As the summer winds down, this week’s recommended film to add to your conspiracy/political paranoia watch list is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), which for a long time was possibly his most underrated film. (As a bonus, there are two additional recommendations that go along with this one. They’re listed at the end of this post.)
The Conversation stars Gene Hackman, who seemed to be in every other movie back in the 70s. It’s one of his best performances. Also appearing are John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, and Robert Duvall.
Hackman’s character is Harry Caul, a small-time surveillance-company operator who mostly works on dull and routine domestic cases and such. It’s a living, but the job has clearly taken a psychological toll. One day, Caul is hired to follow a couple, and at first, it does not seem to be much more than another routine assignment. As it turns out, however, something on Caul’s secret audio-recording of the couple doesn’t seem right. Things get murkier and much darker and more mysterious from there, and as the rest of the film recounts.
The Conversation was released in the Watergate era, which gave its theme of secret recording, wiretaps, and other dubious surveillance a special relevance. It’s not like a lot of conspiracy films that have very overt political themes, but it has a similar psychological approach. It also has a lot of the moral ambiguity that is associated with the genre. It’s arguably among the most distinctive and best conspiracy-themed films from any era.
As Copolla himself has said, The Conversation draws some inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s earlier film, Blow-up (1966). (Copolla talks about this in an NPR interview available here.) Blow-up involves photography, rather than audio recording, and its plot differs in a number of ways from Copolla’s film. Yet, it has at its core something that many conspiracy- and political paranoia films have: foreboding situations in which the characters have only a partial idea of what is going on. It also features an excellent cast, including Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, Jane Birkin, Tsai Chin, Peter Bowles, and others. It’s well worth watching in its own right.
Another film in a similar vein that is also worth mentioning is Brian De Palma’s 1981 film Blow-Out, which yes, has a title that is confusingly similar to the Antonioni film. This one stars John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and Dennis Franz, and I think it’s one of De Palma’s better films. It obviously owes a lot to Blow-up–and to a lesser extent The Conversation–but as a political thriller it works very well on its own. It also has more conventional conspiracy-theory angles than the earlier movies, which makes it an attractive choice for the film buff looking for films with that theme.