Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation revolves around a brief but very important exchange of dialogue between two strangers in a crowded park, recorded by unseen surveillance experts. But the real conversation, at least from what I felt, was one that the introverted main character has with himself, one of guilt, conflict and paranoia. The introverted protagonist is Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman in one of the film’s surprises, for we are used to this actor in abrasively alpha, outspoken, charismatic leads. Caul is a pensive, restless, reclusive fellow who dutifully does his job, and does it very well too but we always get the sense that he’d rather be somewhere else and is somehow broken inside. The first thread of his unravelling is pulled when surveillance on the aforementioned conversation in the park picks up a brief swath of dialogue implying murder, or at least the attempt thereof. Caul is now at loggerheads with himself between delivering the audio footage to a shady operative (Harrison Ford playing against type as quite sinister) working for someone known as The Director (I won’t spoil this cameo because it’s too juicy) or keeping it to himself and potentially saving two innocent lives. I wouldn’t necessarily call this film a thriller, at least not in the traditional sense. There are moments of intrigue, shocking violence and certainly a good deal of suspense, but the most effective aspects are the shrouded nature of Caul as a character and how he interacts with those around him including mouthy coworker Stan (John Cazale), even mouthier business rival Bernie (Allen Garfield) and others. He’s a very religious man which obviously clashes with the frequently clandestine and often dangerous nature of his work, providing fascinating conflict. The key moment of the film is an eerie dream sequence complete with a fleet of fog machines and very tricky camera angles in which Harry follows the female target of his surveillance mission, trying to tell her details of his personal life, warn her of impending danger and just simply level with her. This is an important scene because it’s the only time he actually verbally communicates with someone he’s hired to bug, and perhaps this is the core of what has broken him: human interaction relegated largely to wire taps, cameras, vans parked around the corner and informal, all seeing secrecy. That can’t be good for a soul, and it clearly haunts his, alongside the collateral damage of what that job can cause, in terms of violent repercussions. Anyways it’s a fantastic film with a truly captivating Hackman performance, a terrific supporting cast, sensationally immersive retro-tech sound design, a kick in the nuts twist ending and the kind of narrative that has you thinking for days.
For a film about some book written by the Devil, old Satan is curiously absent from Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, a gorgeous looking but frustratingly muddled and ultimately incomprehensible pseudo religious mumbo jumbo thriller starring Johnny Depp and his trusty librarian’s man purse. Depp is Dean Corso, a rare book dealer known to be ‘thoroughly unscrupulous’ by his peers for his cunning habit of ripping off clueless clients. He’s a decent-ish guy though and is moral enough to be kind of shook when millionaire manuscript collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella, never hammier) and his hilarious pinstripe suit commission him to track down an ancient volume said to be written by Lucifer himself. This leads him on a Europe trotting spot of intrigue to compare Balkan’s copy to two others and look for clues that might help this collective bunch of spooky book nerds summon the devil… or something like that. This is either one complex film that was just beyond my tired ass or one confused film that Polanski didn’t really know what to do with other than give it the slow burn Rosemary’s Baby effort. The problem is, there’s nothing in the kerosene lamp *to* slow burn here, it’s just an undercooked series of chases, extended discussions on theology and satanism and one very silly, very cliched summoning ceremony complete with baroque robes and hundreds candlelit stone chambers as only rural Europe can provide. What works about it? The supporting cast is nicely placed. Langella has a lot of fun as the maniacal zealot and I was thinking the whole time that they just should have casted *him* as the Devil to amp up the proceedings, he already has the look. Lena Olin is appropriately savage as a vicious cultist bitch who fornicates with Depp and runs off into the night. The underrated James Russo has a nice bit as Dean’s rare book dealer buddy. Impossibly sexy Emmanuelle Seigner is some supernatural siren who follows Depp around like a vulture and uses her snazzy powers to assist him when necessary, for purposes the film never feels the need to even tell us. There’s a terrifically unconventional score by Wojciech Kilar, who also put his talents towards eccentrically spooky work in Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and is perfectly suited for oddly eerie compositions. Depp is strangely ineffective here and is either stressed, smoking, slamming cocktails or wandering about in a trench coat daze while nondescript forces of muddy menace muster around him. And the ending? Fuck if I know, man. I mean it works as a neat tour guide of some really pretty Europeans cities and towns, the atmosphere is very evocative, the supporting actors all give wonderful work but it’s like somehow the lynchpin of it all, and I suspect it’s the script, is just… absent. It’s sad because this premise with all the talent involved should have been something truly frightening and memorable and instead it’s just kind of.. meh.