Unfortunately only one movie this week aside from Black Swan, which I'm still recovered from. After being wowed by Apocalypse Now, I bumped another Coppola film to the top of my Netflix quenue (you're welcome), and it's the lone subject of this post.
The Conversation (1974) dir. Francis Ford Coppola:
This under-seen entry in Coppola's filmography practically defines the term "slow burner." For so much of the journey through its 1 hr. 53 min run time, it borders on uneventful. After the movie opens with a surveillance team, led by Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), tracking a couple in a San Francisco square, the incident gradually fades to the background. Coppola takes us through the less exciting parts of Harry's life, such as a drunken night of partying with coworkers, or attending a surveillance tech fair. We also get a brief but telling look at how Harry life is dominated by both his profession and his Catholic faith (complete with an extra dose of guilt), as well as his flashes of loneliness and paranoia.
Though some of the scenes could be slightly trimmed, Coppola's steady hand and Gene Hackman's increasingly layered turn help hold your attention through what feels like a somewhat uneventful story. Hackman, so many light years ahead of his (first) Oscar-winning turn in The French Connection, is at his best here. What starts as a rather simple performance gradually adds tiny detail after tiny detail, and as the character becomes more complex, the film becomes better. The other star of the film comes from the post production side: Walter Murch and Art Rochester's superb sound design, which uses a number of traditional and odd effects to really detail the scenes.
And then in the last act, when the plot finally comes back, the movie takes itself up a notch in both execution and power. And yet it does this without ever betraying the two previous acts, even with the initially jarring dream sequence. Thanks to Coppola's direction, Hackman's quietly compelling lead turn, and the superb sound that plays such a key role, The Conversation takes its place in the pantheon of great paranoia thrillers, all while avoiding genre tropes or the need to constantly artificially inflate suspense.