Brian De Palma

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is the “little” 1974 psychological thriller he squeezed in between the first two Godfather films, which fast-forwarded the disquiet of Antonioni’s Blow-Up into the Watergate Era, even if the director has always considered it more a personal than political film. The movie, which hangs on San Francisco surveillance expert Harry Caul’s descent into madness, remains a classic and has actually grown in stature as the Digital Age replaced the analog one. When I wrote briefly about the cerebral movie six years ago, I concluded with this:

In the era that saw the downfall of an American President who listened to the tapes of others and erased his own, The Conversation was amazingly relevant, but in some ways it may be even more meaningful in this exhibitionist age, in which we gleefully hand over our privacy to satisfy our egos. As Caul and Nixon learned, and as we may yet, those who press PLAY don’t always get to choose when to press STOP.•

This weekend, we had a sitting American President (baselessly) accuse his predecessor of tapping his phone lines, all the while the Intelligence Community searches for real tapes of this Administration’s officials conspiring with the Kremlin during the campaign. Such evidence would be treasonous.

It’s not shocking that Trump’s viciously ugly brand of nostalgia has forced us backwards into a Cold Way type of paranoia, in which 20th-century espionage is predominant. The greater insight to take from The Conversation may be more about the near future, however, when nobody has to hit PLAY because there’s no longer a STOP.

In an amazing find, the good people at Cinephilia & Beyond published a 1974 Filmmakers Newsletter interview in which Brian De Palma quizzed Coppola about this masterwork. It’s more a discussion of cinema than of Watergate, and there’s a very interesting exchange in which the subject reveals why he doesn’t regard Hitchcock with awe.

Here’s the opening:

Here’s a wonderful making-of featurette about The Conversation, which asked questions about a world where everyone is a spy and spied upon. The surprise more than 40 years later: Few seemed upset as we crept into the new order of the techno-society. We haven’t been trapped after all; we’ve logged on and signed up for it.

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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing for Robert De Niro in Brian De Palma's "Hi, Mom!"

Travis Bickle wasn’t the first volatile Vietnam veteran that Robert De Niro portrayed. Years before the blistering violence of Taxi Driver, the great actor twice played Jon Rubin, a Peeping Tom/former soldier trying to make his way in a New York City that had gone to seed. De Niro handled the role in a pair of dark comedies for Brian De Palma: 1968’s Greetings, which was largely forgettable, and 1970’s Hi, Mom!, a raucous if scattershot machine gun of a satire that fired at everything from urban decay to the sexual revolution to guerilla theater to Black Power to white liberals.

Rubin, a demolitions expert in Vietnam, is discharged into a crappy, crime-ridden New York during the start of the city’s slide into economic malaise. After renting a rat trap for forty bucks a month from a disgusting landlord (Charles Durning), the peeper tries to parlay his voyeuristic tendencies into a career as an erotic filmmaker. Rubin talks a blowhard porn producer (Allen Garfield) into giving him two grand so that he can record the sexual exploits of his neighbors using a telescopic lens. When the residents across the way turn out to be bores, the auteur tries to spice things up by seducing his comely neighbor Judy Bishop (Jennifer Salt). But a camera malfunction messes up the big scene, and the veteran decides to turn his attention to an extreme guerrilla theater company that hopes to expose the Caucasian silent majority to Black Power. The film really takes off at this point, not only mocking the excesses of the theater troupe but sort of sympathizing with them.

“You know, tragedy is a funny thing,” Rubin says at one point, and sometimes it is in this intentionally crude movie that matched the madness of its time and place with a craziness all its own.•

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