17 November 2011

THE CONVERSATION (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974, US)

One of many startling images from the film. (Blu-ray screengrab taken from the DVDBeaver website)

Coppola’s masterpiece is a film drenched in 1970s paranoia. The Conversation is one of my favourite American films. I first watched the film on Mark Cousin’s Moviedrome series on BBC2 and was surprised that Coppola had directed it. Revisiting the film on Blu-ray has made me appreciate not only the chilling political subtext but also experience yet again Coppola’s ability to merge the aesthetics of European cinema, especially the work of Antonioni and Bertolucci, with a wider ideological context. The use of architecture (spaces and places) and particularly the fixation with transparency (Harry’s transparent raincoat offers a lesson in creative prop choices) and loneliness is echoed throughout the choice framing of Harry Caul against glass, concrete and steel structures. Not only does such an aesthetic of architectural alienation echo the existential landscapes of Antonioni’s films but also it hits upon a thematic to do with corporate hegemony, which is still prescient today. Coppola’s film is referred to as his most personal work and the intense focus on a singular character gives the narrative a psychological complexity that was often witnessed in many of the great American films of the 1970s; both Chinatown and Taxi Driver come to mind in their study of the existential and lonely anti-hero. For Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, privacy is everything and defines him as an individual. With the fallout of the Watergate Scandal and the subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon, the film uses the erosion of Harry Caul’s privacy to comment on what had become a corrupt and dishonest American establishment that was capable of violating the trust of its people. However, even we were separate the events of the 1970s from the ideological content of the film, Coppola’s film would still occupy a unique position in American cinema of that era, largely because it is an exercise in remarkable sound design and film editing. The Conversation is a film that Coppola must share with his long time collaborator Walter Murch.


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