The magnificent ’74: The Conversation

Looking back at American cinema’s banner year, fifty years later

10 April 2024

By Jessica Kiang

The Conversation (1974)
Sight and Sound

In April 1974 when Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation opened and Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul shuffled on to US screens wearing his perpetual plastic raincoat and his perpetual peevish frown, there had not yet been much evidence that this would be a particularly unusual year. Notable things happened – in February, Bruce Balick and Robert L. Brown identified Sagittarius A*, now known to be the super-massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, and, in an imprecisely analogous development, John Boorman released Zardoz.

Conversely, the year’s brightest box-office star, Blazing Saddles, had also already premiered at a drive-in in Burbank, which 250 invitees, including the principal cast, attended on horseback as an absurdist marketing gimmick. Psychopath Ted Bundy was amping up his killing spree across Washington and Oregon, as Lucille Ball was winding down her 23-year span of TV domination with the cancellation of Here’s Lucy. Then, in March, seven former presidential aides were charged with conspiring in the bungled 1972 burglary of the Watergate Hotel, which one prosecutor later described as “a Marx Brothers routine”. So sure, there had been first-quarter highs and lows in America, but not so many as to be unprecedented.

The Conversation would hardly change that, making a modest return on its modest budget. Far healthier were the receipts for The Great Gatsby, for which Coppola had written the screenplay back when he’d needed the money, before The Godfather (1972) became the highest-grossing film of all time and made him the Don of New Hollywood. Indeed, despite receiving the top prize in Cannes, The Conversation wasn’t even the most impactful Coppola-directed movie of 1974, which was December’s Oscar-winning The Godfather Part II (making Coppola the only filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or and Best Picture, for two different films from the same year.) 

Even as one half of a staggering twofer, The Conversation is not unique; 1974 was positively lousy with double-ups, by Mel Brooks, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Richard Fleischer and Superfly director Gordon Parks Jr. And other now canonised classics came in thick and fast, in all genres, at all budget levels. Spielberg, Demme, Cimino and Carpenter made their theatrical debuts; Polanski, Tobe Hooper, Scorsese, Peckinpah, Fosse, Bogdanovich, Pakula and Johns Waters and Cassavetes all made emphatic directorial statements. It was a Cambrian explosion of American filmmaking – but one that occurred maybe one day before the cataclysmic meteor strike that was 1975’s Jaws, which as the first-ever summer blockbuster would irrevocably alter the trajectory of American cinema. No knock on Jaws – still and always greatness – but it is poignant to consider that even as Jake was forgetting about Chinatown, Mabel was emerging from under the influence, and Leatherface was waving his chainsaw against a Texas sky, the shark was already in the water.

The Conversation (1974)

Nobody knew that then, any more than Coppola knew Nixon would resign, tripped up in his lies by tech that was eerily mirrored in The Conversation, a surveillance thriller concerned with the unknowability of absolute truth as recorded, and partially occluded, on magnetic tape. It was prescient indeed, but then so were the same year’s The Parallax View and 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, in terms of tapping into the pervasively paranoid Watergate zeitgeist.

What The Conversation has over its brethren is its beautiful banality. Parallax and Condor are fun, nervy panic attacks, but they’re glamorous in a way The Conversation never is. They feature presidential candidates, dogged journalists and CIA operatives; and however ostensibly gritty their outlook, their stars wouldn’t have been caught dead in Harry Caul’s plastic mac, or with Harry Caul’s professional primness or under the hotel bed covers that Harry Caul hides in when scared. Hackman, very likely the greatest American screen actor of his time, capable of titanic charm, gives his own favourite performance as a man with no discernible charisma, who gets pranked by a competitor, ripped off by a prostitute and has the supposedly unimpeachable security of his apartment breached and breached again. Even when Harry kisses the girlfriend (Teri Garr) whose rent he pays, he does it with the stiff lips of the terminally repressed, his rustling mac repelling intimacy as surely as it repels rain. 

“When the new hybrid film is at its best,” wrote critic Manny Farber at the time “…there is the sense of the plot being off frame, happening next door.” This is literalised in The Conversation, in which Harry, by virtue of his job and personality (which are the same thing), is always somewhere other than the action, and it’s emblematic of a mode of subtle, ambivalent, grown-up filmmaking that was about to get eaten by a great white. In Jaws, we are almost always in the room, or on the beach, or in the cabin where the plot is happening. 

The post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era is often characterised as a time of national loss of innocence, national wising up. But at the movies, the reverse process occurred. Audiences after Jaws were encouraged to skew younger, more naive, to be more easily contented with spectacular but simplistic narratives that perplex nobody and provoke nothing. Over the course of the next few columns celebrating what to my mind is the most remarkable year of American movies in history, I apologise if I romanticise 1974 until it’s unidentifiable to those who lived through it. But prelapsarian nostalgia inevitably sets in when one recognises the year – and The Conversation – as the high watermark of a long-vanished period, when general movie audiences were imagined to be adults.

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