Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale
The Directors Company/American Zoetrope
This isn’t a B movie or an obscure movie but it is an old movie (old being defined as older than me – I’m of late 70′s vintage)) and so I think it fits under the broader umbrella of the movies I want to talk about on my site.
The film opens on a square in San Francisco. The camera is up on high, slowly zooming in towards the people milling about in the square during lunch. A street mime is going around, bugging the shit out of people, as street mimes tend to do. We see Gene Hackman as Harry, a guy who, along with his team, are eavesdropping on a younger couple in the square. The viewer doesn’t know anything about the younger couple – who they are, why they are there, what they are really talking about or anything else. Neither does Harry. Everything the viewer learns about the younger couple, who are pivotal to the plot, they learn the moment Harry learns it. We also learn that Harry is paranoid. Very paranoid. Harry is acutely aware of the degree that he is able to learn everything about everybody and the better he does, the more he decides that he himself must become more private. Not only that, Harry learns that he doesn’t want to have any secrets, or that’s the way I interpreted it anyway. His entire life, like the toilet lid (you’ll see it in the movie) is sanitized for his own protection. His paranoia only builds as the movie goes on. Also he pretends that he doesn’t care about the people he bugs, which probably isn’t true. Harry only tells himself that he doesn’t care as a sort of defense mechanism – insulation for his true feelings. His schmaltzy short fat competitor from Detroit shows himself as the one who really doesn’t care, and Harry is not like that man. Harry does care, and that’s what starts to destroy him. Part of what I found creepy about the movie was that I see a little bit of myself in Harry Caul.
Gene Hackman is, well, he’s Gene freaking Hackman. He could play a mailman and make it compelling. I’ve seen him play a cop, a thief, a basketball coach, a football coach, a con man of sorts, an Admiral and a B movie producer, among other things. We’ve seen him chase heroin importers, be a Polish general, be the President, fight Superman, and offer to make espresso. The man is a bad ass and a fine actor and in this movie he does not disappoint.
Hackman is supported by some other good actors. John Cazale, who always seems to play a great sort of nerdy loser plays Hackman’s work partner in the bugging business. His scooter-riding, pervy picture taking guy makes a nice foil to Hackman’s straight-laced lifestyle. Hackman’s competitor in the bugging business is played by Allen Garfield. who is one of those guys that you see in several movies and recognize in a moment, but never know his name. Garfield always seems to play a sort of shifty sleaze ball, which he also does pretty well in this picture. He totally looks like he should be a used car salesman. Han Solo, I mean Harrison Ford, plays the assistant to the man who hires Harry to do the bugging.
This was a movie I knew nothing about, other than its existence. I went into it knowing the lead actor, director and after reading a little bit about the plot. This movie was really interesting and definitely worth watching. It doesn’t quite fit into any of the “normal” movie molds. The plot and story slowly build, piece by piece, until you slowly realize you, like Harry, are in over your head. The pieces slowly come together one…at…a…time… and until all the pieces are finally put together, you don’t know what the puzzle is supposed to look like.
A note about John Cazale which I learned while writing this: He only acted in five movies – The Godfather I & II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. Every movie he was in was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award! He sadly died from lung cancer shortly after filming his parts for The Deer Hunter.