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EXCERPT: The Conversation

Peter Keough discusses how The Conversation  is a B List movie.
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 31, 2008

The Conversation
Francis Ford Coppola, 1974

How does The Conversation qualify as a B movie? Traditionally, the term B-Movie refers to those cheap, readily accessible, generally lurid exploitation films from pulpy genres designed to fill the second billing for the main feature. The Conversation, meanwhile, defies genre, frustrates narrative expectations and challenges and sometimes alienates viewers. It is subtle, complex, stark, fugue like, self-conscious and utterly ambitious. It was, however, cheap, or at least initially. Otherwise, it would seem to be the opposite of a B-Movie

Francis Ford Coppola would be the one to know, having spent the first three years or so of his career making B-Movies, getting his first directorial credits with films like the German produced The Bellboy and the Playgirls (perhaps it sounds better in German: Mit Eva fing die Sünde an), made in 3-D in 1962 (“In COLOR plus the new depth perception…it puts the girls right in your lap!”) and the legendary Dementia 13 for Roger Corman in 1963.

But in 1972, when The Conversation went into production, Francis Ford Coppola was the most powerful filmmaker in Hollywood. The Godfather was making more money than any picture since Gone With the Wind and had won three Oscars, including Best Picture. The film’s success intoxicated Coppola with dreams of artistic grandeur, but the process of making it had struck him as frustrating and demeaning. Making a big budget film for a mass audience, adapting another writer’s bestselling potboiler, working under the neurotic oversight of an oppressive corporate studio like Paramount — this did not fulfill his dream of being an auteur. The Godfather — ranked number two, just below the perennial Citizen Kane, on the American Film Institute’s list on the 100 greatest Hollywood movies of all time — was not exactly a B movie, but it was a kind of work for hire, perhaps an immensely more successful Finian’s Rainbow. But it did allow Coppola to make a film worthy of his talent and artistic vision. A film like The Conversation.

That probably wasn’t how Paramount regarded The Conversation, however. For them it was a necessary investment (budgeted at around $1 million) to placate their genius director and make sure he followed through with the sequel to the astoundingly lucrative Godfather. In a sense, The Conversation was a new kind of B picture, one that would catch on in subsequent decades: a cheaply made auteurist indulgence made to stroke a talented, independent-minded director’s ego in the gap between genuine, money-making features.

This new kind of B picture, then, was an intensely personal expression of the filmmaker’s soul. As such it would include homages to the works auteurs, in this case Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, which Coppola acknowledges as an inspiration. Despite that pervasive influence (one scene in particular is a dishearteningly direct rip-off), The Conversation, certainly when seenin retrospect and in the context of Coppola’s subsequent career, is so personal as to be almost solipsistically self-reflexive.

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