Paramount Home Video
Starring Gene Hackman, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams,
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Review by D. K. Holm
Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation harks back to the days of paranoia, the Kafkaesque aftermath of the hippie movement, when the once free-spirited hedonists were overwhelmed by the belief that the monolithic government (the same one that killed Kennedy) was now out to get them, to suppress the druggies and the activists. And while there are no longhairs in the film, the hippie spirit permeates throughout. Released in 1974 by the short-lived Directors Company (via Paramount), The Conversation was a critical success, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, but it wasn't much of a hit for its Paramount supporters. The Directors Company released only three pictures, this being the last, before Paramount pulled out in disgust over the arty nature of the films the Directors Company's three helmers Coppola, William Friedkin, and Peter Bogdanovich were starting to turn out. Nevertheless, The Conversation is a masterpiece, one of Coppola's best and most personal films, and a movie that holds up remarkably well after almost 30 years.
The Conversation concerns one Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional wiretapper. As the film opens he is on assignment in San Francisco's Union Square, and he's got a tough task record the conversation of two people (Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest) from a great distance as they move through the crowded public area. With the aid of several mikes and a troupe of assistants, including Stan (John Cazale) in a nearby van, Caul gets the tapes and then has to reconstruct the conversation from the pieces. But as he listens to the product, Caul finds himself becoming personally involved in the assignment. The mysterious head of the corporation who hired Caul (Robert Duvall, in a cameo appearance), and his assistant (Harrison Ford, also used just briefly) begin to go after him. And as Coppola's film is told solely through the eyes of Caul, the viewer in the end isn't sure what the big conspiracy is all about. All we know is that Caul is stalked, betrayed, and finally reduced to a paranoid heap, reduced to finding bugs that have been placed to bug the bugger.
Hackman's Caul is an unusual character in this film, almost unique in world cinema (and based on a real person, Hal Lipset, who served as a technical advisor for Coppola on the film). Something of a (more passive) precursor to Hackman's character in the Bruckheimer tech-thriller Enemy of the State, he's a guy who wants to remain anonymous. An utterly inward man, he moves slowly. He takes the bus everywhere to avoid registering for a driver's license. He doesn't even want his landlady to know his birthday. And he even has a bed-dwelling girlfriend/kept woman (Teri Garr) whom he visits irregularly. A Palladin Press book come to life, Caul conducts his business as if everyone is out to get him, or learn more about him. The funny thing is that no one is doing anything of the sort, at least not before he gets into a case that is far over his head. As usual, Hackman is solid as the almost inert Caul. Wearing a transparent plastic raincoat that, symbolically, reveals nothing, he drifts through the film, quiet, irritable, but with some surprises. He is a devout Catholic, and he lives on the west coast because back east something bad happened that was more or less his fault. Caul now resides in a world of paranoia, both as creator of it and victim. But Coppola presents this world in realistic fashion, and with some remarkable signature moments Caul trying to loosen up at a party; Caul isolating one single sentence (the audio equivalent to De Palma's Blowup); Caul crammed into the small space under a sink to eavesdrop; Caul alone in his apartment at the memorable final scene.
Paramount previously released a Laserdisc version of The Conversation (back when LDs mattered), but it was a full-frame transfer with a mono track, so we won't be digging that one out anytime soon. The subsequent DVD edition is, to say the least, a vast improvement. With an anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1), the print is a little scratchy at the beginning and at some reel changes, but otherwise it looks pleasant (albeit in the rather pale tones adopted by DP Bill Butler). Additionally, audio supervisor Walter Murch helped oversee the new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. But the most significant extra on this release is a commentary track by Coppola, who seems to warming up to the recording booth. As with Paramount's previous Tucker: The Man and His Dream, the director is still as excited about the movie now as he was then, and he gives a detailed account of the film and its making, but even more important its meaning (and among the tidbits are that Stanley Kubrick-regular Timothy Carey was originally set to play the part Allen Garfield eventually took). An additional commentary with Murch is something of a disappointment it's not all that informative, and in fact it's a little boring, making Murch a sound-guy who sounds dull (but maybe that fits in with the Harry Caul story). His track also replicates info on Coppola's, and is also rather intermittent (the food is so bad, and in such small portions, so to speak). The rest of the extras on this release include a brief, interesting "making-of" featurette called "Close-up on The Conversation," directed by Robert Dalva for Coppola's Zoetrope studio, along with the (very scratchy but widescreen) theatrical trailer, an active menu with 12-chapter scene selection, and DVD credits.
D. K. Holm
- Anamorphic widescreen (1.85)
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital English 5.1, French 1.0
- English subtitles
- Audio commentary with Francis Ford Coppola
- Audio commentary with Walter Murch
- "Making-of" featurette "Close-up on The Conversation"
- Theatrical trailer
- DVD credits
- Active menu with 12-chapter scene selection
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