Streaming Suggestion: “The Conversation”

Monday marked the 40th Anniversary of what I have long considered Francis Ford Coppola’s best film (“to date,” Joseph says hopefully). A film which I now happily share with y’all: The Conversation is currently available from NETFLIX INSTANT.

I realize that’s a bit of a controversial claim, given that the legendary Godfathers feature prominently in his filmography. But I can’t help myself. It’s far-and-away my favorite. And has been for years, since long before that opinion was cool. (What do you mean, “It’s still not cool?” How dare you!)

Francis Ford Coppola follows The Godfather with this intimate film about an audio surveillance expert who faces a moral quandary when he suspects that a couple whose conversation he’s been hired to record will be murdered.

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This isn’t just FFC’s best film, though. It’s also Gene Hackman’s best film. His performance as Harry Caul is subtle, subdued, and excruciatingly painful. Spiraling into madness is a tried-and-true trope, but this particular version remains one of my very favorite examples — a directly result of Coppola’s script, which gives us a fascinating (yet entirely plausible) account of the forces behind Caul’s descent. Just like last week’s recommendation, the seeds of the film’s finale are planted well in advance. Waiting for them to burst into demoralizing bloom is agonizing.

So, yeah, the ending’s a bit of a  downer — sort of like a punch in the gut is a “bit of a downer.” But I could talk about that last scene for hours. It’s the perfect ending to the (And by “I could talk about it for hours,” I mean “I have absolutely talked about the last scene for hours and hours and hours. Yep.” Also, not for kids.)

Two quick technical notes:

The film’s opening shot — a single, 3-minute-long zoom — is amazing, and the perfect visual introduction to the film. The legendary Haskell Wexler was responsible for that bravura shot, though he was quickly and legendarily fired from the project. Yet despite its high degree of difficulty, it gets almost drowned in the sea of amazing sound that serves as the opening sequence’s auditory backbone. And that brings me to the second technical thing I’d like to note: Walter Murch.

OK, that’s not a thing, that’s a person. But he and his mind-blowing sound work are absolutely essential to the film’s success. The opening “sound montage” remains one of the best examples of audio storytelling I’ve ever heard (if not quite my favorite). And the way it’s reused is …well, spectacular. But I can’t say more, BECAUSE! (Oh, and David Shire’s Satie-esque score is perfect. At first, it seems calm and straight-forward, even pleasant. But the longer it goes, the stranger it gets. Nothing changes, really. But the cumulative effect is amazing. Also, those last three sentences are entirely applicable to the film, as well.)

Looking for the perfect double-feature? Try pairing this with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, which is a great and unsettling film. It’s not streaming presently, so you might try a library or two…unless you want to own it. If the latter’s true, you can try ITUNES($), AMAZON($), or YOUTUBE($). Or VUDU($), which I’ve never used. (Looking for a tangentially-connected-but-not-perfect double-feature? Enemy of the State’s Edward Lyle, played by Gene Hackman, is a pretty direct reference to Harry Caul. Not as interesting, and a whole lot louder. But still, all three films are growing more relevant/prescient as we go along. Talk about timely. And prophetic.)

“I’m not afraid of death. …but I am afraid of murder.”

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.


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