Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Movie Ramble: The Conversation (1974)

You've of course heard of Westerns, Thrillers, Romantic Comedies, Satires, Dramas. You've also heard of Buddy Movies, Road Trip Movies, Quirky Indie Movies, and Cross-Genre Mashups. To these I'd like to add a sub- sub-genre: the Sensitive Voyeur Flick.

Far from making fun of these movies, I think they're actually some of my favorite films. Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is still my all-time number one. One of most engrossing movies in recent memory was "The Lives of Others" (2006), written and directed by a man with the most uber-German name in modern history: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. And now I've seen the film that undoubtedly influenced him, "The Conversation."

Haven't heard of "The Conversation"? I hadn't, and I can't imagine why. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola between Godfathers I and II. It stars Gene Hackman. It includes a corporate punky-looking Harrison Ford in a creepy supporting role. And it's a fantastic flick that adds weight to the idea that the '70s might just have been the true Golden Age of Film.

What these three films share is a particular kind of protagonist: the unhappy man who cruelly eavesdrops on other people until he suddenly begins to care about them. L.B. Geoffries is laid up in his Chelsea apartment, trying passive-aggressively to avoid the bounds of marriage, when he starts to wonder what happened to the neighbor's wife. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler spies for the East German Stasi when he starts to care about the welfare of a renegade writer he's supposed to send to prison. Harry Caul cleverly records a couple's conversation on a San Francisco square (for a client known Orwellianly as The Director), then tries to thwart the murder he suspects will happen based on the evidence he has unearthed.

Surprisingly, "The Conversation" is in many ways the most restrained of the three. Jimmy Stewart's character is actually a pretty happy-go-lucky photographer who stumbles into his voyeurism and uses it to discover his real love for Grace Kelley (what the hell took him so long?). Ulrich Muhe spends stoic hours with the headphones on, but his character transformation is actually fairly traditional.

Hackman's Harry Caul is hard to peg. He's stoic, of course. He's (fittingly) obsessed with his own privacy. But it's not exactly clear what causes his change. It's not that he falls in love with the woman in jeopardy. It's a larger raising of conscience and consciousness, climaxing in a unique way when he realizes that that he's now being spied on, and he destroys his own apartment in a futile attempt to find the bug.

All of these films work because thematically, they exist in a mirrors-upon-mirrors world in which voyeurs (we) watch other voyeurs. As the protagonists begin to care about their spy subjects, we begin to care about the voyeurs. And as our daily lives seem more and more to be exercises in a two-steps-removed human existence, these films resonate like never before.

7 comments:

Mike said...

Glad you finally got to see The Conversation. It's Coppola at his best, next to G-father films.

Michael Clayton also has that vibe going on: guy going about his job when he's sucked into a problem almost too big (and which nearly kills him), and too makes an amazing character transformation.

Another film for you to check out (albeit darker), is Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom." Pretty sure you can find it on Netflix. Could've been made by Hitchcock. Enjoy.

Marc Conklin said...

I still haven't seen Michael Clayton, but I think it's coming up on Netflix, after Darjeeling Ltd.

Kristen Gill said...

The Conversation is a great movie! I saw it in my high school "Art of Film" class and remember it well. About time I had a second viewing, though! Adding it to my Netflix list right away!

Marc Conklin said...

I've quickly learned that everybody knows this movie except me. How about the starring role by Cindy Williams of Laverne & Shirley fame?

fab4fan said...

Although I wish I were related to Grace Kelly, we share a last name with different spellings. (Glad to see you erred on the side of the extra "e," though; most people don't.)

Marc Conklin said...

Damn, I Googled the name and could swear that the "e" was correct and cited in IMDb. Oh well... consider it a complimentary Freudian spelling slip (a compliment to Grace, that is).

Mark R. Trost said...

The Conversation is a great film. And Rear Window is classic - you can't go wrong with Thelma Ritter. No one could throw away a line like she could. And was anyone ever more stunning than Grace Kelly? Talk about putting flesh on a noun. But here's my question. James Stewart ... jimmy stewart ... I can't think of another celebrity that went two names. Ok sure John Wayne or Duke. But he was The Duke. James wasn't The Jimmy. Although I'd cast a yea for her being The Grace. Anyway, I'm with you man - Rear Window is a classic. Great blog - I like reading you.