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If you like strange, moody, artsy movies with a slow pace and little actual plot, then The Conversation will be just up your alley. If not... well, if you’re inclined to check out this movie, make sure it’s a rental. Certainly there must be people who found The Conversation to be an excellent movie, since it had an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture in 1974. But for general viewing as a suspense film, it falls flat.

Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a professional eavesdropper and wiretapper who happens to get a little too curious about a particular tape that he has made of a conversation between a young man and woman. The movie is essentially an exploration of his moral dilemma: to remain within the artificial limits of his professional ethics (which assert that it isn’t his concern how his employers use the tapes that he makes) and avoid responsibility for what might happen to this young couple if he releases the tape; or to act in some way to resolve the situation, which would require an assertiveness that is quite alien to his withdrawn personality.

The problem is that while this situation could be the subject matter for a film that is both thoughtful and suspenseful, in The Conversation it fails to spark interest. Partly this is due to the unsympathetic nature of Hackman’s character. Director Francis Ford Coppola has taken pains to paint this character as a man alienated from normal society, one who is isolated by his work, and who cannot break away from his obsession with his own privacy to actually communicate or have a meaningful relationship with anyone. Perhaps he is too successful, because no connection is ever formed between the viewer and the character. Caul’s motivations are unclear, his personality remains confused, and there’s no particular reason why we should care about the agonies he’s going through or try to understand them. It’s worth noting that Hackman does a good job of playing Caul; it’s just that Caul himself is not the kind of character who invites a viewer to care about him.

The secondary characters have more life to them, but remain solidly secondary. Caul doesn’t care about them or connect with them, and neither does the viewer. A younger Harrison Ford makes an interesting appearance in a small part as one of Caul’s creepy employers; generally cast in sympathetic roles later on, in this film Ford comes across as a thug. Coppola seems to have a strange perspective on women in this film, as the two women who relate, or attempt to relate, to Caul are as inexplicable in their motivations and actions as Caul himself.

An unsympathetic protagonist might be more forgivable if the movie had a faster pace or a stronger plot. Unfortunately, the plot seems to be Coppola’s concession to audience expectations rather than an integral part of the movie. The pace is slow and frankly drags. There’s no clear structure to the film, not much tension, and a seemingly arbitrary ending point.

One element that is noteworthy is the cinematography, which is artistically done and does a good job of capturing the protagonist’s gray, moody world and the peculiar culture of professional wiretappers. (There’s one scene that takes place at a convention which ironically features both promoters of security devices and the means to bypass them.) It’s also interesting, from a historical perspective, to watch Caul working with the “high-tech” recording and editing equipment... which looks incredibly antiquated today in the computer era.

Video
The transfer is anamorphic, with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The video quality is disappointing, though not terrible. There’s a general graininess to the image throughout, and edges are slightly fuzzy. Colors are not particularly vivid, but that appears to be mostly a directorial choice to set the mood. In general, it’s very clear from the image quality that this is not a recent movie, and that it hasn’t been cleaned up and restored.

Audio
The soundtrack is Dolby 5.1, and is satisfactory but not outstanding. This is most likely due to the limitations of the original mono track. Coppola plays some interesting tricks with the soundtrack as Caul records “the conversation” and then cleans it up from unintelligible noise to comprehensible words. Other than that, there’s nothing that places any particular demand on the soundtrack. Dialogue is reasonably clear.

Extras
The disc has a reasonable complement of extras, considering that Paramount is not always generous with its special features. Two commentaries are included: one from director Francis Ford Coppola, and another from editor Walter Murch. There is a short (eight-minute) featurette, “Close-Up on the Conversation”, which gives a mildly interesting glimpse behind the scenes. The disc also includes theatrical trailers.

Overall, The Conversation might be worth a rental if you’re a fan of Coppola’s work, or are in the mood for an eccentric character study. The transfer is nothing to write home about, but adequate.


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