4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Francis Ford Coppola Edition

4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films is just what it says it is, 4 (or more) shots from 4 (or more) of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today is Francis Ford Coppola’s birthday! Coppola is a bit of a controversial figure among some film scholars. While everyone agrees that, with the first two Godfathers, he directed two of the greatest films of all time (and some people would include Apocalypse Now on that list as well) and that he was one of the most important directors of the 70s, his post-Apocalypse Now career is often held up as a cautionary tale. Some say that Coppola’s career suffered because of his own excessive behavior and spending. Others argue that he was treated unfairly by a film industry that resented his refusal to compromise his vision and ambitions. Personally, my natural instinct is to always side with the artist over the executives and that’s certainly the case with Coppola. Coppola has only completed three films since the start of this current century and none of them were widely released. Say what you will about the films themselves, that still doesn’t seem right.

Regardless of how one views his latter career, Coppola is responsible for some of the best and most important films ever made. And today, on his birthday, it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Francis Ford Coppola Films

The Godfather (1972, dir by Francis Ford Coppola, DP: Gordon Willis)
The Conversation (1974, dir by Francis Ford Coppola, DP: Bill Butler)
The Godfather, Part II (1974, dir by Francis Ford Coppola, DP: Gordon Willis)
Apocalypse Now (1979, dir by Francis Ford Coppola, DP: Vittorio Storaro)

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: The Conversation (dir. by Francis Ford Coppola)

As a result of my continuing effort to see every single film ever nominated for best picture, I’ve been lucky enough to both discover and rediscover a handful of excellent films that, for whatever reason, have ended up forgotten and neglected in the years since they scored their nominations.  One of the more recent of these films was Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece of a paranoia, the 1974 Best Picture nominee The Conversation.*

The Conversation tells the story of Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert who, along with his colleague Stan (played by the great John Cazale), is hired by a businessman (Robert Duvall) to bug a conversation between Duvall’s much younger wife (played by Cindy Williams) and a man who might be her lover (played by Fredric Forrest).  Harry, we quickly discover, is a man who values his privacy and who manages to find a balance between his unsavory job and his devout religious faith by maintaining an impenetrable shield of detachment from the rest of humanity.  He is a man who hides from the world inside of his apartment, only allowing himself to show the slightest hint of emotion when playing his saxophone.  In one of the film’s best scenes, Harry finds himself awkwardly socializing with a far more sleazy acquaintance (played by Alan Garfield, one of the great character actors of the 70s) and it becomes apparent that Harry may be the best in the business but he’s still the ultimate outsider.

However, Harry is forced to confront the contradictions of his own lifestyle when he listens to the conversation between Forrest and Williams and believes that he might have found evidence that both Forrest and Williams are in fear for their lives.  With Duvall’s operatives demanding the surveillance tapes, Harry Caul soon finds himself becoming more and more paranoid and unstable as he finds it more and more difficult to justify his detachment.  Harry finds himself obsessively listening to the conversation over and over again, going over every possible nuance and emphasis to try to figure out what’s actually being said.  Of course, by the end of the film, it’s obvious to both Harry and the audience that nothing is as simple as it sounds. 

Compared to the Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, the Conversation is a surprisingly low-key and rather muted film.  A lot of this is because, as opposed to the Corleones and Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is a complete and total introvert, a man who makes his living by observing a world that he refuses to be a part of.  Though the film works quite well as a thriller, it works best when viewed as a sympathetic character study of a paranoid and anti-social human being.  Hackman full inhabits the role, bringing Harry — with all of his frustrating contradictions and conflicted actions — to oddly vibrant life.  The film ultimately serves as a sad-eyed look at how a good person can justify doing bad things and how the inevitable consequences of those bad things can only be delayed for so long.

On a final note, an impossibly young Harrison Ford shows up here as Duvall’s sinister assistant.  He plays the role with just the right amount of prissy arrogance and he has a great scene where he asks Harry is he wants to try a homemade cookie.  “They’re good,” Ford assures him.

So is The Conversation.


* Of course, another Coppola film — The Godfather, Part II — beat the Conversation for best picture.  However, The Conversation did win the Palme D’Or at Cannes that year.  It was a good year to be Francis Ford Coppola.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (dir. by Richard Shepard)

Despite only appearing in 5 films and dying 8 years before I was born, John Cazale is one of my favorite actors.  You might not recognize his name but, if you love the films of the 70s, you know who John Cazale is because he appeared in some of the most iconic films of the decade.  Though he’s probably best known for playing poor Fredo in first two Godfather films, Cazale also appeared in The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter.  All five of his films were Oscar-nominated for best picture and three of them won.  All five are, in their own individual ways, classics of modern cinema and, though he was never more than a supporting player, Cazale gave performances of such unexpected emotional depth that he elevated each of these films just by his very presence.  Tragically, Cazale died at the age of 42 of lung cancer.  At the time, he had just finished filming The Deer Hunter and he was engaged to marry an up-and-coming actress named Meryl Streep.

I Knew It Was You is a documentary that both attempts to tell the story of Cazale’s life as well as pay tribute to him an actor.  While it fails somewhat to do the former, it succeeds flawlessly as a tribute.  The film is filled with footage of Cazale’s legendary performances and watching these clips, you’re struck by not only Cazale’s talent but his courage as well.  As more than one person comments during the documentary, it takes a lot of guts to so completely inhabit a role like The Godfather’s Fredo Corleone.  While other actors might be tempted to overplay a character like Fredo (essentially winking at the audience as if to say, “I’m not a weakling like this guy,”) Cazale was willing to completely inhabit his characters, brining to life both the good and the bad of their personalities.  Watching the clips, you realize that Cazale, as an actor, really was becoming stronger and stronger with each performance.  On a sadder note, this documentary make it  painfully obvious just how sick Cazale was in The Deer Hunter.  The contrast between the nervous, lumbering Cazale of Dog Day Hunter and his gaunt, unbearably sad appearance in The Deer Hunter is simply heart breaking.

The documentary is full of interviews with actors and directors who either worked with or were inspired by John Cazale and you’re immediately struck by the affection that they all still obviously feel for him even 30 years after his death.  Among those interviewed are Steve Buscemi, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Sam Rockwell, and Richard Dreyfuss.  (I thought I knew every bit of Godfather trivia but I learned something new from this film when I found out that Richard Dreyfuss came close to being Fredo before Coppola saw Cazale in a play.)   Perhaps most interesting are the interviews where actors like Pacino, De Niro, and Gene Hackman talk about how acting opposite John Cazale caused them to give better performances than they might have otherwise.  If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that a classic film is, more often than not, a collaborative effort.

Where this documentary drops the ball is in detailing who Cazale was as a person.  Though everyone’s affection for him is obvious, we learn little about what drove the man who was so sad and tragic as Fredo Corleone.  Cazale’s upbringing is covered in about 2 minutes of flashy graphics and his untimely death (and his struggle to complete his Deer Hunter role) is also covered a bit too quickly.  There’s a fascinating and inspiring story there but this documentary only hints at it.  For reasons I still can’t figure out, this thing only lasts 40 minutes.  Even just an extra 15 minutes would have been helpful.

Hollywood director Brett Ratner is also interviewed and I imagine this probably has something to do with the fact that Ratner co-produced this documentary.  So, I guess Ratner is a Cazale fan and good for him but it’s still kinda jarring to see him there with directors like Lumet and actors like Pacino and De Niro.  Ratner, to be honest, is the only one of the people interviewed who actually comes across as having nothing of value to say.  Which isn’t all that surprising when you consider that Ratner is pretty much the golden child of bland, mainstream filmmaking right now.

Still, even if it never reaches the heights of Werner’s Herzog’s My Best Fiend, I still have to recommend I Knew It Was You as a touching tribute to a truly great actor.  As a bonus, the DVD contains two short films featuring a very young and intense John Cazale.  Watching him, you can’t help but mourn that he wasn’t in more movies but you’re so thankful for the legendary performances that he was able to give us.