The Conversation (1974)

2017 #10
Francis Ford Coppola | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

The Conversation

In the mind of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, the concept for The Conversation started out as a puzzle, a story that used repetition to make the audience reconsider what they thought they knew — “not like Rashomon where you present it in different ways each time,” Coppola told Brian De Palma (in this interview, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the genesis and making of The Conversation). “Let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context. In other words, as the film goes along, the audience goes with it because you are constantly giving them the same lines they’ve already heard, yet as they learn a little bit more about the situation they will interpret things differently.” That element is unquestionably still in the film — it propels its plot and generates its twist — but Coppola was a very character-driven filmmaker, and so he couldn’t help but flesh out the man who was listening to those lines over and over again.

That man is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional eavesdropper — people pay him to record what other people are saying in private. When Coppola conceived the film, this was just an interesting world to play around in. By the time it was produced and released, Watergate had recently happened and the film could not have been more timely. Nonetheless, the end result is not merely an espionage mystery, but also a character study about what kind of man would perform this work. So we do see how Harry goes about his job, but these scenes are almost as much about telling us who this man is (methodical, thorough, clever, inventive) as they are about furthering the plot (which, naturally, they’re central to).

Here he just looks like a toilet repair man...

It’s also about how the job affects him. One part of that is paranoia — an obvious reaction when you think about it. Harry has multiple locks on apartment door, and one major early sequence is based around him trying to establish how a kindly neighbour had got in to leave him a gift — a seemingly innocuous thing, but the potential it holds has him terrified. Come the end of the film, such behaviour takes on a maddening new dimension. But perhaps an even bigger problem is conscience. Harry lies to himself about the nature of his work, because once upon a time a trio of deaths resulted from it. He says they weren’t his fault because he was just doing his job, but he still clearly carries the guilt of it, and that is what ultimately leads him into a new predicament. Not that that ends well either. Yes, it all comes to a very ’70s conclusion: bleak.

Coppola’s original vision for the film, as a puzzle for the viewer to be solved, survives into the final cut, though anyone watching it just to solve the riddle may find it slow going at times. That’s because Coppola’s other filmmaking instinct, to explore character, has naturally taken hold, and so the movie is as much about the bugger as the bugging. And so it’s very much two things hand in hand: the mystery of what’s going on in the recording, and a study of the psychology of a man who does this for a living. It’s all the richer for being both.

5 out of 5

The Conversation was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

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The Godfather (1972)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #39

An offer you can’t refuse.

Country: USA
Language: English, Italian & Latin
Runtime: 175 minutes
BBFC: X (cut, 1972) | 18 (1987) | 15 (2008)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 24th March 1972
UK Release: 18th August 1972
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, Apocalypse Now)
Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface)
James Caan (Rollerball, Misery)
Robert Duvall (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Network)

Director
Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now)

Screenwriters
Mario Puzo (Earthquake, Superman)
Francis Ford Coppola (The Great Gatsby, The Conversation)

Based on
The Godfather, a novel by Mario Puzo.

The Story
1945: Michael takes his girlfriend to his sister’s wedding, where she’s introduced to his family, including his father, Vito — the Don of New York’s Corleone crime family. Over the next decade, decisions made by the family lead to escalating gang war, and just as he thought he was out, Michael is pulled in to the family business.

Our Hero
A good college kid who dropped out to fight in World War 2, Michael Corleone has distanced himself from his family’s criminal activities… until a series of events find him drawn inescapably in.

Our Villain
According to the AFI, Michael is the 11th most iconic villain in film history. Of course, he winds up a Mafia Don, so he’s hardly a good guy in the traditional sense, but we’re surely on his side, at least throughout this film. Even in that context, I think you could argue the titular Godfather himself, Don Corleone, is the villain: his one son who tried to escape the life of crime is pulled into it after a string of poor choices and unfortunate incidents land the family in trouble.

Best Supporting Character
James Caan is Vito’s hot-headed eldest son, Sonny, heir apparent to the crime empire. Unfortunately, that very hot-headedness is liable to leave the position open…

Memorable Quote
“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” — Clemenza

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” — Don Corleone
(According to the AFI, this is the second best movie quote ever.)

Memorable Scene
The opening is the perfect scene-setter for the movie. On the day of his daughter’s wedding, Don Corleone hears requests for favours. One man asks for retribution against men who assaulted his daughter, which he has been denied by the legal system. Corleone questions why the man didn’t come straight to him, but ultimately grants the grovelling father his wish. Here, the film has established its pace, its tone, and themes of family, respect, and the important point that these criminals think of themselves as the honourable ones.

Write the Theme Tune…
Italian composer Nino Rota composed the majority of the soundtrack (Carmine Coppola contributed some music), including the famous main theme. Apparently a Paramount executive described Rota’s score as too “highbrow” and urged it be ditched, but Coppola won out. Considering the music’s subsequent fame and familiarity, I think we know who was right.

Technical Wizardry
The dark but amber-tinged cinematography by Gordon Willis is gorgeous. It’s stuff like this that high definition was made for.

Making of
Cinematographer Gordon Willis insisted that every shot represent a point of view, placing his camera around 4ft off the ground and keeping the angle flat. Coppola persuaded him to do a single aerial shot, in the scene when Don Corleone is gunned down, by telling Willis that the angle represented God’s perspective.

There’s a first time for everything…
According to IMDb, “Coppola turned in an initial director’s cut running 126 minutes. Paramount production chief Robert Evans rejected this version and demanded a longer cut with more scenes about the family. The final release version was nearly 50 minutes longer”. Studios love extended cuts for DVD these days, but choosing to take up more time in theatres? Not bloody likely.

Next time…
Debate rages as to whether sequel The Godfather Part II is an even better film. Either way, it was the first sequel to win Best Picture (and still one of only two). In 1977, Coppola edited the two films together in chronological order, along with some deleted scenes, to form The Godfather Saga miniseries, aka The Godfather: A Novel for Television. (Although it’s not been released on home media since VHS, it has been repeated on TV in HD, meaning copies can be… acquired.) Over a decade later, Coppola turned his duology into a trilogy with The Godfather Part III. Although generally reviled whenever it’s spoken about, it has a not-bad 7.6 on IMDb and was also nominated for Best Picture, as well as six other Oscars. (Part III was later added to the chronological cut to make The Godfather Trilogy: 1901-1980.)

Awards
3 Oscars (Picture, Actor (Marlon Brando), Adapted Screenplay)
8 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino), Director, Costume Design, Sound, Editing, Score)
1 BAFTA (Music)
4 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Marlon Brando), Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Costume Design, Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Al Pacino))

What the Critics Said
“It seems that the first question everyone asks about The Godfather is concerned with Marlon Brando’s interpretation of the title role. That is the way the movie has been programmed and promoted: Brando, Brando, Brando, and more Brando. The word from advance hush-hush screenings was wow all caps and exclamation point. […] So to answer belatedly the first question everyone asks about The Godfather: Brando gives an excellent performance as Don Vito Corleone [however,] though Brando’s star presence dominates every scene in which he appears, the part itself is relatively small, and there are other people who are equally good with considerably less strain, among them the extraordinarily versatile James Caan as the hot-headed, ill-fated Sonny Corleone, Richard Castellano as the jovially gruesome Clemenza, and Robert Duvall as Don Vito Corleone’s non-Italian consigliere, Tom Hagen.” — Tony Ortega, The Village Voice

What One Single Critic Said
“I don’t see how any gifted actor could have done less than Brando does here. His resident power, his sheer innate force, has rarely seemed weaker. […] Al Pacino, as Brando’s heir, rattles around in a part too demanding for him. James Caan is OK as his older brother. The surprisingly rotten score by Nino Rota contains a quotation from “Manhattan Serenade” as a plane lands in Los Angeles. Francis Ford Coppola, the director and co-adapter (with Mario Puzo), has saved all his limited ingenuity for the shootings and stranglings, which are among the most vicious I can remember on film. The print of the picture showed to the New York press had very washed-out colors.” — Stanley Kauffmann, New Republic (the one and only critical review on Rotten Tomatoes)

Score: 99%

What the Public Say
“Few people could have anticipated during the course of adapting Mario Puzo’s best-seller The Godfather to the big screen that it would become a lasting legacy in cinema. Forty-plus years have passed since its theatrical release, yet it stands the test of time as not only one of the greatest depictions of a crime family, but as one of the best films ever made. […] That lasting popularity isn’t a fluke; the Godfather films stand the test of time because these aren’t just movies, they’re cultural touchstones.” — Colin Biggs, Movie Mezzanine

Verdict

Has it really been almost eight years since the IMDb Top 250’s unshakeable #1 was usurped? The Godfather sat pretty at the top of that user-voted ranking for the best part of nine years, its balance between critically-acclaimed filmmaking finesse and quotable gangster machinations almost perfectly calibrated for that website’s prevailing demographic. (It’s since settled at #2, hardly a failure.) It’s not just IMDb users, though: The Godfather places 6th on the latest iteration of The 1,000 Greatest Films, the as-near-to-definitive-as-you-can-get poll-of-polls compilation. It’s for the same reasons, really: The Godfather combines thriller elements and striking violence with a strong understanding of character and a believable exploration of organised crime, a world as fascinating as it is morally repulsive, for a whole that is as artistically accomplished as it is palatable to the mainstream.

Sky Movies Select are showing the complete Godfather trilogy today from 4:30pm.

Next… you know the name, you know the number — it’s #40.

Apocalypse Now Redux (1979/2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #3

Francis Ford Coppola presents an all new version of his groundbreaking masterpiece.

Original Title: Apocalypse Now (obviously)

Country: USA
Language: English, French & Vietnamese
Runtime: 202 minutes (theatrical/DVD) | 196 minutes (Blu-ray)*
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

* This appears to be due to the Blu-ray removing the end credits, but the number of disc reviewers who haven’t even noticed the discrepancy is remarkable.

Original Release: 15th August 1979 (USA)
UK Release: 19th December 1979
Redux Release: 11th May 2001 (Cannes) | 23rd November 2001 (UK)
First Seen: DVD, c.2002

Stars
Martin Sheen (Badlands, The Departed)
Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather)
Robert Duvall (THX 1138, The Godfather)
Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, Speed)

Director
Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation)

Screenwriters
Francis Ford Coppola (Patton, The Godfather Part II)
John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn)

Based on
Heart of Darkness (loosely), a novella by Joseph Conrad.

The Story
In the middle of the Vietnam war, burnt out soldier Captain Willard is given a top-secret mission: locate US Army Colonel Kurtz, who’s gone renegade and is leading his own personal army in unauthorised attacks, and terminate his command. Travelling up the river on a Navy patrol boat, its crew unaware of Willard’s goal, they see snapshots of the war and the elements of human nature it exposes — the very horrors that drove Kurtz insane…

Our Hero
Martin Sheen is Captain Benjamin Willard — not exactly a hero, but certainly the narrator. Already mentally wracked by his experiences in Vietnam, he may not be the best person to send after another officer similarly mentally afflicted…

Our Villain
Marlon Brando — top billed, only on screen for minutes, and a nightmare to work with… but another performance for the ages as the rambling, insane, but insightful, Colonel Kurtz.

Best Supporting Character
A Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Oscar nomination rewarded Robert Duvall for his turn as the commander of a helicopter unit, Lt. Col. Kilgore. More than that, though, was true immortality in the form of the movie’s most famous quote: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Memorable Quote
Colonel Lucas: “When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.”
Willard: “Terminate the Colonel?”
General Corman: “He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.”
Civilian: “Terminate, with extreme prejudice.”

Memorable Scene
The sound of unseen helicopters circle. The Doors playing. A pretty forest… which explodes into flame, under the barrage of a napalm attack. One of the most iconic opening scenes.

Technical Wizardry
Apocalypse Now was one of the films that pioneered the creation of surround sound, now the industry standard. Nowhere is it better exemplified than in that opening scene, with the helicopters circling the room.

Making of
“My movie is not about Vietnam, my movie is Vietnam.” Apocalypse Now was a notoriously troubled shoot, for all kinds of reasons, from an uncooperative Brando, to Martin Sheen’s heart attack, to the cast and crew’s copious drug use… Originally scheduled to shoot for six weeks, it ended up filming for 16 months, and took nearly three years to edit.

Awards
The original version won 2 Oscars and 2 BAFTAs, and was nominated for 6 more Oscars and 7 more BAFTAs. In 2002, the Redux was nominated for 7 World Stunt Awards.

What the Critics Said
“this might be the most audience-friendly art-house film ever made, and that’s where the sheer majesty of Coppola’s daredevil balancing act comes into true focus. Coppola’s art is stripped of pretension; what lies on screen may as well be Coppola’s — and probably several other peoples’ — heart, laid bare for all to see, somehow expressed through arguably the most populist of all mediums. It may be messy, but it’s also vivaciously alive.” — Rob Humanick, Slant

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“The most critically acclaimed movie of 2001 was made 22 years ago… The new material isn’t entirely necessary, and some may find it excessive… But Redux’s virtues far outweigh its flaws. Apocalypse Now in any version remains one of the richest, most extravagant moviegoing experiences of my life.” — Jeffrey Overstreet, Looking Closer

Verdict

The first (and, indeed, last) time I watched Apocalypse Now was shortly after the Redux version had been released, when Francis Ford Coppola was busy proclaiming it was the only version that would be made available ever again. That didn’t last, of course. Adding some 49 minutes of footage to the praised theatrical version, Redux divides viewers and critics on whether the extensions make a classic even better or just dilute it. If there’s a consensus, it’s that in either version this is a great movie. I’ve never got round to the original cut to compare for myself, so it’s the longer one that makes my list. My favourite quote about it comes from Danny Boyle: “It’s imperfect; which every film should be.”

#4 will be… the 13th.

New York Stories (1989)

2007 #117
Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola & Martin Scorsese | 119 mins | DVD | 15 / PG

New York StoriesAnthology of three shorts, connected only by the New York setting (which, incidentally, may as well be anywhere in all but the last segment).

Scorsese’s Life Lessons opens the film, a tale of an artist and his love for his younger assistant. It’s an alright little drama. Next is Coppola’s dire Life Without Zoe, concerned with an irritating rich little brat and her irritating rich little brat friends (none of whom can act). Mercifully the shortest piece, but its very existence is lamentable. Finally, Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks drags the quality up. It may largely be typical Allen fare (see my Annie Hall review), but it’s quite funny and the fantastical twist halfway through is brilliantly bizarre.

As a whole, then, an unsurprisingly mixed bag.

3 out of 5

The segment Life Without Zoe featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2007, which can be read in full here.

2007 | Weeks 46-48

Welcome to the second most film-packed entry ever! Why has this come to be so?

I’ve had a little bit of a theme season (one might say) these past few weeks, so I’ve been waiting for those films to appear in a single entry; plus there are other films watched in between, making the list even longer.

So, what was the theme? Well, being the dedicated student that I am, I’ve watched all the suggested viewing for a seminar in which my group had to pose the questions. The seminar was on “Urban Rhythms”… but in film-viewing terms that translates to four Scorseses, four Woody Allens, and an anthology featuring shorts by both of them and Francis Ford Coppola (plus a fifth Scorsese that wasn’t on the list but was on TV). Such respectable viewing!

Throw in another four films and this is the most film-packed entry since the seven-week, fifteen-film behemoth that was the first entry! And it makes it to only one film less in under half the time. Well blimey. Best get on with it then…


#113 On the Town

#114 Bringing Out the Dead

#115 Annie Hall

#116 Wild at Heart

#117 New York Stories

#118 Play Time

#119 Manhattan

#120 Hellboy: Director’s Cut

#121 The King of Comedy

#122 Taxi Driver

#123 Goodfellas

#124 Manhattan Murder Mystery

#125 Bullets Over Broadway

#126 Mean Streets