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The flaw in The Conversation (1974)


slaytonf
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I hate to point out anything that would detract from such a fine film. The depiction of the unraveling of a personality is one of Francis Coppolas' best- no, I think it is his best. And Gene Hackman never did anything better. And it's not like the flaw ruins the movie. But, and it hurts to say this, what it amounts to is a cheap trick Coppola plays on the viewer, and one that was unnecessary.

 

If ye be ware of spoilers, read not below.

 

It centers around what the wife's lover says to her as they walk around deciding whether to kill her husband. It amounts to the pivotal phrase in the movie. After a bit of pointed fuss getting a clear recording, Caul (Hackman) hears the lover say: He'd kill us if he had the chance; giving him and us the impression they are the ones in danger. But at the end of the movie, after he learns it was the husband who was the subject of a, um, hostile corporate takeover, we hear: He'd kill us if he had the chance. Maybe it was Coppola's intent that what we hear is how Caul interpreted the tape due to his biases, not the least of which assuming the scared fragie woman could not be a ruthless murderer. Well, I dunno- - still is a cheap contrivance to me, especially as it could have been handled in a way that would have preserved the misunderstanding without it. The lover could have said: He'd kill us if he had the chance. The emphasis is ambiguous enough so that at this time in the movie, when it's not known the adulterous couple were murderous, the phrase could be subject to misreading by a biased person. It has the added advantage of tricking the audience into doing Coppola's work for him, and not leaving them with a sense of being abused.

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So slayton, you're saying the flaw in this film is that early on Coppola has Hackman(and we the audience) hearing Frederic Forrest saying that particular line one way, but then later and after Hackman(and once we the audience) realize who the culprits really are, Coppola has Forrest saying the same line in retrospect but his inflection was different this time around, and thus Coppola is blatantly pushing that "ah-HA moment" to us. Is that your point here?

 

Well, if that IS your point, then yeah, it might be a valid one.

 

(...however, when I first read your thread's title, I was almost SURE "the flaw" in the film you were going to point to was the part where fellow electronic surveillance expert Allen Garfield says to Hackman at that convention, "Here Harry. Have a complimentary pen on me here" and slides the pen into Hackman's coat pocket, and with "the flaw" in this being that with Hackman's character being such an expert at electronic surveillance, he doesn't realize until much later and when it's brought to his attention at that later little private party that the pen slid into his pocket is or might have been a bugging device...wouldn't you think this might have crossed Hackman's mind early on and when the pen was slid into his pocket?)   

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So slayton, you're saying the flaw in this film is that early on Coppola has Hackman(and we the audience) hearing Frederic Forrest saying that particular line one way, but then later and after Hackman(and once we the audience) realize who the culprits really are, Coppola has Forrest saying the same line in retrospect but his inflection was different this time around, and thus Coppola is blatantly pushing that "ah-HA moment" to us. Is that your point here?

 

Well, if that IS your point, then yeah, it might be a valid one.

 

(...however, when I first read your thread's title, I was almost SURE "the flaw" in the film you were going to point to was the part where fellow electronic surveillance expert Allen Garfield says to Hackman at that convention, "Here Harry. Have a complimentary pen on me here" and slides the pen into Hackman's coat pocket, and with "the flaw" in this being that with Hackman's character being such an expert at electronic surveillance, he doesn't realize until much later and when it's brought to his attention at that later little private party that the pen slid into his pocket is or might have been a bugging device...wouldn't you think this might have crossed Hackman's mind early on and when the pen was slid into his pocket?)   

 

 

Sorry, Dargo.  I made this post on my cellphone so the italics didn't come through.  I've edited my post to reflect my observations.  And, yes, your first supposition was what I was getting at.

 

As for your second:

 

Harry Caul is presented as a wiz in the surveillance biz, but as a total pathetic otherwise. He goes to great lengths to protect his anonymity, but the movie quickly shows us he deludes himself.  His landlady, without his knowing, has the keys to his apartment--and knows it's his birthday!  That trick with the pen is more evidence of his vulnerability.  The company he does the job for knows all about him-even his unlisted phone number.  And they surveil him without his being able to find out how, leading him to tear his apartment apart and that final devastating shot.

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Cheap contrivance?  It was the defining point of the film. It was about how slightly mishearing a statement, with or without bias, can change everything.  Harry worked on that tape for days, it just wasn't clear enough to get the emphasis on "us," until it was too late.  I didn't think the first hearing was "He'd kill us if he had the chance, but just a flat, "He'd kill us if he had the chance."  In other words, not clear enough to pick up any emphasis one way or the other.

 

But, I agree, Harry let his emotions rule him more than he would have admitted. He trusted the man who gave him the pen so he didn't suspect it.  He trusted that the Cindy Williams character was completely innocent, based on her looks and personality (as did the audience.)  In fact the casting was absolutely perfect throughout.

 

Brilliant film. 

 

Random thing: I happened to be working in the Pentagon, when I passed Gene Hackman in the main corridor.  I don't know what he was doing (or filming,) but he was wearing a military uniform and he was so handsome he took my breath away.  Although he was always a favorite actor, I had never thought of him as particularly good looking.  I have a suspicion they're all better looking than we think they are, we're just used to expecting great looking people on the big screen and take it for granted. We may be just comparing them all with each other rather than the general population.

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