The Conversation Review

In between the first two "Godfather" films, Francis Ford Coppola 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 failed to get wholeheartedly behind 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 desperately 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 saxophone for company. The film is about what happens when he breaks his own cardinal rule of non-involvement.

It's almost 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 - Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams - 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 trademark 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. He's dreadfully wrong of course and this puts him in the company of those other great Hollywood fallguys like Scotty in Vertigo, Marlowe in Altman's The Long Goodbye, J.J. Gittes in Chinatown and, of course, Hackman's own Harry Moseby in Night Moves. Because of the way he sees the world, he is exactly the wrong person to solve the mystery and he ends up destroying himself and those around him. The unforgettable final image is an eloquent vision of the paradoxical freedom brought by complete despair.
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. 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. This moment makes your heart break for Harry but Hackman refuses to sentimentalise the character and he remains slightly exasperating and ultimately pathetic. Harry Caul is among the cinema's greatest studies of what harrowing loneliness does to a human being.

The release of The Conversation was timely but Coppola's script was actually 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. 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. Coppola doesn't showboat here as he does in much of his other work. His work is self-effacing and generous to the performers. The real hero of the production may be Walter Murch. Not only is his editing note-perfect - especially towards the end, where he times one classic 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 moving. Coppola may have made bigger and bolder films but I'm not entirely sure he ever made a better one.

The Disc

Studiocanal are re-releasing Coppola's film on DVD and Blu Ray. We haven't been able to get hold of a Blu Ray copy so this is a review of the DVD release. I will update with comments on the Blu Ray as soon as I can.

The film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It's a good transfer with a nice level of fine grain and some suitably muted colours which enable the important shade of red to come through strikingly. The contrast is sometimes a little glaring but this varies from scene to scene and settles down after the first twenty minutes or so. Indeed, it may be intentional on Coppola's part. To my eyes this transfer looks identical to the 2003 Buena Vista Region 2 release.

There are are a number of soundtrack options. My own preference is for the original mono track which comes across quite beautifully and keeps all the elements in a fine balance. Also included are stereo and 5.1 surround remixes which mess about with the dialogue and effects in a way which I found alarming since I'm so used to seeing the film in its original mono format. Optional English and German subtitles are provided.

The extras from the previous release have all been transferred across to this new disc. There are two commentaries; one from Coppola who has a lot to say even if he sometimes takes a while to get the point; and another from Walter Murch who speaks less but is generally more interesting when he does. Also included are screen tests by Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford, both of whom appeared around the same time in American Graffiti and one of whom would go on to major stardom some years later - no prizes for guessing the answer to that one. There are two short interviews, one recorded in 2010 with composer David Shire and an on-set piece with Gene Hackman. Both of these are interesting but not long enough to be anything more than superficial. There's also a look at how the locations have changed in the intervening 37 years, similar to the ones features on many Doctor Who DVDs, and a lengthy feature during which Coppola can be heard reading out a large part of the script. Not entirely sure what the point of this latter feature is since I'd rather just watch the film but it will no doubt have its admirers. Lastly, there are two older pieces. The first is a contemporary making-of documentary which is, as usual with this sort of thing, interesting but very bland. Secondly, there's a glimpse of a short film, No Cigar, made by Coppola when he was at film school. He talks about how it anticipates the themes of The Conversation.

It's always a pleasure to watch The Conversation and for those who haven't made the leap to Blu Ray, this Studiocanal DVD is a very good way to see it.

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