..

THE CONVERSATION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford
Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  113 Minutes
Release Date:  December 12, 2000

Film ****

The Conversation was one of the best films of the 70’s, and made by one of the decade’s most prolific directors in Francis Ford Coppola…yet somehow, it seems to have fallen through the cracks of memory a little more than other pictures of the era.  That could be owing to the fact that the movie was released in between Coppola’s two Oscar winning bookmarks, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.  It was also a more modestly constructed, if no less brilliant, piece of work than either of his Mafioso epics, or the legendary efforts that went into Apocalypse Now.  But now, thanks to DVD, film lovers can get another look at this taut masterful thriller, and marvel at Gene Hackman’s brilliant performance and the equally impeccable screenplay and direction by Coppola.

Wiretapping is at the heart of the story:  Hackman plays Harry Caul, a master at his trade and a rather complex character.  Legend has it amongst eavesdroppers’ circles that he can capture any conversation on tape…including one crucial union agreement that took place on a rowboat in the middle of nowhere.  That incident, we learn, resulted in an innocent man being accused of the leak and consequently murdered.  Caul is a man who passes no judgment on his subjects, nor does he even care what they talk about…he’s simply responsible for getting them on tape and delivering the recording to his paying clients.  As seedy as his work is, though, he’s also a religious man, and is determined NOT to have one of his tapes result in another death.

The film opens with a stunning crane shot that seems indicative of the kind of surveillance techniques we read about today:  the camera looms high over a populous, busy city square, slowly getting lower and lower until it focuses on and begins to follow Caul at work.  He and his team members are set up to record a conversation by a young couple (Williams and Forrest).  Most of it is clear, and seems extremely non-consequential.  A few pieces are lost by technical glitches and background noise, such as a street musician playing the bongos. 

Later, we see Caul in his studio, taking the various recordings and making a coherent piece out of them.  We hear a clip here and a clip there, out of order, and visually accompanied by shots of the couple as they spoke the words (a brilliant marvel of editing that calls to mind Antonioni’s Blow Up).  We study the words, knowing somebody paid big money to capture them, but we wonder at what the significance could possibly be.  As Caul manipulates the audio to reveal certain lost words and phrases, the significance starts to become clear.

When Caul delivers his tapes, he finds another party representing his client and wanting the tapes.  Fearing something suspect, he refuses the money and keeps his recordings, but it seems that those who want the conversation aren’t about to give up so easily.

What’s fascinating about the film, apart from the technique and the suspense, is the world of wiretapping it delves into and presents to the audience.  It seems to be a world of one-upmanship, realized in a few sequences at an actual convention for surveillance experts.  If Caul is the best, then those underneath will be gunning for his spot, and it’s not a complete surprise that Caul eventually finds himself the victim of an inopportune wire tap.

Caul, despite his business, is a man who is obsessed with privacy.  But as he becomes more and more involved in the particulars of this case, his private world is compromised, and in sometimes dangerous ways.

I don’t want to delve into the plot much more than that…suffice to say, The Conversation is a masterpiece of cause and effect, of gradual clue revelation, of suspense and drama.  It invites us into an underworld of surveillance and eavesdropping, and seemed to reflect a paranoia felt by the nation not long after the revelation of the White House tapes in the Watergate scandal.  

It is also a technical masterpiece, using cinematic techniques to both reflect and enhance the themes of surveillance.  Coppola’s opening shot is just the beginning:  look at how static other shots are, as principal individuals move in and out of frame…like a spy camera.  At other moments, the camera stalks, but never in a perfect way:  sometimes the subjects don’t seem to know they’re being filmed and don’t cooperate.  In one sense, it puts the audience in the position of eavesdropper:  we follow a private man into a secretive world, and learn everything about him and it in the process.

The best films manage to grow more, not less, relevant with the passage of time, and The Conversation is such a film.  With mounting concerns about internet security, spy satellites, and open signal cellular communication, this is a film that still strikes a nerve with modern audiences who instinctively look over their shoulders before speaking just in case someone might be listening.

Video ***

I was a little nervous at the opening of the film…the classic Paramount logo looked horrible!  But the quality of the print and the anamorphic transfer soon made itself manifest.  This is a strong presentation for an older film, with very little in the way of telltale nicks and scars on the print.  Images are quite sharp and clear throughout, with strong, natural and well-contained coloring.  There are a handful of darker scenes, and the quality really shows itself in them:  no noticeable grain or image break-up, and strong contrast of lights against darks with no bleeding. 

Audio ***1/2

Not all 5.1 remixes of older soundtracks are impressive; this one is.  Sound is perhaps the most important element at work in a film that deals with audio clues and wire tapping, and this new remix brings out the sound superbly.  There are subtle but discreet uses of all channels, including the way certain parts of the ‘conversation’ were initially lost to noise and distortion, and how background noise affects the recording.  The piano score by David Shire is crisp, clear, dynamic and memorable.  An excellent effort.

Features ***1/2

The disc contains a trailer and a short featurette with Francis Ford Coppola on the making of the film.  The package is topped by not one, but TWO terrific commentary tracks:  one by Coppola and one by editor Walter Murch.  Both are informative and involved, and this is one movie where the editor’s comments are particularly interesting.

Summary:

The Conversation may be the most modest production of Coppola’s great 70’s movies, but is every bit the equal in terms of craft and structure.  This is a tightly conceived, suspenseful, and absorbing drama that deserves recognition as one of the decade’s great cinematic achievements.