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He’d kill us if he got the chance.

In between the first two Godfather films, several years before he succumbed to the malarial megalomania of APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), noted vintner Francis Ford Coppola wrote, produced and directed a perfectly pitched, highly personal film, a movie closer in scale and spirit to the work then being turned out by the easy-riding raging bulls of so-called “New Hollywood,” like Robert Altman, say, or Bob Rafelson. That film was THE CONVERSATION, and it is arguably — indisputably, I’d argue — the high-water mark of a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam cinema of paranoia that both reflected and magnified the myriad insecurities of the American mid-’70s. (Other exemplary entries in the genre are Sydney Pollack‘s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) and Alan Pakula‘s THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974).)

But while it is beautifully, almost Platonically, representative of its own time, it also speaks with understated urgency to our own. THE CONVERSATION is a film about security, about being watched (and watching), and above all about listening and being listened to. A part of me thinks you’re best off watching this in a way that lets you hear it on headphones, because on some level what we have here is an auditory variation on BLOW-UP (1966). Harry Caul (Gene Hackman, haunted, haggard and proud) is a superstar in the world of surveillance, specializing in sound — he taps his own wires, devises his own mutant mics, tape recorders, and other gizmos, and is as legendary for his discretion as he is for getting results. At home he takes off his pants and blows sax lines over pre-recorded be-bop played back through a pristine tube amp and exquisite speakers.

The film begins, magisterially, with Harry and his small crew working their latest job, tailing and taping a man and woman as they walk in endless circles around a noisy, nattering park in lunch-hour San Francisco, talking nervously about — to the extent that we (and Harry) can make it out — all sorts of things, such as the woman’s husband, maybe, and what they are reminded of whenever they see a homeless person sleeping on a bench. But it seems that every time Harry hears the tape again — in his lab, in his dreams — he hears it slightly differently: benign phrases become fearful, or sinister, or else merely, like the rest of his life, incoherent, irreducible to a definitive utterance. He’d kill us if he got the chance. Someone is in danger, but who isn’t? This conversation swallows its own tail, picks its own lock, and resigns itself to a permanent solo.

6/5 – 2PM
113 minutes

Central Library in Copley Square
Rabb Lecture Hall
700 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116

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