The Conversation (Blu-ray)
When you look at great years in the history of cinema, you would have a hard time arguing that there was a better year for film than 1974. This is the year that saw the release of what many consider to be the finest movie ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER: PART II. But did you know that the other movies released and nominated for Academy Awards that year included LENNY with Dustin Hoffman or Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski’s famed CHINATOWN? What about THE TOWERING INFERNO, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (Albert Finney), or even ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (with Ellen Burstyn)? Is it any wonder that another Francis Ford Coppola film was overshadowed in this year, even though it might actually be the best of the bunch? I’m writing of THE CONVERSATION, a movie originally introduced to me by a friend 11 years ago and a film which I honestly don’t remember when I think about the best movies ever made… but I should. And so should you.
THE CONVERSATION is quite literally the story of a single conversation and the ramifications that it holds. The film is told from the point of view of Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman. Mr. Caul is one of the finest surveillance experts in the world and he has been tasked with recording a single conversation between a young couple during their lunch hour. The film opens as this is occurring, and we meet Harry and his assistants as they work to track the couple through a crowded town square. We follow Harry back to his home and discover that in addition to being gifted at surveillance, he is secretive about his own life to the point of being paranoid and reclusive. He becomes upset when he discovers that his landlady has placed personal items inside of his apartment despite his multiple locks and alarm system.
We learn more as we follow him throughout the days following this recording. His assistant Stan is played by the amazing John Cazale (a favorite of Coppola before his untimely death). Stan mentions early in the movie that he wonders why they’re following this couple. What is their motivation and why would this conversation be interesting to anyone? Harry dismisses this idea. He doesn’t care about what is being said, only that they are able to capture every moment of it. But does he really not care, or does he feel that it isn’t his place to ask such questions? When Harry isn’t able to deliver his tapes as planned, he goes back and starts to unravel the mystery further. What is the couple meeting to talk about? Can he discover the mystery behind the conversation without compromising his own safety? Soon Harry starts to wonder if he is being followed as he realizes that the secrets he holds may be more dangerous than he realized.
If that sounds like a cryptic synopsis, it’s because even on repeated viewings there are some great little moments to catch and enjoy while you are watching. This includes some great performances from Cindy Williams (LAVERNE & SHIRLEY) and Frederic Forrest (APOCALYPSE NOW), in addition to one of Harrison Ford’s first great (and scary) turn as the Assistant Director of the agency for which Harry is working. The movie is a bit dated, the technology has obviously evolved incredibly since this film was shot, but THE CONVERSATION is no less interesting for it. In fact sometimes the movie is downright disturbing. Watching Harry work through his own guilt and frustration at the dissociated way in which he must live his life is real and engrossing, terrifying and incredible.
When I sat down to watch the Blu-ray (twice now) I’ve intended both times to pause to do other things (you know – bathroom, take the dog out, etc.) but found myself so engrossed that I don’t move from the couch until the credits are rolling. If you enjoy dramas with a great, intricate story, this is a movie for you!
Video: (1080p, 1.78:1 Widescreen) A decent transfer but quite grainy, this is primarily due to the fact that the original film was shot utilizing many of the technologies utilized by Harry. The experience is phenomenal.
Audio: (English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) This is easily the best sound I’ve heard on a Blu-ray to date. This film was giving love and attention when it was given the Blu-ray treatment, and fittingly a movie revolving around a recording has stellar sound. This is one for the books.
Audio Commentary with Director Francis Ford Coppola: An absolutely brilliant commentary, Coppola shares his experiences not only putting this film together but also talking about the business of getting a film made. Probably a bit inside for some, Coppola manages to keep it light and interesting enough for even a casual viewer. Recommended highly.
Audio Commentary with Editor Walter Murch: While fascinating, Murch can’t live up to second billing after Coppola’s commentary. In its own right a very well done track, Murch shares some interesting tidbits about editing the picture and the sound – vital in this picture.
Close-Up on “The Conversation” (08:39) A making-of featurette from back when the movie was originally released. This is a interesting feature to be included both from a film history perspective and because it’s a nice little featurette.
Cindy Williams Screen Test (05:02) From 1972, this was the original screen test for Ms. Williams, whose face you’ll surely recognize. We get to see her reading for Amy (played by Teri Garr in the film).
Harrison Ford Screen Test (06:45) Mr. Ford got to do his screen test out in the open, reading with Cindy Williams for the role of the male counterpart during the discussion. He’s a bit darker in his performance than fit with this role. It’s cool to get to see someone this natural delivering lines.
“No Cigar” (02:26) Francis Ford Coppola gives an introduction to the first movie he ever made and how that characterization has carried over to many of his films… the lonely reclusive man.
Harry Caul’s San Francisco – Then and Now (03:43) Set to the score from the film we get to see San Francisco as it appeared in the film juxtapozed with shots from the same locations today.
David Shire interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola (10:57) David Shire was the composer who scored THE CONVERSATION… the piano music will haunt you long after the interview and film are over. The music is reminiscent of San Francisco while providing the perfect backdrop to the story. Shire shares his memories of the process.
Archival Gene Hackman Interview (04:04) Filmed on set while the film was being shot, Hackman talks a bit about some of the process that he got to learn while putting the movie together. He’s a very interesting and engaging person. He mentions that on this film he got to shoot some scenes as if they were a play, long times without multiple takes… something that it rare in film.
Script Dictations from Francis Ford Coppola: (49:23) A year before the film was shot Coppola sat in a cafe and dictated the entire script… here we get to listen to excerpts. Not for the casual fan. It is incredibly interesting to hear how it was put together – and we get to see some of the film as he talks. You can watch scenes one at a time or you can watch them all together.
The Blu-ray also includes the Theatrical Trailer (02:50).