Examined Lives

Francis Ford Coppola’s new film, The Conversation, isn’t about Watergate but its timing is so lucky and on target that it touches that public nerve in a way no political “message” picture could. Its spools of surveillance tape seem to unwind off the covers of Time and Newsweek and its battery of sophisticated bugging devices practically footnotes the Senate hearings. Coppola started thinking about a wiretapping thriller as long ago as 1966 (a first draft of the screenplay was completed in 1969), but the events that have overtaken it don’t diminish the material–they give it a special resonance.

The Conversation is about a form of contemporary dementia: the selffulfilling paranoia of men who tinker with gadgets and lives in the shadows of pulp fantasy. They consume privacy like a paper shredder-crazies on ready alert, hooked on some mad eternal vigilance. It’s been a long time since the Bond pictures charmed the audience with flashy technological wonders. We’ve learned to be more suspicious now, and the technology in The Conversation isn’t wonderful at all–it’s cold and complicated and overwhelming. Like the machines in 2001, the gadgets here are more sophisticated than the men who use them, and they carry a nightmarish relentlessness. They can turn against you at the flick of a switch and never let go. The characters in The Conversation all operate in a system of betrayal (a betrayal of the audience is built into the plot as well), but the tangled webs they weave are now electronic and more frightening. Coppola says he wanted to make a “modern horror film” and he has. The Conversation is, among other things, a murder story, but the horror lies elsewhere, in the over-theshoulder glances and whisperings of a world built of lies.

The conversation itself takes place in San Francisco’s Union Square as a couple strolls past the mimes, jazz groups, and winos. Long-range recording devices (the kind that look like rifles) are picking up their talk from a department store roof and an office window (a third is planted inside a Christmas present), and since the conversation has the guarded banality of an illicit lovers’ meeting, it all looks like a scene from the messier side of the private eye business–the “divorce work” Raymond Chandler never allowed Marlowe to get mixed up in.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who monitors the operation from a parked van, has the rumpled-suit seediness of someone who blends into a crowd; he’s a professional creep. “I don’t care what they’re talking about,” he tells a bored assistant. “All I want is a nice fat recording.” He has pushed disinterestedness to a compulsive way of life. Behind the three door locks and the alarm mechanism, his apartment is so impersonal that he seems to have erased his life, as if it were so much tape. He’s a stranger to his mistress, even lies to her about his age, opens her door “as if you’re going to catch me at something.” The best self-protection is to have nothing left to protect. His employers are smooth corporate thugs with offices of smoked glass and plastic chairs. His colleagues swap old spy capers the way they would football plays. His assistant leafs through Security World magazine and looks forward to meeting a wiretapper from Detroit, “the one who told Chrysler that Cadillac was getting rid of its fins. It was a while ago, but it was a big thing at the time.”

None of this is played for laughs, not even the national convention of “surveillance and security technicians,” where stalls of shiny new spy equipment (Silent Knight Security Systems, Spectre Security Products) are set up like some macabre trade fair in 1984. It’s too late to be satirical about this–the craziness has already surfaced in real life–so Coppola simply records the event, and the effect is suffocating, piledup evidence of disturbance.

The Conversation has a properly somber look about it, as if the frames were edged in shadows, and it produces tension by implosion– the whole film seems to move in from the opening shots of the rooftop spies to an ever-narrowing circle of anxiety. The conversation is repeated throughout the early part of the film as Harry eliminates extraneous noise from the tapes, and although we get more information with each play, the effect is that of narrowing range, honing in on a target. “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” we finally hear the lover say, and the rest seems harmless smokescreen. Like the murder photograph in Blow-Up, the conversation endangers everybody. If Harry delivers the tape, he’s putting a gun in the husband’s hands.

The Conversation is first a thriller, and Coppola never loses sight of it–he doesn’t sacrifice suspense for statement or linger on windowdressing effects. The plot twists and jolts with the relentless logic of a world turned inside out. “I’m not responsible. I’m in no way responsible,” Harry tells a priest in the confessional, but his technician’s indifference has snapped, and events seem to snatch the control buttons from his fingers. People follow him. A marginal trust is betrayed. When he talks unguardedly to a blond party girl, he’s being recorded as a practical joke. Everything is wired. Even his machines deceive–they record but can’t interpret, and a crime hinges on a single nuance of language. And because he can’t step beyond voyeurism to action, he victimizes himself: when he eavesdrops on the murder itself, he knows too much. “We’ll be listening to you,” a telephone voice says, with a promise of eternal surveillance. Coppola had such enormous success with The Godfather that The Conversation will seem a small picture by comparison–the scope has been internalized, like space in a Kafka dream–but it has the same kind of narrative instinct and intelligence. It’s melodrama, but it’s not cheap and the mood it sets up and sustains flows off the screen. A final scene, with Harry tearing up his apartment to find the hidden bugs, isn’t believable in “real” terms but it’s so thematically right that we go with it to the point of abstraction. The tension Coppola builds up isn’t witty or amusing, as in, say, Hitchcock, and it seems all the more intolerable because it’s so singleminded. There are no distractions, no side trips to open space or characters to identify with; it’s like being locked in the hopeless mania of a vendetta. This underlying vision is so strong that it carries the rough spots when Coppola overplays his hand: a dream sequence (which isn’t bad, but dream sequences rarely do much good), some annoying blasts on the soundtrack, and a corporate executive with a Doberman pinscher. There isn’t time to be bothered by off moments; the film just buries them as it goes along. And what stays with us are not single moments or even sequences of plot, but some vague shapeless sense of unease, as if we were seeing not a ghoulish prophecy of the future, but an oblique, crazy fragment of today, Mission Impossible for real.

Maximilian Schell’s The Pedestrian is also concerned with responsibility and the guilt of distancing oneself from events, but it takes on questions so large that one wonders how anyone could answer them. There’s something vigorous in this headlong approach, however–the sheer ambition of the film is interesting–and The Pedestrian has moments of sensitivity and quiet beauty. Schell, who both wrote and directed the film (and plays a cameo role), got the idea from a report of a woman who survived a Nazi massacre. He wondered what would happen if the woman encountered one of the soldiers on a tram in modern Germany. This scene, slightly altered, is still in the movie, but the focus of the story has shifted to the soldier, a now aging German industrialist who has been a moral bystander in his own life. He refuses to confront his mistress when he suspects she’s hiding another lover, walks through his house like a favored guest in a hotel, comforts himself playing grandfather to his heir on museum excursions. Then the staff of tabloid reporters uncover his involvement in the massacre of a Greek village, track down the survivor as confirmation, and expose him as a war criminal. His lawyer argues that as one of the architects of the economic miracle, his country owes him gratitude, not condemnation, but the old man himself no longer believes it—his life has been mediocre and it crumbles.

The Pedestrian is an extremely personal movie: it’s stylish and occasionally arty and it looks as if it were made with a surplus of good intentions and conviction. Inevitably, it gets muddled when it tries to grab hold of something as complex and elusive as war guilt–one character says, “It’s not so simple anymore. Either we’re all equally guilty or equally innocent"–but its scenes of contemporary German life are often sharp and interesting. The film seems to move by set pieces, and some of these are extraordinary: a group of old ladies (including Elisabeth Bergner and Peggy Ashcroft) sitting around tea and cakes, the last naughty remnants of European gentility; a science museum with gleaming demonstration machines that crackle with electricity. The Pedestrian won the Golden Globe Award in Hollywood this year for Best Foreign Picture; it’s not that, but it’s worth seeing. Finally, there’s Mame, a movie so terrible that it numbs the audience into a kind of stunned embarrassment. The only question it raises is how it ever got released. This isn’t the first time Hollywood has thrown $10 million down the drain, but surely somebody could have taken a look at the early rushes and called a halt before things got out of hand. This is the fifth round for Auntie Mame – following the book, the play, the movie, the musical–but the material still isn’t as tired as the people who flog it to death here. Mame has none of the redeeming qualities that often seep into the worst musicals: the choreography is tacky, the clothes silly and ugly, and the sets dull and uninspired. The performances (Lucille Ball, Bea Arthur, and numerous others) are grotesque. All in all, a shameless exercise and a sad one.