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The Conversation
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Gene Hackman (Harry Caul), John Cazale (Stan), Allen Garfield (William P. "Bernie" Moran), Frederic Forrest (Mark), Cindy Williams (Ann), Michael Higgins (Paul), Elizabeth MacRae (Meredith), Teri Garr (Amy), Harrison Ford (Martin Stett)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1974
Country: USA
The Conversation Poster
As "The Conversation" slowly weaves its absorbing and intricate web, it works its way under your skin, drawing you into its sense of paranoia, until you are sharing the same feelings as the protagonist, who in this case is a man named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman).

Caul's profession is surveillance -- watching and recording other people. Even one of Caul's fiercest competitors (Allen Garfield) admits that he is "the best bugger on the West Coast." He is a private contractor, and will work for anyone, including rich businessmen or even the government.

When the film opens, Caul and his assistant, Stan (John Cazale), are in the middle of a difficult assignment. A mysterious man known only as The Director has paid Caul $15,000 to record a conversation between his wife (Cindy Williams) and another man (Frederic Forrest) as they walk in circles in a park in the middle of downtown San Francisco during crowded lunchtime.

Caul completes the assignment by using three recording devices: one in a shopping bag carried by a man following them, and two parabolic microphones of his own design positioned over two hundred yards away. Of course, none of these three recordings is complete, but back in his studio, Caul works carefully to assemble the raw footage into a complete conversation. The scenes depicting Caul at work reminded me of Antonini's "Blowup" and Brian De Palma's "Blow Out." Like those movies, "The Conversation" invites the viewer to watch over Caul's shoulder as he puts the pieces together, slowly deciphering what was said.

The conflict comes to a head when Caul breaks his strict rule of not getting personally involved in his work when he realizes that when he turns the tape over to the Director, a murder might ensue. He doesn't know for sure, but several years ago he was involved in another assignment that resulted in three deaths, and he doesn't want to live through it again. Of course, his job is listen to conversations, not to hear them. When Stan shows curiosity at what the conversation is about, Caul snaps back this his profession is to not be curious. "I don't care what's being said," he says. "I just want a good recording."

Hackman plays Caul as a tightly-strung, paranoid, and intensely personal man who is incapable of being involved in human relationships. Early on we see him with a semi-girlfriend (Teri Garr), but the relationship sours because he hates being asked questions, even simple ones like "Where do you work?" His unrelenting privacy blocks him off from the rest of the world, so much that he becomes distraught when he learns that his landlady has a key to his apartment.

In this way, "The Conversation" is an affecting tragedy. Although it is a brilliantly written and expertly-paced mystery with some fantastic twists and scenes that might make Hitchcock proud, it is also a finely-tuned character study, mostly due to Hackman's outstanding performance. It also incorporates a running theme of how privacy is slowly being eroded by society, and more specifically, technology. Caul is paranoid simply because he knows that any person can be recorded at any time in any place. He knows because he's the expert, and even though he is one of the best, there are others out there.

"The Conversation" was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola when he was at the height of his talent. He had just won Best Picture in 1972 for "The Godfather," and even though "The Conversation" was nominated for Best Picture in 1974, it lost out to his own "The Godfather Part II."

But unlike the sprawling "Godfather Saga," "The Conversation" utilizes Coppola's striking ability to create a closed sense of claustrophobia and suspicion. He successfully taps into the primal fear that we can never be alone, that someone is always watching. This is one of the few films that might be more relevant today than it was twenty-three years ago, because in the age of the Internet, global telecommunications, and satellite cameras, the threat of invaded privacy is more real than ever, and getting worse.

The Conversation DVD

AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish (5.1), French (1.0)
Supplements Audio commentary by director Francis Ford Coppola
Audio commentary by editor/sound mixer Walter Mirch
Original theatrical trailer
"Close-up on The Conversation" Featurette
DistributorParamount Pictures

"The Conversation" is presented in a new anamorphic transfer in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The resulting image is excellent, with good contrast, solid color saturation, a high level of sharp detail, and almost no dirt or damage of any kind. The image has a slightly fine-grain appearance, which is characteristic of films from the early 1970s. Some of the darker scenes are somewhat lacking in detail, but otherwise the transfer could not be better.

Since "The Conversation" is a film about the importance of sound, it is much appreciated that Paramount went to the extra effort to remix the soundtrack into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The sound design for the film was quite innovative for 1974, and it still sounds extremely impressive today. The 5.1 soundtrack is by no means showy or aggressive, but it has a great deal of creative subtlety that emphasizes the multifaceted nature of what we hear everyday and how those sounds can be captured, manipulated, and enhanced through electronics. David's Shire's superb, heavily piano-based score also sounds wonderful.

Paramount has included not one, but two audio commentaries on this disc. The first, by director Francis Ford Coppola, is informative in a number of areas, especially the narrative. Coppola spends a great deal of time talking about the story and character motivations, as well as the history behind the making of the film (he actually wrote in the mid-1960s, but could not get financing for it until after "The Godfather" had become a huge hit in 1972). He also includes some interesting discussion of his use of camera movement and how the camera was intended to simulate a mechanical eaves dropper, rather than something manipulated by human hands. The second audio commentary is by editor/sound mixer Walter Mirch, who fills in some of the gaps in Coppola's commentary by focusing more intently on the technical aspects of making the film.

Also included is nine-minute featurette titled "Close-Up on The Conversation." Made in 1974 by Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope, it is a dated, but intriguing behind-the-scenes look at making the film. Presented in full-frame (and looking quite grainy), the featurette is filled with a lot of on-set photography and a few brief interviews with Coppola and star Gene Hackman.

Finally, the disc also includes an original theatrical trailer in nonanamorphic widescreen.

Overall Rating: (4)

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