Marilyn Monroe, Gene Hackman Films Both Winners

A great advantage of Netflix, particularly the streaming variety, is that the technology allows you to watch whatever kind of movie you're in the mood for. On two recent evenings, in two quite different moods, I watched "The Seven Year Itch," a light comedy from 1955, and "The Conversation," a great Francis Ford Coppola drama from 1974.

Marilyn Monroe, who is the star of "The Seven Year Itch," was a talented comedic actress. She had a light touch, was very natural in front of the camera, and of course, the camera loved her. I used to think that her "talents" were all of the physical variety, but I no longer feel that way. To watch Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch" is to watch an actress with a gift for light comedy.

The film, which was directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, concerns a Manhattan husband whose wife and young son have gone to Maine to escape the sweltering summer heat in New York. (One of the funniest bits in the film, which seems very Wilder-esque, is a prologue of sorts that shows the historic Native American habit of sending the wives and children away from Manhattan island during August.) The husband, a middle-aged publishing executive, meets the Monroe character when a plant comes crashing down from the apartment balcony upstairs.

Much of the film is concerned with the husband's enchantment with the Monroe character, a television spokesperson new to the big city. Along the way, there's lots of champagne poured, tunes played on a grand piano, and the famous scene outside of a New York movie theatre where a passing subway billows up Monroe's white dress as she stands atop a grate. It's a light movie, not without slow parts, but funny and endearing. And great proof of Monroe's talents.

"The Conversation" is a great film. I knew that, for years. Perhaps that's partly why I never watched it all these years. Back when the film came out, in 1974, I remember the great film critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Joe Pollack  gave it 4 stars out of 4 possible. But a movie about surveillance? In the early 1970s, the Watergate era? The news was filled with stories about bugging and surveillance. As an early teenager, I found it all boring. And even a 4-star rating didn't spur me to shell out the $2 it cost to see a movie in those days. (Amazing, but true, if you can believe Mr. Internet ...)

Anyway, after all these years, I saw the film. And it is great. And enjoyable. And stimulating. And a wonderful example of the craft of filmmaking.

The story revolves around a conversation that a man named Harry Caul is eavesdropping on in San Francisco's Union Square, between a young man and a young woman. (The movie opens on this crowded lunch-time crowd. The first character we see is a mime.) Harry Caul, played expertly by Gene Hackman, is at the top of the surveillance game, but he is a shell of a man, worried about revealing anything about himself to anyone.

At the end of the movie, there is a nasty murder. But after the film ended, I began to wonder if the killing was in some ways a metaphor for the toll that technology takes on us all.

Of course, in our current Edward Snowden era, when every news story seems to bring fresh revelations about more spying around the globe ... and around the corner ... perhaps "The Conversation" has never been more relevant.

And the good news: it's a wonderful movie to watch.


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