The Conversation (1974)

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Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford

Revisited this one recently to show it to my wife who has a penchant for mystery thriller movies. I find this to be Coppola’s third best film after Apocalypse and The Godfather, its use of sound design editing music, dialogue, and sound effects to reveal aspects of the mystery was innovative and engaging. A reflection of the times in which it was released, this became an unintentional echo of the Watergate trials.

The film follows a freelance surveillance expert working in San Francisco, hired to monitor a couple’s conversation for a cryptic business executive played by Harrison Ford. Disturbed by details of the conversation and an increase in suspicioius events surrounding his business and the job, Hackman’s character decides to delve deeper into the background of the assignment and discovers a horrible secret that could ruin his career if not his life.

Several scenes in this movie still stick with me, and it was refreshing upon viewing again after about 10 years to see my mind’s eye had preserved them accurately. The long lens deep focus shots of the couple walking through the crowd, the lonely, empty frames capturing Hackman at work in his warehouse office, the horrific toilet scene overlaid with distorted screams, and the final shot of Hackman, mentally broken, surrounded by the destructive power of his own paranoia. Credit where credit is due to Walter Murch, master editor and crafter of many these memorable interwoven sounds and images.

Also by this director: The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979)

Blue Velvet (1986)

Directed by David Lynch

Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern

Today I was reading about a man who designed his coffin to look like a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can, and naturally, I though of Blue Velvet. Widely claimed to be Lynch’s best film, Velvet was also one of his more controversial given his on-screen treatment of Isabella Rossellini and the sadistic nature of Hopper’s character Frank Booth. What came from the film was a genre-bending take on the psychological thriller and one of the most memorable villains to ever utter the words, “Heineken? Fuck that shit!” You know the rest.

The film is largely is based on a song (Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet), a feeling (the film’s time period), and an image, namely captured in the film’s opening sequence, when young college student, Jeffrey Beaumont, discovers a severed human ear in a vacant lot. The ear, represents a hole into another world, in this case, the underworld. A world that sucks Beaumont in with its dark temptations of violence and sex.

Befriending the sheriff’s daughter, Beaumont starts to investigate the case, which leads him to the Slow Club, where he encounters lounge singer Dorothy Vallens. Jeffrey finds her apartment, sneaks in while he thinks she’s at the club, only to be caught by her…and fellated at knifepoint! Enter jealous sadomaschist Frank Booth and Jeffrey is shoved into a closet and forced to watch Vallens get violently ravaged. Fascinated, Jeffrey follows Frank and is introduced to a seedy world of drugs and violent crime.

Hopper completely commits himself to his role as Frank and the character shines in horrific splendor because of it. Some of the most insane lines you’ll ever hear a human being utter come out of Frank Booth’s mouth and it’ll leave you wide-eyed and 100% entertained. Arguably his best role.

Scenes to note are the symbolic editing during the rape scene, cutting back and forth from fire and layered alien sound, and Booth’s amyl trip in the car, best depiction of drug-induced psychosis I’ve ever seen. Next to A Straight Story, Dune, or the Elephant Man, this is probably Lynch’s most accessible film for the mainstream audience, but it still has those elements of his personality pervasively through and through that earned him the nickname, “Jimmy Stewart from Mars.”

Other Notable Films by this Director: Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001)

Les Diaboliques (1954)

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Starring Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot

What attracted me to this movie was a review I read somewhere that called Les Diaboliques, “the greatest Alfred Hitchcock movie never made,” and wow, does it feel like one. Rumors abound that Hitchcock lost out on the right to the novel by a matter of hours. Though Clouzot lends his own directorial style and executes some truly scary and creepy moments that still hold up to scrutiny today.

A brutal headmaster of a provincial boarding school terrorizes his wife and mistress to the point where the two conspire to kill him. They drown him and dump his body in the school pool only to find the next day the body is missing! Tense days pass until signs start to point to the headmaster moving about the campus. A haunting seqeunce punctuates the climax of the film, but I’m not going to ruin it for you.

I was torn between reviewing this Clouzot film and Wages of Fear, but I’ll tackle that one later, for it warrants its own review. Much better than the Sharon Stone remake, this classic horror film is not to be missed.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Wages of Fear (1953)

Insomnia (1997)

Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg

Starring: Stellan Skarsgard

Having an obsession with film noir out of college, I immediately gravitated toward Insomina, when I heard the director’s aim was to turn the genre on its head. It was this visual style, using pervasive light in a disorienting and ubitiquitous manner, combined with the powerful performance by Stellan Skarsgard that cemented this film in my subconcious.

Being a pilot when I saw this film, I was all too familiar with the phenomena of insomnia, traveling through multiple time zones every day, never being able to convince your body and mind when night and day were falling. My travels also frequently took me to the Scandanavian countries, so I could relate to the way the constant sunlight wreaked havoc on the senses of the lead character in the film. The director magically captured this experience and combined it with a tense thriller in a completely unique way.

Unlike the remake by Christopher Nolan, the original’s protagonist is far less likable and in turn more watchable. The less sleep he gets, the deeper a hole he sinks into. Accidentally killing his partner while investigating a serial killer in the Norweigian Artic, detective Jonas Engstrom, decides to cover up his mistake by blaming the murder on the killer. But his plan quickly unravels with his psyche, the less sleep he gets, and the more crimes he commits in an attempt to assuage his ever increasing guilt.

Skarsgard’s best performance to date in my opinion, this relentlessly bright film is at the same time, one of the darkest I’ve ever seen.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Prozac Nation (2001)

Don’t get this mixed up with the American version, they’re as different as night and day…see what I did there?

Rebecca (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Lawrence Olivier, Joan Fontaine

Awards: Academy Award (Best Picture)

As an avid Hitchcock fan, I found Rebecca an enthralling mystery film ahead of its time. Edited in camera, the film is technically sound and expertly plotted with a solid narrative and plenty of unexpected twists and turns.  This was the same studio to produce the Academy Award winning best picture of the year before, Gone with the Wind.

The story follows an unnamed common woman, companion to a rich woman in Monte Carlo. While there she meets a rich widower, Max De Winter. They fall in love, marry and return to Manderlay, Winter’s estate in England. The new wife has big shoes to fill though, trying to live up to the expectations created by the dead first wife, Rebecca, as related by the obsessive and sometimes dangerous housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

Danvers tries her best to sabotage the overwhelmed young new wife, constantly reviving the memory of Rebecca to the torment of Winter. Winter’s grief leads to suspicion though, when the events surrounding his first wife’s death come into question. A multi-layered mystery unfolds with haunting conclusions.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), The 39 Steps (1935), Rear Window (1954), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946)

The Third Man (1949)

Director: Carol Reed

Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten

Awards: BFI Best British Film of the 20th Century (1999)

Quite simply, my favorite film. Out of work, novel writer Holly Martins arrives in war-torn Vienna looking for a job, only to find his only friend, Henry Lime dead. Upon investigating further, Holly comes to find that his friend was not the stand-up citizen he assumed, rather a ruthless black market smuggler, who staged his own death to escape the authorities.

Shot with stark contrasting expressionistic lighting, forced perspective, and signature dutched angles, this film stands the test of time as having a technical style all its own. The script is tight and smart, the dialogue captivating, especially the additions to Greene’s script by a young Orson Welles. The locations are gritty and believable, having captured a post WWII Vienna that will never exist again.

Also to note is the unqiue score all played on an instrument called the zither by Anton Karas. From the poster hanging in my living room, “He’ll have you in a dither with his zither!”

Don’t miss one of the greatest on-screen villain performances in cinema history.

Other Notable Films by this Director: The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

While the original trailer is out there, I thought the remade TCM trailer more engaging for modern audiences: