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