The Conversation (1974) Review

It’s the final day of Coppola Week at Cinema Parrot Disco & I’ll be finishing with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. I’ve also reviewed his movie The Outsiders and his daughter Sofia’s movies The Bling Ring & Marie Antoinette. Yesterday, I ranked their films in a list of My Top Ten Coppola Movies.

Now let’s talk about The Conversation, which is one that doesn’t seem to get mentioned that much but is really quite good…

The Conversation (1974)

Directed & Written by Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Michael Higgins, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, Teri Garr

Plot Synopsis: (via IMDB)
A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple he is spying on will be murdered.

My Opinion:

First of all, let’s face it: I suck at writing “movie reviews”. 😉 I’ll remain spoiler free for anyone who hasn’t seen this movie but for those who have, you’re much better off reading this article HERE than my ramblings below. It’s Francis Ford Coppola being interviewed by fellow filmmaker Brian De Palma about the making of The Conversation. It’s a really interesting read considering it’s a conversation between two respected directors. Damn – Francis Ford Coppola doesn’t totally love Alfred Hitchcock movies, though!

I can see where Hitchcock comparisons were made in the above article as the plot of this movie certainly has a Hitchcock feel to it, which is probably why I enjoyed the story since I love Hitchcock’s films. As also pointed out in that article, its story is somewhat similar to the 1966 film Blow-Up but has a conversation being listened to over & over again that takes on new meaning instead of a photograph as in that film? Maybe – I did see Blow-Up a very long time ago but remember very little now. I should watch it again!

The Conversation is very good and I even prefer it to Apocalypse Now but I’ll admit that I also found it a little slow & dated. The opening scene was absolutely brilliant, in which Cindy “Shirley” Williams & the man in the above picture (not the stupid mime – the other guy) are being “listened to” & recorded by surveillance expert Gene Hackman as they walk around a loud & crowded Union Square in San Francisco.

One of the biggest strengths of this film is, surprisingly, Gene Hackman as the surveillance expert who has been hired to spy on this couple but becomes increasingly concerned with what he fears the outcome will be as a previous surveillance job resulted in people being murdered. I don’t mean to be rude about Hackman – it’s just that he’s one of these old male actors who has been around for years but I’ve never really “noticed” him all that much. He’s great in this role, though! His job has led him to be extremely secretive, paranoid, and obsessed with his own privacy. Or perhaps he was this way to begin with, which is how he ended up in a job which would result in him living a very lonely life? Either way, it means he’s unable to form any close relationships as he doesn’t trust anyone, which we see in the way he interacts with colleagues and especially with his lover (played by Teri Garr). Oh! Oh!! And I read that, basically, Hackman is playing this same character again in Enemy Of The State with Will Smith?? I mean, not the actual same character but one very similar. I wonder if that was intentional? I guess I need to watch that one again as well as Blow-Up! Anyway: Bravo to Hackman in this film.

You know who else is in this movie? Harrison Ford!!! It makes for a nice little American Graffiti connection with Cindy Williams. But he doesn’t have a huge role. Luckily. Because, um, his acting is a little dodgy… I mean, it was still very early in his career so who cares if his acting was a little “off” – the dude is Indiana Jones & Han Freaking Solo! Look at him – so damn handsome:

Summary:

I know I haven’t seen all of Francis Ford Coppola’s films but The Conversation is a very good piece of filmmaking that I suppose gets somewhat unfairly ignored as it came out in between The Godfather & The Godfather: Part II. It’s slow & subtle and not some “grand epic” like those but the mystery involving the couple Hackman is spying on had me intrigued and Hackman’s performance deserves special recognition. I forgot to mention during my review yet another movie this one reminded me of: the absolutely brilliant German film The Lives Of Others. The Conversation isn’t quite as good as that one nor as good as its Hitchcock comparisons but I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who likes a good “mystery thriller” with a great central performance. Don’t let my score slightly put you off as I rate mainly according to my own personal enjoyment & this one did drag a bit in the middle. If I was basing this only on worthiness, I’d give The Conversation a slightly higher rating. 

My Rating: 7/10

Since I couldn’t help but think of Laverne & Shirley anytime Cindy Williams was on the screen, here’s one of the many excellent clips from my beloved Wayne’s World. Zang! 😉

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Apocalypse Now (1979) IMDB Top 250 Guest Review

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For today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review, we have J James of JJames Reviews (oddly enough!). He writes excellent reviews and watches LOADS of films. I can’t keep up with him! I’m forever apologizing to people on WordPress as I fall so behind on my blog reading & J James is certainly one of those people always receiving my apologies! But when I do catch up on his blog, I know I’ll always get reviews of all the most current theatrical releases as well as the classics.

There are still some movies up for grabs if anyone wants to do a guest IMDB Top 250 review. You can find the list HERE.

Now over to J James to hear his thoughts on Apocalypse Now, IMDB rank 35 out of 250…

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Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed By: Frances Ford Coppola

Written By: John Milius and Frances Ford Coppola

Starring
Martin Sheen
Marlon Brando
Frederic Forrest
Laurence Fishburne
Sam Bottoms
Albert Hall
Robert Duvall
Dennis Hopper
Harrison Ford
Scott Glenn

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

Adapted from: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Plot Synopsis

After returning to Vietnam for his second tour of duty, special-forces trained Captain Benjamin Willard’s (Martin Sheen) superiors order him to track and terminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a formerly decorated US soldier who has begun leading a cult that unilaterally executes those they call enemy. With the aid of Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) and his crew of navy personnel, Willard travels the Nung River en route to Kurtz’ compound, all the while growing more disenfranchised with the war. And also more psychologically unsettled.

My Opinion

Frances Ford Coppola’s epic treatise on the Vietnam War needs little introduction, if only because those unfamiliar with the film’s content probably know the story of its creation, a fact that makes this film as infamous as it is respected.

To be sure, it is a quality picture, even if it is not perfect.

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More than most films, Apocalypse Now is theme-based. Good thing that Coppola and Writer John Milius effectively portray the senselessness of war and the fragility of sanity. Between Willard’s mission, Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) unseemly obsession with surfing, Captain Colby’s (Scott Glenn) men mindlessly firing their weapons into uninvestigated space, Clean (Laurence Fishburne) shooting civilians, and soldiers responding badly to a USO show, Coppola shows how war creates bad decisions. In his hands, war becomes descent into madness, whether it is Kurtz’ explosive variety, Kilgore’s obliviousness or Colby’s soldiers’ emotional catatonia.

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Perhaps most impressively, Coppola’s filmmaking technique, especially the audio, helps us understand Willard’s descent. Early in the film, the sound design is conventional. We hear the sounds of the characters’ surroundings as they shout to be heard, but as the movie progresses, the audio becomes increasingly psychedelic, until, eventually, Willard’s environment is almost silenced by trippy and disturbing rhythmic noise. Apocalypse Now won an Oscar for Sound Design, and it is no wonder why.

Sound is not the only technical element that proves successful. So does the movie’s cinematography. Few motion pictures use darkness and (almost paradoxically) color to blind both the viewer and the characters, to produce uneasy nervousness.

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In other words, Apocalypse Now is very well made. It is also well acted. Robert Duvall shines as a crazed combat commander, as does Dennis Hopper as a hyperactive photojournalist convinced of Kurtz’ greatness. Of course, Marlon Brando is disturbingly intelligent as the malicious Kurtz, while Martin Sheen admirably anchors the movie.

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All of which is to say that Coppola’s epic is thematically and technically successful. Too bad it is narratively flawed. Most of Willard’s descent, for example, is told through dry voice over, not shown through action or other character’s dialogue, a direct result of Willard’s status as observer in his own story. He spends most of the movie watching other people’s insanity, instead of doing things himself. Similarly, we frequently hear about Kurtz’ charisma, most especially from the Photo Journalist (Hopper), but we do not see it. We see Kurtz’ intelligence and ruthlessness, of course, but not the likability that causes his followers to treat him as their god. Unfortunately, telling not showing continues throughout much of the film’s narrative.

Including with many of the side characters, none of which are well developed. Each has one trait, something Willard often describes in voice over. Ditto that for the consequences to many actions, including Willard’s choice to kill a wounded woman. He tells us that his companions now feel differently about him, but we don’t see their behavior change, really.

Finally, Apocalypse Now has zero notable female characters. While understandable given context, the absence of femininity makes the picture too macho.

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To be sure, none of the narrative flaws ruin Coppola’s film, but they do keep us at an emotional distance from the story. We are unable to immerse in the characters’ psychology and experience, a fact that means we never truly feel their struggle.

Conclusion

Apocalypse Now is a masterfully made thematic film that accomplishes its objectives. Even still, additional focus on narrative and character development would have produced a more emotional, and thereby more moving, final product.

Final Score: 7/10