Wednesday, May 24, 2017

FUNNY LADY 1975

I had such a good time watching the Joan Crawford/ Bette Davis cable TV series Feud that when its eight-episode run on the FX channel was over, it left me with both a lingering taste for biographical films that play fast and loose with the facts, and a hankering for outsized performances by actors whose scrupulously-engineered screen personas are inextricably linked to their public image.
So naturally, I thought of Barbra Streisand. That is, Barbra Streisand by way of Fanny Brice; Fanny Brice by way of Funny Girl; and ultimately, Streisand and Brice by way of the misguided, contractually-mandated Funny Girl sequel—that rapturous, cotton candy fashion parade, ego-stroke of a musical guilty pleasure known as Funny Lady.
Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice
James Caan as Billy Rose
Omar Sharif as Nick Arnstein 
Roddy McDowall as Bobby Moore
(I wanted to give McDowall his own screencap, but the
poor guy hasn't a single close-up in the entire film)

When the narrative of the 1964 Broadway musical and subsequent 1968 film adaptation of Funny Girl concluded sometime in the late 1920s, we all knew there was more to the Fanny Brice story (punctuated by brief forays into film and television, Brice's success as a radio star lasted up to her death in 1951). Whether or not that story was anything worth telling is another matter.
Funny Lady (which some of you may know by its alternate title: “The Back of James Caan’s Head”) is ostensibly the continuing saga of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, who, when last seen in Funny Girl, was photogenically torchin’ on a dark stage, crying her Egyptian-eyelinered eyes out after having been dumped by recently-sprung-from-jail-for-embezzlement hubby Nicky Arnstein.
An admitted highly-fictionalized account of Brice’s later years, Funny Lady picks up roughly where Funny Girl left off (very roughly, in fact); with Brice shown backstage, still-pining-for-Nicky, being served final divorce papers by Arnstein in absentia. Romantic rejection of this sort is usually the stuff of tragedy, but as this sentimental setback grants Streisand the first of many opportunities to fling her head back in classic “suffering diva” mode (treating fans to the actress’s regal profile and shapely septum) Funny Lady instantly establishes an unfortunate precedent for a musical entertainment: Streisand is at her best when Fanny is at her worst.
Indeed, given the degree of care Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Wong Howe lavishes on La Streisand when in the throes of heartbreak, from a fan's point of view, the glow of a happy Fanny Brice is no match for the luminous sheen of a miserable Barbra Streisand. So, in essence, the worse things go for Fanny, the better things go for the Streisand-watchers. This is going to be a fun musical.
 Am I Blue?
What's bad for Miss Brice is super for Streisand-watchers 

At what point in history this all transpires is rather nebulously conveyed, for the film’s vaguely delineated timeline is actually a mashup of Brice’s real-life 1927 divorce, the 1929 stock market crash, and the onset of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, it’s taken as a given that enough time has elapsed allowing for Fanny’s transmogrification from the optimistic, likable, gently self-deprecating “People” person of Funny Girl, to the overdressed, perpetually scowling, foul-mouthed know-it-all of Funny Lady.

Funny Girl was the rags-to-riches, broken-heart-for-every-bulb-on Broadway saga of a gangly waif whose prodigious talent triumphed over humble beginnings and unconventional beauty. Audiences responded to it because it took the usual Horatio Alger clichés of the celebrity bio, added a duckling-into-a-swan fairy-tale, and crossed it with a Cinderella love story.
Funny Lady, on the other hand, showcases a Fanny Brice who’s a firmly established star. Successful, confident, glamorous (to an almost parodic degree), calling her own shots, and without a single insecure bone in her body. This proves marvelous for Streisand, who gets to look fabulous throughout without once having to endure a single joke made at the expense of her looks; dominate in numerous scenes depicting her offering people professional advice and basically telling others how they can better do their jobs; and finally, she doesn’t have to be the least bit funny due to a screenplay which has characters tell her…at regular intervals…to her face…just how delightfully funny she is.
Funny Girl was a Cinderella fantasy, which everyone loves. Funny Lady is built on a Have-It-All Fantasy (I have talent, wealth, fame, and beauty...why can't I find love?) which is kinda annoying

A screenplay highlighting a self-possessed Fanny Brice no-doubt proved instrumental in getting Streisand to agree to appear in a sequel she really didn’t want to do, but the lack of character conflict leaves Funny Lady with almost no narrative thrust. Sure, there’s a Depression going on, but the film has Streisand parade around in so many outlandishly glamorous Bob Mackie/Ray Aghayan outfits, Brice merely comes off as living in a bubble of privilege.
Similarly, the plot sets up Brice as professionally rudderless in her post-Ziegfeld years, weathering the financial storm of the Great Depression by having to team up with novice-showman/seasoned-huckster Billy Rose in order to stay afloat. But after approximately two lines of expositional dialogue and a couple of brief exchanges, Bruce’s money woes are quickly dispatched, never to be mentioned again. 
Down on her luck, Fanny Brice goes slumming in a casual daytime frock

No, Funny Lady’s single dramatic arc (milked for all its worth for close to 2½ hours) concerns whether or not Fanny can shed her romantic illusions about the dashing Nick Arnstein in time to realize that falling “in like” with the sloppy, unsophisticated, very Henry Street, Billy Rose is perhaps where her happiness lies. But even THIS minimal, not terribly compelling conflict is undermined by the casting of athletic, macho James Caan as the diminutive (4' 11"), unprepossessing Billy Rose. What could have been an interesting gender-reversal of Funny Girl’s “opposites attract” relationship is reduced to Fanny having to choose between the extraordinarily handsome guy who says “tomato” and the extraordinarily handsome guy who says “tomahto.”
Streisand in an interview; "It comes down to whom the audience wants to see me kiss.
Robert Blake [an early Billy Rose contender], no. James, Caan, yes."
  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I get a kick out of Funny Lady in spite of the fact that it’s fairly useless as biography, bloodless as a love story, and too disjointed and episodic to even satisfy as a cohesive narrative (it’s impossible to keep track of how much time has elapsed between scenes). But Funny Lady works best, makes the most sense, and proves both an invaluable source of information and entertainment when taken for what it really is: a Barbra Streisand report card.  
Here, Streisand grants the audience permission to get a load of her
Think about it. Beyond the old “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice” maxim that serves as the inspirational catalyst for most movie sequels; the only reason Funny Lady exists at all is that Streisand owed Funny Girl producer Ray Stark one more film on their four-picture contract. Press releases claim the reluctant Streisand had initially informed Stark that he’d have to sue her before she’d do a Funny Girl sequel, but changed her mind after reading the script.
Not buying it. Anybody who’s seen Funny Lady knows that its script is more likely to instigate a lawsuit, not stop one. No. My gut tells me that Streisand agreed to appear in the sequel because, after a long musical hiatus (her last was 1970s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) Funny Lady provided her with a showy vehicle that amounts to being a $7.5 million dollar progress report showcasing how far she’s come in the seven years since Funny Girl.

Funny Lady is an investors presentation of a movie, furnishing fans and the public at large irrefutable evidence that, in spite of Oscar-winning Johnny-come-latelys like Time magazine’s “New Miss Show Biz” Liza Minnelli (Funny Lady enlists the talents of Cabaret’s songwriting team [Kander & Ebb] and screenwriter [Jay Presson Allen]), Barbra Streisand—after one Oscar; eight films; and countless albums, awards, and TV specials—still has the ol’ musical comedy poop.

Funny Lady is Streisand as she enters the most self-aware (and self-serious) phase of her screen career. In this film Streisand moves to shed the old screen persona she helped create—that of the self-effacing, pigeon-toed kook with lungs of brass—and presents herself as strong, self-confident, glamorous, and in control. Admirable qualities, to be sure, but not exactly conducive to fun. In fact, this Fanny is a bit of a pill.
In place of the ingratiating, eager-to-please woman we met in 1968, 1975 Streisand doesn’t appear particularly concerned with whether or not you like her. You’re welcome to worship her, if you like; but this Streisand doesn’t need your validation. Nor does she need anyone to tell her how fabulous she is. She knows it. (In fact, this is the least smiling Streisand ever…she actually looks angry 90% of the time. But as any woman who’s been told by a perfect stranger on the street to “Smile!” can tell you, a woman choosing NOT to smile is practically an act of social rebellion.)
Let's Hear It For Me...or else

PERFORMANCES
Leaving Streisand aside for the moment (dare I?), I’d like to give a quick shout-out to all those shuttled to the wings while the funny lady commands center stage.

James Caan is one of the more underrated actors to come out of the ‘70s, and I’m as guilty as the next of never quite giving this versatile actor his due. While I’m of the mind that Robert Blake would have made the most intriguing Billy Rose, James Caan is no slouch. He's actually very good here, playing Rose as a fast-talking sharpie reminiscent of Jimmy Cagney in comedy mode. He sings well, is charming, and as Streisand co-stars go, he’s one of the strongest. Too bad the overall effectiveness of his performance is sabotaged by editing which relegates him to co-star status rather than leading man.

For a gay icon with a gay son, Barbra Streisand has a pretty shady reputation for onscreen gay representation. Several of her films have characters uttering homophobic slurs (in The Owl and the Pussycat and For Pete’s Sake, she’s the culprit), and in Funny Lady, the points Roddy McDowall’s openly gay character gets for inclusion (he’s her best friend and world’s oldest chorus boy) are subverted by a script which seldom misses an opportunity to refer to him in “period appropriate” derogatory ways.
I can’t speak to McDowall’s performance because, as in 1965s Inside Daisy Clover, he doesn’t actually have anything to do, but there’s something old-Hollywood comforting about seeing him.

It’s doubtful Tony Award-winning performer Ben Vereen had a very sizable role to begin with, but most of what he did contribute became a casualty of all the editing Funny Lady underwent before release. With a brief verbal interaction with Streisand excised, and the three-minute “So Long Honey Lamb” number cut to three seconds (a bullet dodged, in my opinion); only Vereen’s dynamic singing and dancing in “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” remains. He’s marvelous, of course, and gives the film a much-needed kick in the pants, energy-wise, but it feels disembodied from the rest of the action, like those Lena Horne novelty sequences in MGM musicals which were filmed in ways that made them easy to be removed in Southern theaters.

It’s poor Omar Sharif who fares the worst, however. His character set up to be knocked down; so much dialogue is given over to Streisand (“No, you don’t have any lines here. It’s my turn” she actually says to him in one of Funny Lady’s many startlingly meta moments) he merely shows up, smiles, and bows out. Twice!
Streisand draws our attention to her favorite co-star: Her nails

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Like a great many musicals, Funny Lady is at its best when no one is talking. The film looks spectacular, thanks to the contributions of no less than three on/off cinematographers: Vilmos Zsigmond, Ernest Laszlo, James Wong Howe; and the nifty musical score is a combination of period classics and five new numbers by John Kander & Fred Ebb (though the fan-worship pandering of “How Lucky Can you Get?” and “Let’s Hear It For Me” is so shameless you might find yourself blushing). Adding to the film’s pluses are the witty, Oscar-nominated costumes by Mackie/Aghayan, which capture the theatrical, over-the-top appeal of classic Hollywood musicals.
Streisand in a little knockabout crowd-pleaser she throws on
for those nights when she just doesn't care what she looks like
 

Funny Lady’s production numbers play better now than they did in 1975, when the musical arrangements and intentionally garish costuming made 1930s Broadway look like 1970s outtakes from The Carol Burnett Show (not exactly a coincidence since Funny Lady features Burnett show alumni Peter Matz [Oscar-nominated musical director], Mackie [costumes], and several members of Carol Burnett's dance chorus.)

The "Great Day" number featuring Streisand surrounded by an all-black dance ensemble (top), perhaps found its inspiration in the similarly staged "High/Low" number Ethel Merman performed with an all-black chorus in the 1936 musical Strike Me Pink (bottom).

Although I hate it when movies feature scenes of seasoned theater professionals breaking
character simply when things go wrong on stage, I absolutely adored this set design
You're forgiven if you assume the above screencaps are from The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Donny & Marie Show, The Captain and Tennille, or The Brady Bunch Hour...all '70s TV variety shows looked like this.

Portraying a Fiend of Fanny Brice Proves Risky Business
Actress Carole Wells, as Brice's friend Norma Butler in Funny Lady, suffered a fate similar to that of Anne Francis in Funny Girl: finding that the bulk of her scenes had been left on the cutting room floor

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Funny Lady debuted in March of 1975, the very same month that saw the release of Ken Russell’s Tommy and Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love. Tommy was such a revelatory thrill to me that I went to see it practically every weekend during its entire run at SF’s Northpoint Theater, so by the time I got around to seeing Funny Lady, I had grown so besotted with Tommy’s mind-blowing innovation that Streisand’s film seemed positively underwhelming by comparison. Having not yet seen Funny Girl at this point—Funny Lady was just my third Streisand film—I didn’t even have sentimentality on my side (the significance of that yellow rose featured so prominently in the film’s advertising was lost on me). It was only when Funny Lady was in second-run and came to the Alhambra Theater (where I ushered) that I came to appreciate it: the patchy musical playing significantly better when viewed à la carte.
Critics seemed to hate the unconvincing old-age makeup used in Funny Lady's s final scenes, but I thought Caan and Streisand looked absolutely adorable. Certainly preferable to when in 1991 Caan teamed up with Bette Midler in For The Boys and the old-age makeup applied made both actors look like reptile people

These days, Funny Lady remains both a guilty pleasure and the last of the enjoyable Streisand musicals. More Grande Lady than Funny Lady, it’s a marvelous film to revisit whenever I find myself in need of a Streisand fix.

A Streisand fix being akin to my Joan Crawford fixation: both being stars of such unique talents; they fascinate even when they’re awful. I like Barbra Streisand considerably more as a singer than an actress, but in these cookie-cutter times when I honestly can’t tell a bland Chris Pine from a vanilla Bradley Cooper, I find I’ve grown fonder (or at least more tolerant of) her distinctive screen persona. When Streisand is on her game (Funny Girl, On a Clear Day, What’s Up, Doc?) there isn’t anyone better. And while Funny Lady is not much of a showcase for Streisand the actress or comedienne, it’s a helluva showcase for Streisand the star.



BONUS MATERIAL
Distributed in theater lobbies: My Funny Lady promotional foldout from 1975.  
For those interested, the terrific The Barbra Streisand Archives offers more info than you'll likely ever want to know about the making of Funny Lady. From deleted scenes and interviews to costume sketches and behind-the-scenes trivia.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, May 5, 2017

THE CONVERSATION 1974

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis. If you've never 
seen The Conversation and are interested, don't spoil your fun. The mystery is too good.


Although Francis Ford Coppola began writing his script sometime in the late ‘60s, and the film went into production well before all the details of the Watergate scandal became known to the public (it was released mere months before then-President Nixon’s resignation); few ‘70s films capture the wary pessimism of post-Watergate America quite like The Conversation. A small-budget, studio-interference free, auteur project Paramount granted Coppola in a bid to secure his services for a film he wasn’t interested in making (that would be The Godfather Part II); The Conversation is a detective film crossed with a character study, reimagined as the quintessential 1970s paranoid thriller.
Gene Hackman as Harry Caul
John Cazale as Stan
Harrison Ford as Martin Stett
Teri Garr as Amy Fredericks
Cindy Williams as Ann
Frederic Forrest as Mark 
Robert Duvall as The Director/Mr. C./Charles
Harry Caul (Hackman) is a career wiretapper. A skilled audio surveillance man who’s (ironically) well-known in the spy-for-hire field of surreptitious information-gathering. A loner and an outsider, Harry is ideally suited to his craft not only because he’s a man of such unprepossessing countenance that he doesn’t even seem to occupy the space he’s inhabiting, but because he lives his life by the credo: "Don’t get involved." Amongst the many complex gadgets and devices in his professional arsenal, Harry’s emotional detachment and studied lack of curiosity are his most valued. Indeed, “Nothing personal” could be the byline on his business cards. That is, were Harry the type of man to actually use business cards. I’m sure he'd think they divulge entirely too much personal information.

Like defense lawyers who revel in thrust-&-parry courtroom skirmishes, triumphant in victories, yet heedless of the drunk drivers and hardened criminals their legal machinations assist in getting back on the streets; when it comes to gathering secret information, Harry sees himself simply as a techie. He enjoys solving the strategic and electronic puzzles posed by his job, but never gives a thought as to why his clients want his services, what they will do with the material he provides, or whether or not he is in any way culpable for any misfortune that might befall others as a result of his actions. "I am in no way responsible" and "It has nothing to do with me" are his professional mantras.

But unless one is a sociopath, indifference to human suffering always comes at a price. And for Harry (a man haunted by the memory of the part his work played in bringing about the brutal torture deaths of an entire family) the price is that he has become a man who strives not to be seen or known by others because he most vehemently wishes he didn’t have to see or know anything about himself. 
Nowhere Man
Harry’s trademark professional detachment is put to the test when a logistically complex, otherwise routine surveillance job (involving the recording of a conversation between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s crowded Union Square) unearths a probable murder plot. In listening and re-listening to his recording of what on the surface sounds like a wholly innocuous conversation between two clandestine young lovers (Williams and Forrest), Harry comes to believe, with mounting certainty, that he is once again in a situation where the plying of his trade will bring about the deaths of innocent people—in this instance, a young couple who speak as though they live in dire fear of someone.

Compelled by equal parts empathy (the woman reminds him of Amy, his neglected girlfriend), the dread of history repeating itself, and the chance for (self)absolution; Harry breaks his cardinal rule of not allowing himself to feel anything about the subjects of his surveillance work. Thus, devoid of any clear plan of action, he resolves to do what he can to prevent what he still only just suspects, but most certainly fears.

As Harry Caul delves deeper into an investigation of the mystery, The Conversation chillingly reveals that there’s more to matters of comprehension, interpretation, and perception than meets the ear.
"He'd kill us if he had the chance."
The virtuoso opening sequence was shot by cinematographer Haskell Wexler (although Bill Butler shot the rest of the film). The contributions of  film editor Richard Chew and the brilliant Oscar-nominated sound work of Walter Murch & Art Rochester can't be overstated.

If post Depression-era films are typified by their reinforcement of the principle that the individual and common man still wields power and influence (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe), that the Little Man, through noble means and honesty, stands a chance of triumphing against corrupt institutions and governments; then post-Watergate cinema hammered home the impotence of the average man in the face of widespread moral decay and venality. The Vietnam War and Watergate forced America to lose its illusions about itself. Thus, sixties films like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, then later, the ‘70s films The Parallax View and Chinatown (both released the same year as The Conversation) all supported the notion that no matter what one does, the decks are stacked, the die is cast, and human intervention is futile in the face of evil's ascendancy.

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown has a lot in common with The Conversation in that both lead characters (Jack Nicholson’s private eye/Gene Hackman’s wiretap expert) start out as individuals already corrupted by a degree of moral cynicism, but whose fortunes only take a turn for the worse once they develop a conscience.
Allen Garfield as William P. "Call me Bernie" Moran

The Conversation’s Harry Caul is the living embodiment of Vietnam America: a willing, guilt-ridden participant in morally dubious activity who rationalizes the sometimes deadly ramifications of his actions by deluding himself that they have nothing to do with him. This spiritual deal-with-the-devil clearly plagues the devoutly religious Harry in his day-to-day life, resulting in his living a paranoid, loner’s existence of arms-distance friendships, inarticulate romances, and a near-constant suspicion of the motives of others.
Elizabeth MacRae as Meredith
(Best known to folks of my generation as Lou-Ann Poovie,
Jim Nabors' girlfriend on Gomer Pyle: USMC)

But Harry’s Achilles heel and one tragic flaw is that (despite best his efforts) he really hasn't become as callous and indifferent as he would wish. He's a man who struggles with his humanity (he goes to confession) in a world which continually reassures him that feelings...all feelings...are a liability and source of pain. Harry's uncharacteristic” decision to involve himself in trying to save the lives of the two lovers in the park is an attempt by Harry to save his own life as well. The source and substance of his dread is the fear that should his assignment turn out like the other, with innocent lives lost, he may well find his soul irretrievably lost and banished.

"This is no ordinary conversation. It makes me feel...something...."
A prevailing characteristic of the '70s paranoid thriller is how they provide no reassurance that conspiracies aren’t real. Nor do they contradict the notion of paranoia as a rational, reasonable response to a reality of diminished privacy and corrupt authority figures.
Conceivably as a means of conveying to the audience Harry Caul is a better man than his choice of profession would belie (he's more a gadget-geek than a spy), The Conversation establishes from the get-go that Harry is singularly ineffectual when it comes to keeping his life private; is not nearly the stealthy, opaque character he imagines himself to be; and in the end, rather than being too paranoid, the film suggests that Harry is perhaps not paranoid enough.
For example: In spite of multiple locks on his door, an alarm system, and a failure to divulge personal information to anyone, Harry's landlady not only finds out his birthday and how old he is, but manages to leave a gift for him inside his apartment when he is away. This scene, coming as it does after the opening sequence which details how anyone can be observed anywhere, is notable for the open blinds in Harry's apartment, revealing a moving construction crane ostensibly working outside of his window (an element made more obvious in the original script). A point that later plays into answering a third act disclosure revealing Harry’s mysterious employer has always had an ominous awareness of his comings and goings.
Harry grows uneasy when his girlfriend Amy lets on that she knows
 he spies on her and listens to her phone calls
A recurring motif contributing to the bleakness of The Conversation's world view is that Harry, for all the effort expended insulting himself, is really the most vulnerable person in the film. Unable to connect with anyone (not even the couple he's trying to save), he is easily followed, bugged, tricked, spied upon, and, in those moments when he does try to open up, too easily betrayed. In the end, it's clear Harry is both a victim and a (unwitting?) victimizer at risk of dying by the very sword he lives by.
Barriers

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM 
The Conversation is an intriguing, genuinely chilling thriller. Made all the more compelling by having the tropes of its genre structure (that of a plot-driven, detective suspense thriller) being applied to what is essentially a character study. And while people take precedence over plot in The Conversation, what a doozy of a plot! (In 1975, Gene Hackman would play a private investigator in Arthur Penn's Night Moves, another nihilist '70s spin on the 1940s film noir.)
The film is at its most successful when drawing the viewer into questioning the significance of banal dialogue or mundane-appearing activities. The Conversation mines the suspense in the bland characters and gritty squalor of their lives in a way that reminds me of what Alan J. Pakula did with New York lowlife in Klute (1971). And for evoking paranoia and isolation, the purposeful use of San Francisco locations in The Conversation recall for me Philip Kaufman’s brilliant 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
There's a big retro kick to be had seeing the primitive sound equipment on display

PERFORMANCES
The Conversation was not a success when released in April of 1974, and come December’s release of Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II, it was all but forgotten. It did garner three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Original Screenplay, & Sound), but in a tough acting year crowded by the likes of Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Al Pacino (The Godfather, Part II), and Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express), Gene Hackman's commanding and sensitive performance was crowded out. (I love Art Carney, but his Harry & Tonto nomination and win is baffling in context of what was around in 1974.)
All the supporting performances in The Conversation are outstanding, but
Elizabeth MacRae as the sad-eyed trade-show model is surprisingly good

In Harry Caul, Gene Hackman (2nd choice after Marlon Brando turned down the role) gives what I consider to be the best performance of his very impressive career. Portraying a closed-off character is always a challenge; playing one who must convey to the audience the gradual reawakening of conscience is something else again. The entirety of whatever dramatic effectiveness or potential for audience involvement The Conversation has rests on the credibility of Hackman’s transformation (tellingly, the film doesn’t require that you like Harry). On that score, Hackman—with the inestimable contribution of the film's uniformly remarkable cast—is nothing short of extraordinary.
Not sure if it's true, but I remember reading that Hackman gained weight and partially
 shaved his head for the role. The latter proving so problematic in growing back that it contributed to
his refusal to shave his head for the role of Lex Luthor in Superman: The Movie (1978)

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
If you’re familiar with The Conversation at all, you’ve likely read or heard about the fortuitous transcription error which resulted in the original last name of Gene Hackman’s character being changed from Call (perhaps a little too precious for a serious film about a wiretapper, anyway) to the homophonous and oh-so evocative Caul; the name given that transparent protective membrane surrounding a fetus. Not one to spit in in the eye of serendipity, Coppola builds upon this happy spelling error and uses it as both an allusive reference to Harry’s overly self-protective personality, and a springboard for a series of recurring visual motifs dramatizing the human instinct to emotionally insulate out of fear, regret, and guilt.
Rain or shine,  the emotionally embryonic Harry is rarely seen without 
his "protective" transparent plastic raincoat
The motif of protective membranes simultaneously protecting and isolating individuals is further conveyed in The Conversation's use of obfuscating veils of semi-transparent surfaces. It also suggests Harry, in being so wound up in his inner conflicts, doesn't see things clearly and has a blurred perspective of events and people.
In this scene depicting a cagey Harry talking to a colleague he doesn't trust (Garfield)
Hackman is filmed through a plastic sheet that could just as well be a barrier
The crucial details of a harrowing event are obscured behind a gauze curtain
A glass partition  prevents intervention while revealing only enough to horrify
A figure lies shrouded in a membrane of clear plastic

Coppola and cinematographer Bill Butler (Demon Seed) frequently rely on wide-angle shots to cut the frame into sections, dramatically emphasizing The Conversation's themes of isolation, loneliness, and the inability to communicate or emotionally connect.
The wide angle and strong vertical lines created by the support beams in Harry's vast warehouse work space create a sense of  emotional desolation while simultaneously conveying a feeling of being hemmed in 
In this office set, vertical lines once again create isolated frames distancing the characters from one another. Meanwhile, the membrane motif is recalled by the clear plastic window shades, the central image dominated by an instrument of privacy invaded (the telescope)
Separate, Yet Connected
One of my favorite images from the film, Harry stands on the balcony of the Jack Tar Hotel
in San Francisco, its design and layout creating a wall of isolated, sealed-off environments

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Beyond its obvious Watergate-era appeal and glimpse into a cultural zeitgeist I still remember vividly; I have to say that what most makes The Conversation a film I can rewatch endlessly (per my tendency to gravitate to films from which I can glean insights into the human condition) is that it is a powerful and persuasive allegory about the risk in allowing oneself to be vulnerable.
Watched
Characters in The Conversation are fond of repeating phrases like “You’re not supposed to feel anything” and “Nothing personal”; but as (I hope) we all know, life is very personal, and any attempt to connect authentically with another human being is fraught with risk. It hurts; it’s messy; it invades your space and disrupts order; it leaves you exposed to betrayal, misunderstanding, and rejection. And worst of all, it comes with no guarantees. On the contrary, it comes with the unequivocal assurance that the closer you get to someone…the better they know you…the more open and exposed you allow yourself to be...the greater the potential for them to do you harm.
Watching
But what of the alternative? Is it possible to exist among others with life’s only objective being the hope that your path never intersects with another; that “nothing personal” transpires to invade your heart and cause you pain? As Harry Caul learns, not only does one embark on a course of self-isolation at the risk of losing one's soul and humanity, but the biggest irony is how life has a way of happening to you no matter how diligently you try to keep it at bay. As the saying goes, no one here gets out alive.
Watcher
The Conversation is a peerless ‘70s paranoia thriller, one certainly not lacking in present-day parallels. But the film's paranoia/conspiracy theme is but one of the many layers making up this intelligent, superbly-crafted film. Like the audio tapes that plague Harry throughout the movie, The Conversation imparts more information and more insights the more you watch it.



BONUS MATERIAL
This is the stationery letterhead for Coppola's American Zoetrope San Francisco offices when they were housed in the Columbus Tower on Kearny. Someone familiar with Coppola's history should help clear this up, but the letterhead graphic (depicting a dog with a camera in the center of a plate) is a image a child's dish set from Coppola's youth or that of his father. I'd written to them in my senior year in high school inquiring about film schools.


Elizabeth MacRae in a 1967 episode of Gomer Pyle: USMC highlighting the character of aspiring singer Lou-Ann Poovie.


Professional mime Robert Shields, then a real life annoyance, er...I mean, entertainer in San Francisco's Union Square when I was a kid, appears as himself in the film's opening sequence. He teamed with wife and fellow mime Lorene Yarnell in 1977 for the Shields & Yarnell variety show on CBS. Both are very skilled and talented, but since I'm personally terrified of mimes, their having their own hour-long TV program constitutes one of those "only in the '70s" phenomenons.

The Conversation on DVD & Blu-Ray
I haven't heard the commentary Francis Ford Coppola supplies for the most recent DVD release of The Conversation, but from what I've read, it offers a wealth of info into the making of the film (Harrison Ford got a bead on his character when Coppola informed him that Martin Stett was gay), and what was ultimately cut from the film (Harry is revealed to be the secret owner of the apartment building he occupies, he is plagued by overly-friendly neighbors, there was a subplot involving a niece [Mackenzie Phillips], and the betrayal Harry suffers at the hands of a character was not as conspiratorially sinister as it is in the finished film).

Copyright © Ken Anderson