The Conversation Review

Francis Ford Coppola, in between the first two "Godfather" films, took the opportunity to direct a script he had written in the late sixties called The Conversation. It wasn't particularly successful with audiences on first release, not least because the studio tried to bury it, but it won the Palme D'Or at Cannes and has gone on to become one of the signature films of the Hollywood revival of the seventies.

It's a small-scale film about surveillance expert Harry Caul (Hackman), the "best bugger on the West Coast" and a totally inadequate man. In his working life, he prides himself on his detached attitude to his job; while he listens in to people's conversations, he refuses to become involved in their lives or concern himself with what they are saying. His personal life, virtually non-existent, is protected with a secrecy that borders on paranoia. He has few friends and no intimate relationships; his girlfriend, who lives in an apartment he pays for, is not allowed to get too close to him. We realise that Harry is damaged by the consequences of a notorious bugging operation in New York which left three people dead, and that this has led him to retreat from the world. Living in a little shell of his own privacy, Harry is content to let the world go by, retreating into a lonely solitude with only his jazz records and saxaphone for company. The film is about what happens when he breaks his own cardinal rule of non-involvement.

In a sense, it's impossible to review The Conversation without giving too much away, but I'll do my best. In a bravura opening shot, performed using an electronically controlled zoom lens, we move down into Union Square in San Francisco, where a couple are walking round and round having a conversation. Coppola's six cameras gradually tip us off that they are being recorded by a variety of people, one of whom is Harry in his omnipresent raincoat. In decoding this conversation through the use of his specially designed sound equipment, Harry realises that something terrible is going to happen as a result of his surveillance, but he doesn't know exactly what that something might be. So he refuses to hand over the tapes to his employer's assistant, the creepy Martin Stett (a very young Harrison Ford), and instead works on them himself, trying to work out exactly what is going to happen. The conversation of the title is filtered through Harry's romanticised view of events, leading him to assumptions about its meaning which he then decides to act upon.

This plot is gripping and clever, with a turn of events towards the end that hinges, in brilliant fashion, on the interpretation of one single line of dialogue. But it's the texture of the film that makes it so special. Harry is a fascinating, tragic character, played with genius by an unusually subdued Gene Hackman. He's present in every scene in the film, and its to Hackman's credit that he never becomes predictable or annoying and the final image of him, playing the blues in the middle of a chaos of his own making, is simply indelible. The other characters tend to be seen from Harry's perspective, but the actors manage to make an impression, especially John Cazale as Harry's frustrated assistant Stan, and Allen Garfield as the monumentally sleazy Bernie Moran, Harry's competitor from New York. Moran appears in the middle of the film during a Surveillance Convention, and commits the ultimate sin of placing a hidden microphone on Harry's person. In a scene of excruciating humiliation, Harry's approaches towards an attractive woman, to whom he opens up a little bit, are recorded and replayed for the amusement of other partygoers.

Coppola's script was written in the late sixties, before the Watergate revelations made bugging all the rage - and the film was shot and finished before the details of the Nixon tapes got into the papers - but it's actually timeless because it deals with the classic film noir theme of the flawed hero among the sharks. Coppola gives this theme a technological twist, using tape technology which now looks a little dated, but in the end, Harry Caul is a soulmate of J.J.Gittes, Harry Moseby (also played by Hackman in the excellent Night Moves) and the Marlowe of Altman's The Long Goodbye. There are several influences on the storyline - Herman Hesse's fashionable "Steppenwolf" and Antonioni's Blow Up being the most obvious - but it stands on its own very well. The direction is fluid and observant, often adopting a "surveillance" style by staking-out the characters as the wander in and out of frame. Real hero of the production is, however, Walter Murch. Not only is his editing note-perfect - especially towards the end, where he times one great shock exquisitely - but his sound design is impressively intricate. Much of the last third of the film is without dialogue, but it's certainly not silent. Cunningly placed sound keeps you on your guard and David Shire's plaintive piano score is nicely integrated.

The Conversation is a slow-burning film, and to an inattentive viewer it could look as if nothing much is happening. But, if it demands a lot from the viewer, it repays close attention with an intelligent study of loneliness, social isolation and a society in which conspiracy has become a way of life. The last act is as suspenseful and thrilling as you could wish for, and the final turn of events is both frightening and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

The Disc

This was one of my most wanted discs, and Paramount have, for once, lived up to expectations. It's a good transfer and the disc has some worthwhile extra features.

The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen format. The ratio is not stated on the case, but looks to me like 1.66:1. It's a very pleasing transfer as well. This is an old film which hasn't received much care in the past from Paramount, but this looks like a relatively new print, without scratches or other damage. There is some grain here and there, but it's not excessive and better than some other titles from the early seventies such as Dirty Harry. In fact, it's safe to say that the film looks as good as I've ever seen it. Good contrast, nicely defined colours - check out the reds in the hotel scenes near the end - and strong, deep blacks without any serious artifacting problems. I was very pleased with this. It hasn't got the "wow" factor of, say, North By Northwest , but it's better than I dared hope for.

The soundtrack has been remixed from the original mono track into Dolby Digital 5.1. This was supervised by Walter Murch, and it's a lot better than most of these remixes. In fact, it's subtle and intelligent, without much surround activity. The track has been carefully modulated to ensure that the right elements of the soundtrack are emphasised at the right time - Murch's original sound design is legendary, and this remix is quite satisfactory. However, I would have been happy with a cleaned up version of the original mono track, personally.

The extra features are very interesting. First up is an original 1974 featurette called "Close Up On The Conversation", which lasts about 7 minutes and has some fascinating footage of Coppola on set. The interviews with him and Hackman are standard stuff, but worth listening to.

The original theatrical trailer is included, emphasising Hackman's involvement since he was a big star in 1974 after his Oscar for The French Connection. It does give away quite a few plot points though, so don't watch before you see the film for the first time.

However, the real meat comes with two full-length commentaries. The first is from Coppola, who talks for virtually all of the film. He goes through the genesis of the film and most of the technical aspects of the film, showing particular affection for his friends such as John Cazale. Most interesting though is his account of friction between him and Hackman - it seems that Hackman was unhappy on set and that the relationship between him and Coppola was not good for some of the time. He also discusses plot ellipses and gives his own interpretation of some key questions which have troubled fans of the film.

The second commentary is by editor and sound designer Walter Murch. It's fascinating, if a little dry, and something of a masterclass in the tricks of editing a film to make it both complex and understandable. Since he also discusses, in depth, motivation, structure and production design, this is a commentary that deserves your fill attention. Some will find it a struggle to get though it - Murch hasn't got much of a sense of either humour or frivolity - but it's well worth the effort even if, like me, it takes you two or three sittings.

There are a stingy 12 chapter stops, the names of which give away a little too much, and some very nicely animated themed menus.

The Conversation is, in my opinion, one of the best films ever made, and this disc presents it in a very good light indeed. It's not quite the ultimate edition of the film, but it's certainly the best release that the film has yet enjoyed for home viewing.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 19:34:18

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