Is there any doubt that Francis Ford Coppola is the greatest American filmmaker of the 1970s?
“The Godfather.” “The Conversation.” “The Godfather: Part II.” “Apocalypse Now.” Any two of those movies would put him in the running with Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and others as the decade’s top director. But that four-film run, not to mention the screenwriting Oscar he collected for “Patton” and the producing nomination for “American Graffiti,” puts him on another level.
The TCM Classic Film Festival honors Coppola at 10:30 a.m. April 29 with a handprint and footprint ceremony in the historic forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre (a.k.a. Grauman’s Chinese) in Hollywood. Coppola will sit for an interview at 2:15 p.m. in the theater. That will be followed by a screening of his 1974 psychological thriller, “The Conversation,” starring Gene Hackman.
Less frequently talked about today than Coppola’s other ‘70s films, “The Conversation” did not go without acclaim. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the National Board of Review awarded it best picture, director and actor, and the film received Academy Award nominations for best picture (losing to “Godfather II”), original screenplay and for Walter Murch and Art Rochester’s sound.
The protagonist, Harry Caul, is a San Francisco surveillance expert who focuses on capturing the highest quality recordings rather than the content of what people are saying. At $15,000 a day, Harry’s services are not cheap, so the stakes are usually high. Sometime in Harry’s past, people died as a result of his work, and he carries a lot of guilt. Big Catholic guilt.
Harry is a quiet, intensely private man. He walks out on girlfriend Teri Garr because she asks too many personal questions, like where he works and if he lives alone. He tells people he doesn’t have a telephone — he does but keeps it hidden in a desk drawer. Played with coiled, repressed stillness by Hackman, you can be pretty sure Harry has an ulcer.
Coppola unspools the story sparingly. The film opens in Union Square, with Harry and his team (John Cazale and Michael Higgins) tracking an anxious young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest). The recordings made that day will haunt Harry as he meticulously manipulates them to improve their integrity while failing to follow his own dictum of ignoring what the subjects are saying. Those exchanges become as embedded in our brains as they are in Harry’s and leave us just as vulnerable.
Sound is such a crucial part of “The Conversation” that Coppola has referred to Murch as an author of the picture. Sandwiched between the first two “Godfather” films, Coppola had to turn much of the post-production over to Murch, who is also credited as supervising editor.
Murch’s sound design is like an aural lasagna, each layer of diegetic and recorded audio baked into the next, and serves both the narrative and thematic aspects of the film. The greatest benefit of seeing a movie in a theater is usually visual, but with “The Conversation,” hearing it on a first-rate sound system will serve to put you only deeper inside Harry’s head.
The film is tautly drawn, yet Coppola nevertheless allows himself small flourishes that echo the jazz Harry plays on a sax while listening to records in his unadorned apartment. The supporting cast, including Allen Garfield as a brash competitor of Harry’s and Elizabeth MacRae as the type of woman who parties with strange men after a convention, is first-rate; plus, you get Robert Duvall in a cameo and Harrison Ford as a sneering assistant. Such was the Coppola universe of the time.
John Singleton convo
“Boyz N the Hood” cannot be 25 years old, but it is. And filmmaker John Singleton cannot be just two years shy of 50, but he is.
That is to say, it seems like just yesterday that Singleton’s bold debut earned him Academy Award nominations for writing and directing and grossed more than $50 million at the box office. At 23, Singleton became both the youngest person ever nominated for a directing Oscar, and the first African American. Starring baby-faced Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube, the film chronicles the life of an Inglewood youth who goes to live in the Crenshaw district with his father (Laurence Fishburne) and must navigate the gang life raging around him.
In the interim, Singleton directed films including “Shaft” (2000), “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003) and “Four Brothers” (2005). More recently, he has been behind the camera for episodes of TV’s “Empire” and “American Crime Story.” He also has two series of his own in the offing, “Rebel” on BET and “Snowfall” on FX.
Singleton joins film scholar Donald Bogle at 6 p.m. April 29 at the TCL Chinese 6 for a conversation before a screening of “Boyz N the Hood.”