The Final Shot of The Conversation – The Third Man considered

Strangely, it wasn’t the recent NSA ruling by a Federal Court smacking down Bush’s illegal spy ring that got me to netflix one of my old favorite Watergate-era films.

What got me going back to my favorite time in film history, America’s 1970s, was actually the fade-to-black shot of film-noir masterpiece The Third Man (1949) [view trailer]. You know, that brave long quiet last shot where the loyal and jilted lover of Orson Welles, Valli (Anna Schmidt) walks towards the camera for an aching 65 seconds of heavy zither music only to pass her suitor, the audience surrogate, without a glance.

The mesmerizing hollowness of that last shot reminded me of the last shot of 1974’s The Conversation. Francis Ford Coppola wrote, produced, directed and released this taut film as part of American Zoetrope in 1974.

The low-budget masterpiece The Conversation was in production before and during the Watergate era (and between Coppola’s two Godfather films) – a time of heightened fear over Nixon’s violations of our civil liberties. Its cinematography illustrates the claustrophobic themes of the destruction of privacy, alienation, guilt, voyeurism, justified paranoia, unprincipled corporate power and personal responsibility. Buoyed by an astounding sound design, this film more effectively responded to the growing, ominous 20th century threats of the loss of personal freedom and privacy than any other film of the Watergate years. [view trailer]

Also, you know when a film is cited by both Gene Hackman and Francis Ford Coppola as their own favorite film, they were at the top of their game. Coppola’s prescient understanding of national audience mood and his ability to speak to it, is a skill good storytellers should practice.

More about The Conversation first: The marvelous sound work by Walter Murch and Arthur Rochester was deserving of an Oscar for its stellar sound-mixing of interdependent elements: taped conversations, muffled voices, background and other mechanically-generated noises, musical/piano accompaniment (Hackman learned to play jazz Sax for the film) and other ambient sounds. In keeping with the tacit mission of American Zoetrope which was to teach European Masters’ innovations to America, the film has many thematic similarities to director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966).

But, damnit all, this last scene (above), the last 20 seconds of the shot, is so perfect for crystallizing all plotlines and themes into one distilled epitomical moment, that I cannot help but wonder if that particular shot was the germ of the entire film — and from there, working backwards, Coppola provided backstory, character arc, and false resolutions. Coppola has said that he put the story together after a conversation with director Irvin Kershner about wiretapping and surveillance. Combine that with the fact that the film was originally imagined as a horror flick but as events unfolded in Nixon’s madhouse, with a paranoid delusional psychotic President bugging his own aides, the horror flick became a stark reality film.

Those who read The New York Times‘ 1971 series of the Pentagon Papers exposing Nixon’s lies about the Vietnam War, and the 1972 Washington Post series uncovering Nixon’s response, the Whitehouse Plumbers, knew that Nixon was spying on his enemies list. But it wasn’t until 1973 when the shit hit the fan with the existence of the Whitehouse Tapes being made public and then the operatic culmination of Nixon’s “my kingdom for a horse” soliloquy (aka The Saturday Night Massacre), that a critical mass of Americans knew just what kind of clusterfuck the Republicans were running in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Conversation dropped into theatres in the Spring of 1974, during the Senate Watergate Commission hearings and right before the 1974 Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in United States v. Nixon that the Imperial Presidency (Unitary Executive) theory was bullshit. The film found a sufficiently paranoid fertile audience and reviews hailed Coppola as visionary. The film was immediately added to the Academy’s short list for that upcoming Oscar season. Considering pre-production timeframes, Coppola had to forsee all of these events or at least the sense of our national mood in the wake of them, a full year in advance.

Now, with the shit hitting the fan again, as Nixon/Ford alumni Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. sprint into the poetically ironic arms of George Santayana, I predict The Conversation will have a second life soon. Rereleased on DVD in 2000 in a nice set with commentary and extras, this The Conversation is even more timely in 2006 than it’s original 70s context where the boogeyman of a malignant hyper-powerful corporation verged on tinfoil hattery. Sadly, now, an evil multinational corporation skulking hand-in-hand with shadowy government agencies is, well, understood.

Here is where the excavation of history comes into play: Coppola was the best American director of the decade because he saw American history as a story which was then taking a siniser turn — his 70s films were each one slighly ahead of the curve. Just as that last scene of The Conversation could very well have been the impetus for the entire film, which itself was a perfect time capsule of a very complex and quickly changing socio-political context, I wonder what the silent pantomime end scene would be which would tie off all the various story lines running in American politics today.

Who can see the arc of current events as a story line clearly enough to foresee a year down the road? To be as brilliant as Coppola we would need to see at least a year in advance. So, newshounds and tide watchers, if we come upon the perfect allegorical moment and work backwards, we can know how to play the ’08 primaries, or the impeachment hearings, or the war with Iran, or the housing market crash, or the…

I think Clooney hit the nail on the head for last year’s zeitgeist with Good Night, and Good Luck. For next year, maybe Syriana had it with this:

George Clooney should make All The Shah’s Men it will be perfect for the future. What other stories come to mind for the future’s headlines?

Bonus: view the other notable scene from The Third Man when we finally meet… the third man.

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