The Conversation (1974)

the conversation

There is no sound between human beings that I cannot record.  Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired by the aide Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to a client known only as The Director to tail a young couple, Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams). Tracking the pair through San Francisco’s Union Square, Caul and his associate Stan (John Cazale) manage to record a cryptic conversation between them but there is interference on the tape.  He falls out with Stan over his offensive use of religious words because he is Catholic. Tormented by memories of a previous case when he was hired by a government agency that ended in three murders, Caul becomes obsessed with the resulting tapes, believing the couple are in danger, constantly piecing it together, playing it on a loop until the recordings are stolen following a one-night stand with a woman he meets at a party and he is forced to hand over the photographs to the mysterious Director (Robert Duvall) …. Since when are you here to be entertained? Literally tapping into contemporary fears about privacy and surveillance this tense paranoid conspiracy thriller is in the vanguard of early 70s films feeding on political sleaze. He’d kill us if he got the chance.  Hackman is superb as the enigmatic loner, suddenly plunged into an ethical crisis and never further away from someone than when he’s standing right next to them.  He has a failed private life with an on-off romance (with Teri Garr) but his decency is incisively writ in his love of playing jazz saxophone (the instrument closest to the human voice).  His ethics finally overwhelm his professional safeguarding, his vanity triggering the fatal misunderstanding that twists the narrative’s direction because he is trapped in the words he has eavesdropped upon.  How fascinating that Francis Ford Coppola chose to write, produce and direct this after being mired in the moral murk of The Godfather. When he had to start production on the sequel to that box office smash Walter Murch took over post-production on this and the result is a bona fide Seventies classic released just a few months before the resignation of Richard Nixon, forever linking this with Watergate but also perhaps alluding to the fate of film directors at the mercy of their entourage, their audience and a narrative they cannot control. The mystery is compounded by an intriguing piano score by David Shire.  We’ll be listening to you

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

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Oh, come on. If I’ve got to watch my language just because they let a few broads in, I’m going to quit. How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?  In New York City, a criminal gang disguised as Groucho Marx and led by the ruthless Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), all boarding the NYC subway at different stations, hijacks a subway car and threatens to start shooting one passenger per minute unless they receive a million dollars in cash from the city within an hour.  They separate the front car from the remainder of the train. On the other end of the line, crusty veteran transit policeman Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) has his hands full dealing with the mayor’s office and his hotheaded fellow cops, while also trying to deliver the ransom before the deadline expires and they start killing the 18 hostages … Look, I got my rights! This is my home! I just want a little peace and quiet. Now, just do me a favor, willya? Get the hell out of here!  Adapted by Peter Stone from the novel by John Godey (aka Morton Freedgood), this is one of the most sensational thrillers from the Seventies. Stone fillets and fries the story so that we have the bare bones, a race against time, two blistering characters in the shape of Mr Blue and Zachary, plus a cross-section of that fabled city’s great and good heightening the drama. With Martin Balsam as Green, Hector Elizondo as Grey and Earl Hindman as Brown, the fast-moving stage is set for internecine trouble. James Broderick as the conductor lends his customary gravitas while under pressure. Brilliantly written by Stone who was in his element here in the realm of identity, an ongoing theme throughout his oeuvre (he liked a pseudonym or three himself.) The action is perfectly paced and this literally doesn’t let up until the chaotic crew runs out of track. Screw the goddamn bastards. What do they expect for their thirty-five cents, to live forever? Made entirely without the assistance of the NYC Transit Authority and directed by Joseph Sargent with superlative photography by the great Owen Roizman and a stonking score by David Shire. Matthau is fantastic and his hangdog look was never so adeptly deployed. Shaw is equally good as the villain du jour.  Ladies and gentlemen, it might interest you to know that the City of New York has agreed to pay for your release

All the President’s Men (1976)

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Where’s the goddamn story? There’s a break in at the Watergate building and a laidback and very green Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is suspicious when the Cuban-American burglars appear in court with high-level representation. Boss Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) teams him up with chippy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to help out  – Bernstein writes better copy. Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not convinced that there’s much there but reluctantly gives the go-ahead.  With the help of a mysterious source, code-named Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. They encounter dirty tricks, ‘rat-fucking’ and an organisation known as CREEP. Follow the money Despite dire warnings about their safety, the duo follows the money all the way to the top… Part conspiracy thriller, part detective story, part newspaper flick, this only errs on the forgivably smug side that you’d expect if you’d been one of the hacks who’d (mistakenly) stumbled on an Oval Office-level conspiracy in the early 1970s. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoid trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View) this was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book by William Goldman in the first instance – or actually four – before it was rewritten by Bernstein and Nora Ephron and then by Pakula and Redford, albeit those claims have been debunked. It’s a film that shows you the process of how to get and write the story – the sheer drudgery of sitting at desks, making phonecalls, being fobbed off, meeting strange men in car parks, going to libraries to borrow books, boredom, fear, anticipation, surveillance, and typing, typing, typing, the whole kit and caboodle. But when it’s played by two of the world’s biggest film stars at the time and they make calling someone on the phone so unbearably tense, you know you’re in good hands. As Redford’s biographer Michael Feeney Callan clarifies, Redford’s mind was already elsewhere during production despite the project being his and he was permanently distracted, yet we are carried on this tidal wave of information that started as a local story and became a national scandal – despite knowing the rather fabled outcome. What a way to make your name. Katharine Graham’s role was excised entirely from the action, to be resurrected in the preceding scandal of the Pentagon Papers dramatised in the recent The Post. Remarkable on every level, with the characters becoming at times functionaries of a cannily authentic production design by George Jenkins and a shooting style by Gordon Willis that emphasises light – its presence and absence, its curtailment and its blazing power – amid an ensemble of brilliant players in roles large and small, thrillingly brought to life. Classic.

 

 

Drive, He Said (1971)

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Jack Nicholson had been busy in one of the leading roles for Bob Rafaelson in Five Easy Pieces so it was 1970 before he could begin shooting on his directing debut. He had already written a number of screenplays but he was over-committed at the time he wanted to make this. He was starring in Carnal Knowledge for director Mike Nichols so he began Drive… without a complete script.  Jeremy Larner adapted his own book but Nicholson wasn’t happy with it and had begun writing a second draft himself.  He brought in Robert Towne to complete his vision on set, with the added bonus of an acting role for his screenwriter friend – that of a cuckolded, broad-minded professor. Reclusive screenwriter and director Terrence Malick also did a rewrite – prior to making Badlands (1973). The film was completed on time for Nicholson to report to the East Coast for Mike Nichols.  He edited Drive… on weekends and downtime from shooting Carnal KnowledgeDrive… is an exposé of Sixties left-liberal attitudes, set on a campus infected with radicals  and replete with ready-made mythological references which must have appealed to Robert Towne:  a leading character called Hector  (who of course  as the eldest son of the king, led the Trojans in their war against the Greeks,  fought in single combat with Achilles and stormed the wall of the camp and set it alight). And, as if we don’t ‘get it,’ Hector’s major is Greek. The radical elements were complete with the casting in the lead role of William Tepper – a dead ringer for producer Bert Schneider, whose famously radical approach to production would lead Hollywood out of the old-style studio system but would embalm him in the mid-Seventies forever. There is a romantic element that interferes with male friendship: Gabriel is the guerrilla, played by Michael Margotta. Hector is besotted with Karen Black, married to Towne’s professor in the film. Her name, Olive, signifies her role as peace-maker in the narrative.  Gabriel runs away to escape the draft.  Hector is the warrior in love – he is in touch with nature (his surname, is, after all, Bloom.) He communes with the trees in the forest, stays in a log cabin and is generally at one with everything that is not ‘the Man.’ The film was entered in Cannes and Nicholson’s efforts were the subject of scorn.  It opened in New York on 13 June 1971 where it got mixed reviews.  BBS apparently offered more money to promote it but were deflected by Nicholson himself, who was depressed at the critical reception. But its lyricism, message and sub-Godardian construction have held up considerably better than Nicholson himself believed and its countercultural theme still produces a striking effect.The film is structured around Hector’s basketball games – the opening titles are underlined in a stunning sequence by the use of cult musician Moondog’s music – later paid homage by the Coen Brothers in The Big Leboswki (1998). The filming style in slow motion corresponds with much of Visions of Eight (1973), which would itself be an influence on Towne’s own film style in his directing debut, Personal Best. For more on Nicholson’s work with Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490221804&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon

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