where it functioned less as a film and more as American opera of capitalism and criminality.
Not content to release one of the grandest statements of all time on the American condition without also almost killing himself in the process, Coppola then had to set out to do exactly that on a four year trek that nearly claimed his sanity and the lives of many crew members. The production of Apocalypse Now famously became the story of the film, replicating the jungle-fueled haze of the narrative as Coppola and company became lost in disease, destruction, and their desire to put to rest the ultimate American story of the ’70s and to create and perfect the very of idea of opulently grimy filmmaking in the process. The voodoo of location worked its magic on them a bit too well, but the location was not the jungles of the Phillipines; it was the jungles of the mind. That mind was one of the most committed, perfectionist directors of the ’70s, a mind that almost got the better of him but one which took America to task in a way few other New Wave directors even attempted.
It’s fitting then that Francis Ford Coppola’s best film is the one that deals most directly with the world of the mind, the work which most readily sets as its goal to create the internal world of its main character in the external visual medium of film. It is by far the shortest of the four films, but for this reason it feels the most tangible and heightened to a fever-pitch. Yes, that’s right. The Conversation is Francis Ford Coppola’s best film, and it is one of the towering, tyrannical high points of ’70s filmmaking produced by any director.
What’s more: the reasons for its superiority are multitudinous. While all of his other films nearly strangle themselves in an ever-growing ball of opulence and occasionally seem a tad too careful in their pre-planned movements, The Conversation is never anything less than completely and entirely of its moment. It is Coppola’s most present film, not so much feeling like an embalmed ode to the recently deceased past as an alert, transitory gasp of the here and now. His other films were a bit too finicky, like they were trying to bridge the frigid, uncaring, analytic world of Kubrick with the lusty viscera of Scorsese without a perfect understanding of what made either tick. All of these are great films, even masterpieces, but the one that feels the most exhausting and immediate is fittingly not his dissection of America’s recent past, but an exploration of the film’s present of 1974.
What do I mean by present? The Conversation was released in 1974, and it feels like it could have only seen life in this year. A story about a surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who spies on people for a living, The Conversation details his increasing paranoia and ever-growing conviction that he himself is a target of a larger scheme and a victim of voyeurism. 1974, meanwhile, was the year of the Nixon trial, America’s most infamous case of big budget, high profile spying from one of our most paranoid presidents. But it wasn’t a case of lightning in a bottle; instead, the Nixon trial was merely one of the notable nadirs of a time defined largely by the fact that no single political scandal or reason to lose hope was truly singular or alone. Paranoia and cynicism was the zeitgeist of the times, as the ’70s seemed to get worse for America with each passing year and specific instances of loss were replaced with the wholesale, ever-present fact of loss as the only truth around. Considering this, and considering what Coppola does to visualize this feeling, you can practically hear his film’s heart thud and thump and its veins pulse to the bursting point.
Make no mistake, this sense of “ever-present” loss “as the only truth” is the core calling card of The Conversation and the key factor which separates the film from its many often indistinguishable paranoia thriller brethren in the 1970s. While those films were about specific scandals and unsuspecting men and women who found themselves involved in paranoia spikes with known, quantifiable causes, The Conversation replaces the ebb and flow of spikes with a numbing sense of workaday mundanity. For Caul, surveillance and paranoia are his life, and his slow descent into madness is not tied to a specific scandal or cover-up. The film makes gestures toward a government scandal for propriety’s sake, but the film isn’t particularly invested in this scandal or its validity. The mystery isn’t so much whether Caul is right but whether his mind will survive his quest to prove he is right.
It is thus the elemental fact of paranoia that drives the film and drags it forward kicking and screaming. In the long caverns of silence, the heart-beat edits, Coppola’s quavering camera, and on Hackman’s sweaty brow, all we know is paranoia infusing everyday life until everyday life becomes paranoia itself. Not a specified paranoia nor one that can be easily quenched or ended, but the sheer fact of it swarming all around and weighing down everything below it until nothing, not even the air or the harsh greys of the gravel are safe.
Coppola’s absolute genius is to tie this overwhelming sense of paranoia to a perfection of visual and aural artistry the likes of which is notable and singular even by the high standards of the American New Wave. Rare is the film that every camera movement, every stutter, and every square inch of the film grain is so cumulative and essential to the film’s pressing fatalistic feeling. None of the technique is ornamental; it is all deeply and entirely fit to the emotions Coppola wishes to convey so much so that they become the narrative and the characters themselves.
Yet none of the film’s technique feels didactic or overly-calculated; everything feels fresh and animalistic, with Coppola’s camera not so much swaying as shaking from the shivers. His dense, sinister framing always traps Hackman in broad daylight and hints at the watchers in the background (and in the opening tracking shot, Coppola displays the carnivalesque and anarchic pageantry of urban life perfectly). He casually masters noir imagery to conjure a jungle gym of antagonistic shadows all around Hackman’s flabby human form. The sound design turns improvisational jazz into an instrument of the freewheeling chaos of modern life, combating the discordant warbles of artificial sound equipment that forms part of the sound blanket laying over the film and always addressing the feeling of nervous artifice and theater in everyday life. No film better conveys the feeling that if you just turned down the wrong street the seams of the world’s visage would come undone and you’d find the invisible force looking over your shoulder. And Hackman’s performance is an intimate, breathless rush of fleshy goodness. No one did schlubby, sweaty confusion and inability to pronounce full lines with determination like Gene Hackman in lost everyman mode, and he is absolutely perfect for a story of a deeply passive, voyeuristic man who does not so much act as wait and worry.
The Conversation is not simply the most perfect recreation of its decade, but the most prescient film of its time for today. By stripping back and cutting specifics, it achieves a bone dry chill that appears as much timeless as of its time. It is a film of the ’70s, but it is not about the ’70s. It is not, like most of the most dangerous ’70s films, about the day-to-day moments of life choking you. It tackles something far more insidious and sinister: society forcing you to choke yourself.
The Conversation is the nagging thought of a malevolent world, a critique of the agents of society (the voyeurs, the surveillance men) privatized and rendered everyday citizens to the point where they become all of us, to where we thirst and crave for surveillance and voyeurism and push for observing others until we can no longer bat away the creeping sensation that we are not being watched as vigorously we watch others. It is not a film about a government spying on people, but of a man who spies on others turned into a self-policing spy whose greatest victim is himself. He is a man who plans out and mills over all of his actions not because some specific entity is watching him, but because someone might be watching him and he can’t prove otherwise. It is a filmic panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s idea of a circular prison with one guard at the center who might be watching any prisoner at any point in time but didn’t need to be, because each prisoner, knowing that he or she might be being watched, would watch and punish himself. It is a panting, penetrating gulp of a film that never ends. More petrifyingly, it is convinced that it never can.