With films like The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2, and Apocalypse Now to his credit , it’s pretty much a given that if you ask just about anyone what their favorite Francis Ford Coppola flick is the answer’s going to be one of the director’s “holy trinity”. I mean, these aren’t just great movies; they’re a significant part of motion picture history, and, a hundred years from now, cinephiles will still be pouring over every detail of these films. I love them, too. They’re brilliant, moving, and uncompromising classics in every sense of the word, but, as much as I appreciate their genius, there’s one film in Coppola’s impressive body of work that, for me, truly defines him as a master storyteller. That film is 1974’s The Conversation.
Meet Harry Caul (Gene Hackman); a jazz-loving, god-fearing, and intensely private individual as well as a living legend in the field of covert surveillance. If there’s a phone you need tapped, a photo you need taken, or a conversation you want recorded, odds are, Harry Caul can do it for you.
Harry is hired to record a meeting in a San Francisco’s Union Square Park between Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest). His subjects know they’re being watched and make matters difficult for Harry by never staying still for more than a few seconds, walking in circles around the park’s center as has been their routine for days. Harry’s found a way to work around that, however, and records them with three different microphones, each capturing a segment of their discussion. Once the meeting is over, Harry returns to his warehouse office, and begins the task of syncing up the three tapes in order to make a single master recording. Once he pieces the fragments of the conversation together, however, Harry begins to have second thoughts about turning in the tapes to his employer (known only as “the director”) as it seems that Ann and Mark are in a great deal of danger.
Harry wants to be certain this is not the case before handing over the tapes and photographs of the meeting in the park, so he sets up a meeting with the director. When Harry arrives at his employer’s office, however, he is, instead, greeted by the director’s smarmy assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), who informs Harry that he has been authorized to pay Harry for his work and take the materials off his hands. Harry refuses, telling Stett that he’ll only hand over his findings to the director in person, but the young assistant doesn’t take kindly to Harry’s reticence to deal and warns Harry that if he opts to protect the people he was hired to spy on he’s putting his own life in danger.
With nods to Hitchcock and Antonioni, The Conversation is an expertly fashioned and thoroughly riveting thriller. As with Antonioni’s Blow Up, Coppola’s film is all about perception – in this case, what exactly did Harry Caul (as well as we as an audience) hear when he listened to those tapes? The rest of the film plays on this deceptively simple premise, taking advantage of its protagonist’s paranoia, unresolved feelings of guilt, and self-imposed isolation. Harry‘s interpretation of the evidence leads him to believe that the people who hired him to spy on Amy and Mark mean to harm them, but how much of his rationalization is colored by the tragic events of his past? As Harry - our deeply flawed conduit into this world - becomes consumed with doubt and fear, we, too, begin to question what it is we’re seeing as Coppola deftly guides us through the miasma of Harry’s guilt-fueled pursuit of the truth to the film’s shocking conclusion.
The Conversation is not only a master class in suspense filmmaking, it’s also a brilliant character study that serves as a showcase for Hackman, who, here, delivers one of his finest performances. His Harry Caul is one of cinema’s most tragic characters – a man so fiercely guarded that even those who know him best don’t really know him at all. Whether it be his girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr), a woman whose bills he pays in exchange for her occasional company, or his assistant, Stan (John Cazale), from whom he hides all of his trade secrets, Harry keeps everyone at a healthy distance, just as much for their sake as his own. He’s a man who barely exists on paper, with nothing to tie him to anything or anyone, with his only remotely human traits being his love of music and his faith in God. He’s a man who’s just downright uncomfortable in his own skin, and can only find solace in the one-sided relationships he develops with the people he’s paid to spy on. Watching him interact with others is cringe-inducing. It’s as if his voluntary exile from the rest of humanity has rendered him so socially inept that he can barely make eye contact with a person, let alone make any sort of meaningful connection. In one scene in particular - a sort of impromptu “party” at his office – Harry is badgered by a loutish peer from New York (played by the great character actor, Alan Garfield) who knows all about Harry’s sordid past. At first, a simmering Harry deflects the man’s persistent questioning with uncomfortable smiles and shrugs, but, as when the harassment proves too much, Harry explodes. It’s a long, very uncomfortable exchange, but it’s Garfield’s Bernie Moran who does all of the talking; Hackman says everything he needs to say with little more than facial expressions and subtle mannerisms. It’s really an amazing thing to behold, and this scene, alone, should be considered essential viewing for students of the craft.
The Conversation comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate, who, with next-to-no fanfare, have assembled an absolutely fantastic set worthy of this classic film. The 1.78:1 transfer is sharp and detailed without use of excess DNR costing the transfer any of its filmic qualities. The image can be a touch soft on occasion, and there’s a fine sheen of grain throughout, but it’s a gorgeous transfer nonetheless, especially when one considers the myriad approaches taken to capture the images seen here as Coppola was dead set on recreating the look and feel of an actual surveillance video. The image is complimented by a pair of DTS HD Master Audio tracks, including a 2.0 mix that faithfully recreates the original monaural track, as well as a very competently mixed 5.1 track that comes across as quite natural, and, despite my disdain for studios trying to squeeze blood from a stone in regards to their attempts at upgrading mono soundtracks to 5.1 or 7.1, actually isn’t half bad. I still recommend the 2.0 track, however, as that’s the closest to the source, and, as such, is the way Coppola intended it to be heard.
Lionsgate piles on the quality extras here, delivering a fantastic new commentary by Coppola, who dissects his own movie with the rabid enthusiasm of a first year film student, leaving no stone unturned and virtually no questions unanswered. It’s a very enlightening and informative track. We’re also given a somewhat less enthusiastic-but-no-less-interesting commentary with editor, Walter Murch, who touches upon the more technical side of editing and sound design.
Featurettes include a vintage spot from network television entitled Close-Up on The Conversation (HD) that offers a look at the “making of the film”, and includes interviews with Coppola and Hackman, as well as some nice behind-the-scenes footage, including Hackman arriving on set and getting into costume.
Next up we get a pair of Screen Tests (HD) from Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford, with each actor reading for smaller parts that ultimately went to other actors. Williams tests for the role of Amy, Caul’s girlfriend who wants to be a bigger part of his life, while Ford tests for the role of Mark, and performs the entire conversation sequence with Williams. Both are very good in their screen tests, which is most likely why they were bumped up to much more important roles in the end.
No Cigar (HD) is a 1956 short directed by Coppola that focuses on the dreary existence of a lonely middle-aged man. The short is included here because Coppola considers it the blueprint for the Harry Caul character.
Harry Caul's San Francisco—Then And Now (HD) is a short featurette that shows some of the film’s more notable locations as they appeared then and how they look today.
In David Shire Interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola (HD), Coppola (mostly off-camera) interviews the man who provided the film’s score and the two discusses the inspiration for the music, its importance to the film, and Shire, as spry as ever, even plays a bit for us on the piano. It’s a fun little feature that really feels like two friends getting together and talking about the good old days.
Rounding out the extras are an Archival Gene Hackman Interview (HD), the film’s theatrical trailer (HD), and, most fascinating (to me, at least), a lengthy segment entitled Script Dictations from Francis Ford Coppola (HD) that combine archival recordings of Coppola reciting the script with vintage stills, video clips, and all manner of ephemera accompanying them. I really enjoyed this feature as it shows just how well-fleshed out Coppola’s scripts are, right down to the most subtle of details.
The Conversation is one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, and this Blu-ray presentation, to me, is like a gift from the gods. Lionsgate’s treatment of this film, from the great transfer to the wonderful collection of extras (many vintage, and ALL in HD) should be applauded, and is proof that the studio not only harbors tremendous respect this phenomenal film, but also its many fans. This set gets my highest possible recommendation.