In what might have been an all-time peak in an individual filmmaker’s expression of creativity, Francis Ford Coppola had his name on two great movies released during the single year of 1974 — “The Godfather, Part II” and “The Conversation.”
Both movies were nominated for the best picture Oscar and Coppola took home the best director statue for his work on the Mafia epic (“The Godfather, Part II” was named best picture).
“The Conversation” was overshadowed by “The Godfather, Part II” both in terms of box-office and critical response, but over the past 37 years the film about a professional surveillance man (Gene Hackman) has taken its rightful place among the masterpieces of a decade that remains a peak period for American filmmaking.
“The Conversation” was released by a major studio — Paramount Pictures — but qualifies as an independent film because Coppola maintained complete control over the movie as part of his deal with a new group called The Director’s Company (formed by Coppola and his fellow directors William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich to produce their own movies — sadly the company failed within a few years of its creation).
Although “The Conversation” was released in 1974, Coppola had been talking about the premise in interviews for many years.
Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 art house hit, “Blow Up,” Coppola wanted to create a suspense story based on the recording of a seemingly innocuous event — the lunchtime conversation of two very ordinary-looking people (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest, above) wandering aimlessly through Union Square in San Franciso.
In “Blow Up,” a photographer takes some random shots of two lovers in a London park, but as he starts to develop and print the pictures he realizes something sinister was afoot. He might have evidence of a crime.
In “The Conversation,” professional surveillance man Harry Caul realizes as he assembles his surveillance tape for a rich client (Robert Duvall) that the lives of the two young people in the park might be in danger.
(Antonioni appeared to have been heavily influenced by the endless analysis of the 8mm film that Abraham Zapruder took on Nov. 22, 1963, of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination — different people saw different things in each of the frame enlargements.)
Both movies are about the limits of technology and the way that physical evidence can contain mutlple meanings depending on your perspective.
The timing of the release of “The Conversation” proved to be perfect because the country was in the middle of its Watergate fever fueled by the release of secret tapes that had been made in the Nixon White House. Bugging and covert surveillance were page one news and the blandly impersonal Hackman character looked like he could have worked for one of the Nixon “dirty tricks” squads.
Now that we live in a culture where many people don’t seem to care about privacy — indeed, they prefer to let it all hang out on Facebook and Twitter — the issues raised by “The Conversation” are more timely than ever.