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.
Everyone’s had the moment where they’re at the absolute end of their rope and feel like taking drastic or violent action against whatever is grinding your gears. Whether it’s a hot day in horrendous rush hour traffic, a particularly irritating lineup at Starbucks or an especially dense customer service worker, you just feel like saying ‘fuck it’, and decimating the place with anything you can lay your hands on. In Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, Michael Douglas does just that on a sweltering LA summer day. His character, who remains nameless save for the moniker ‘D-Fens’, is a business man on his way home who just… snaps. Throwing a tantrum on the LA overpass, he quickly loses it, arms himself with a high velocity shotgun and proceeds to vet out every mundane annoyance, pet peeve and irksome scenario he can find. Whether it’s brutal catharsis he’s looking for, a cure for the doldrums of daily life or simply raging against that emptiness we all feel deep down, he keeps his reasons to himself, and let’s every other aspect of his character run wild. Holding up a fast food joint because they stopped serving breakfast five minutes too early, massacring homeless punks who foolishly harass him, his crusade sprawls across the valley and beyond, a righteous purge of monotonous, infuriating trivial concerns that soon has the attention of LA’s finest in the form of veteran Detective Robert Duvall and his crass, obnoxious lieutenant (Raymond J. Barry). It’s also revealed that Douglas’s personal life leading up to his break was rocky at best, with a job going downhill and hints of violence towards his wife and daughter. Quite drastic is the meltdown though, but it’s not quite a character study, he’s almost used more to pick away at the decays in society, a tool for exposing tears in the cloth we take for granted every day. His story is kind of like when you load up Grand Theft Auto on your console and completely ignore the missions in favour of a personalized war on anything that moves. His war happens to be against those little nagging inconveniences that seem like no biggie until they add up and you just go postal. It’s darkly funny stuff, but quite harrowing when you look at the big picture and the actual damage he’s doing to the city. Douglas is courageous here, it takes reckless abandon to go for a role like this, and he owns it in crew cut, well dressed fashion, a costume choice that absurdly clashes with the big metal cannon he totes. The film never takes sides either, recognizing both the bizarre consumerist nightmare we wade through everyday and it’s ability to dampen your spirit as well as the sickening extremes he goes to, challenging you to walk a line and look at both sides. Hard hitting stuff.
Dario Argento’s Trauma is simultaneously one of the most loopy and coherent efforts from the maestro. Most of his earlier work is pure sensory and atmospheric bliss, detached from things like logic and story. While this one does in fact have a discernable narrative to go along with its giallo splendor, it’s still as whacked out as anything else in his ouvre. This was the first of many times he would cast his exotic beauty of a daughter Asia in a lead role, here playing troubled Romanian teenager Aura Petrescu, on the run from dark forces that seem to plague her family. Her lunatic mother (a terrifying Piper Laurie) has her commited and examined by a freaky Doctor (Fredric Forrest in a glorious train wreck of a performance), meanwhile a mysterious serial killer called the headhunter is out there somewhere, decapitating people with a piano wire. It all gets a bit overwhelming for poor Aura, and she runs off, straight into the protective arms of an ex drug addict (Christopher Rydell) who becomes her guardian and eventual lover. Argento is terrific in the role, exuding dark beauty and burnished resilience in the face of many terrors. Brad Dourif has an intense extended cameo as a doctor with icky ties to the origin of the headhunter as well, adding a welcome bonus horror flavor. Also watch for another intense actor, James Russo, playing a police detective determined to nab the killer for good. As far as Dario’s stuff goes, this is about as complete and cohesive a narrative as you will find. Granted it’s not the garish psychedelia of classics like Suspiria, Phenomena and Inferno, but a little more subdued and clinical, a dark fairy tale that gets geniunly scary in several excellently staged scenes and provides loads of uneasy atmosphere.