Conversation, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits one of Francis Ford Coppola's best films on Blu-ray disc...
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a highly respected private surveillance expert in San Francisco, CA. Harry’s job has left him obsessed with his own security and privacy, and as a result he lives a lonely life. One day he and his colleague Stan (John Cazale) are tasked with monitoring the private conversation of a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk through a crowded Union Square. Harry is able to cull a coherent recording of the conversation, all the while doing his best to ignore the content of the recording, and takes his work to his employer for payment. But a specific phrase catches his attention, and touches a nerve that warns him against sharing the tapes. As his employer’s aide (Harrison Ford) pursues him, Harry falls into a cycle of angst and paranoia.
There is no doubt in my mind that the period between late 1960s and the late 1970s were the best, most vital time in American cinematic history. The post-studio/pre-tent-pole era is rich in experimentation, frustration, nostalgia and revolution, and produced a deluge of classic motion pictures. A master list of the era’s best efforts is often easily divided along lines of popularity. There are wildly popular films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, Rosemary’s Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey, along with a collection of critical favourites that never seem to cross over into the mainstream consciousness, like Five Easy Pieces, Mean Streets, The Last Picture Show and Badlands. Francis Ford Coppola came into his own in the era, and with the arguable exceptions of Rumble Fish and The Outsiders (both films I’ve never really liked), his career lived and died between 1970, when he won an Academy Award for his Patton screenplay, and 1979, when he nearly went insane making Apocalypse Now. His output in this period is mostly placed in the wildly popular. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II sit only below Star Wars and Jaws in enduring, era-defining popularity, and are often listed on an equal number of Joe Public and Joe Critic’s best lists. Between these two beloved classics, however, Coppola produced a film I’d hesitantly argue was his finest filmic achievement – The Conversation. The Conversation isn’t as dramatically satisfying as The Godfather films, and doesn’t feature any of the same operatic tension, but it’s expertly crafted, patiently intelligent, and it begs its audience to participate without any easy rewards.
The Conversation is a thematic and stylistic brother of Brian DePalma’s Blow Out, another classic film in a beloved filmmaker’s canon that tends to operate under the pop-culture mainstream’s radar. Both films were made thanks to capital earned on surprise box-office hits ( The Godfather and Dressed to Kill, respectively), and neither film reached the same level of notoriety with the general public upon release. More importantly for this comparison, both films were made in reference to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (a film that was also a major influence on Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso). Both DePalma and Coppola took Antonioni’s themes of perception versus reality, and applied aural surveillance techniques to the photography-based story concept. All three films are also built rather stringently around a single protagonist that loses himself to his obsessive urge to solve an arguably rhetorical mystery. Blowup is more of an art film, and purposefully offers little in the way of answers to its questions. DePalma takes a more mainstream approach to narrative, and lead his protagonist through a mystery to a logical conclusion (though he ends his film on a non-mainstream, some would say cruel downer), but Coppola finds more of a middle ground between the Blowup and Blow-Out approaches. Watching the three films in a row according to release date – Blowup (1966), The Conversation (1975), Blow Out (1981) – creates a slow movement towards giving the protagonist closure.
The big difference in Coppola’s approach to the themes set forth by Blowup is found in characterization. Blowup’s Thomas (David Hemmings) and Blow Out’s Jack Terry (John Travolta) are relatively well adjusted human beings with some degree of emotional support surrounding them. Thomas is introduced as almost a caricature of the swinging ‘60s playboy, and Jack, though clearly disaffected, has a sense of humour, and has a solid romantic interest in Nancy Allen’s character. Harry Caul is, in contrast, a social misfit obsessed with privacy, and a thoroughly depressing character before the plot even begins to unravel. He expresses little interest in his cohort’s joys, he has something like seven locks on his apartment door. We then discover it’s his birthday, because his landlord has given him a gift, a gift which he accepts by calling the landlord and passive aggressively berating him for intruding on his privacy. Harry revels in his paranoid loneliness, even refusing to discuss himself with his ‘love interest’. This tone is asphyxiating, and builds to a nauseating crescendo as the story progresses, but Coppola and Hackman never press the issue too loudly, or with exceedingly heavy hands (even if the script does a bit). I hesitate to call this Hackman’s greatest role (especially since The French Connection exists), but it’s certainly among his bravest, and most unlikely.
Coppola’s direction is brilliantly studious. The Conversation’s mise en scene is regularly swimming in subtext. The opening sequence is a tour de force of editing, and deceptively naturalistic camera work. This sequence is then replayed through Harry’s mind’s eye as he listens to the recordings, and is haunted by the situation he has participated in. This stands in contrast to the bulk of the rest of the film, which is minimalist, often even stifled. The camera is often fixed in place, allowing Coppola to bask in the loneliness of Harry’s surroundings. The idea here being that the camera, and in turn the audience, is a surveillance device. The still frame also helps cultivate the paranoia, as even the slightest background movement draws the audience’s eye. The Conversation is often compared to Alan J. Pakula’s ‘70s thrillers [I]Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, but I find its political subtext pretty incidental (the Nixon and Watergate implications notwithstanding), and find the tone and themes more comparable to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Scorsese’s film, which was released two years later, meditates more on violence, but both films are psychological deconstructions of the various obsessive aspects of ‘God’s Lonely Man’. Neither The Conversation or Taxi Driver are horror films, strictly speaking, but both are among the most haunting real world accounts of intellectual terror ever put to film, and slowly spin their audiences into hypnotic dread.
Coppola went through two cinematographers on The Conversation. He started with Haskell Wexler ( American Graffiti, Days of Heaven, Mulholland Falls), and after a series of creative differences moved on to Bill Butler, who ironically enough took over for Wexler on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when he was fired from that production two years later. Coppola claims on the commentary track that the problems between he and Wexler mostly pertained to the incredibly stoic nature of the film’s visuals. Apparently Wexler saw it as a more ‘romantic’ film, but at its base The Conversation is a cinéma vérité style production. The final effect of this new 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer isn’t exactly what most video quality enthusiasts would consider outstanding, but for all proper intents and purposes this is exactly what the film should look like. It should be dark, it should be grainy, and the bulk of the colours should be relatively dull. There isn’t cause for fans to rush out and replace their DVD releases, but from what my memory can recall this is an upgrade in terms of detail levels and general clarity. I do not own the DVD, so I am unable to do a direct comparison, but looking around the internet I’ve found some screen caps from Paramount’s original DVD, and they seem to reveal a more saturated colour palette. The colours here are pretty subdued, with brown and grew being the basis of most scenes, but there are poppy, standout hues throughout many scenes, usually pertaining to an article of clothing or prop, and these are presented in a relatively clean, solid manner. Flesh tones are natural, and black levels are rich and deep. Grain levels are not really a problem, but there is a relatively high level of film artefacts (compared to many recent releases of high profile films), and some sure signs of minor print damage over some sequences. Compression nose is minimal, and edge enhancement is mostly a non-issue.
Though much of the plot of The Conversation revolves around the technical aspects of sound recording, it was originally released in monaural sound. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix, which was co-supervised by sound designer/editor Walter Murch, takes the relatively complex single channel original mix, and spreads it subtly across the stereo and surround channels without any awkward shifts or blank spots. Murch’s brilliant surveillance-based sound design, which phases in and out of clarity, and is nervously wracked with analogue distortions, is warm and crisp, with all the proper bits in their place, and clearly represented. Sometimes the levels and stereo involvement are a little inconsistent, such as the moment where we’re introduced to Harry’s saxophone abilities. Here the production tries to move the sound of the sax to the right channel, and creates an echo effect as the sound isn’t entirely erased from the center channel. Still, for the most part, especially during scenes where Harry explores his recordings, the stereo additions work very well. The sound effects often meld in a psychologically abrasive manner with David Shire’s piano-based score, and create a nightmarish wash over some scenes, which this uncompressed remix also treats quite effectively. The score itself juxtaposes crisp melodies with brooding dissonance, and lesser mixes have flattened these differences in the past.
The extras start with two familiar commentary tracks, one with writer/director Francis Ford Coppola, and the other with editor/sound designer Walter Murch. Both have been available with almost every DVD release of the film. Coppola’s track is the better of the two, and follows the film’s production from beginning to end almost like a book on tape. Coppola runs us through production, writing, directing, influence, historical significance and subtext in such a natural, cohesive manner it’s impossible to assume he didn’t heavily prep for the track. The down side is that Coppola’s focus isn’t so consistently scene specific, and I can imagine some listeners may having trouble keeping up with the discussion, which flows in bursts throughout the track (followed by brief chunks of silence). This is the kind of track I could see myself listening to on my iPod without the benefit of the screen. Murch’s track is the lesser of the two, but is far from a waste. He covers a lot of the same general ground, he has a different take on some of the material, and offers more technical expertise, including discussion pertaining to the real life applications of the film’s technology. Murch leaves a bit more blank space, and is a little less inviting in tone, but is easy to understand and very informative. The vintage extras also include ‘Close-Up on The Conversation’ (8:40, SD) a EPK shot during the filming of the movie including interviews with Coppola, and Hackman.
The new Blu-ray extras start with Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford’s screen tests (5:00, 6:50, HD). Ford apparently tested for Mark. ‘No Cigar’ (2:10, HD) features footage from Coppola’s early 16mm short, complete with interview footage with the director walking us through the silent short, and its place in his filmography. ‘Harry Caul’s San Francisco: Then and Now’ (3:40, HD) is made up of comparisons between shots in the film and stills of the current locations (some of the still feature a pseudo-look-alike). Next is an interview with composer David Shire, composed by Coppola (11:00, HD) concerning the film’s piano heavy score, and its place in the film. The extras end with an archival interview with Hackman (4:00, HD) taken on set in 1974, six script dictations from Coppola recorded while he was developing the script, including footage from the film and of the text itself (49:20, HD), a trailer, and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
Fans of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (if there is such a thing) should be made aware that that film is a semi-sequel to The Conversation. The films are tonally complete opposites, and it could easily be argued that Scott’s film entirely misses the point of Coppola’s film, but it’s fun in a sort of fan-fiction sense of the word to watch Hackman develop the character for a mainstream action movie. Everyone else needs to see The Conversation for the simple fact that it’s absolutely brilliant. I haven’t seen it in nearly a decade, and am happy to report it only gets better with age. This Blu-ray release isn’t overtly impressive, but its ‘shortcomings’ are all true to the source material, and likely the ideal way to watch the film, and the extras are plenty informative, including some new entrées and two classic audio commentaries. The price is, in the Lionsgate tradition, pretty darn affordable as well.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 25th October 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS-HD Master Audio Mono English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Editor/Sound Designer Commentary, Close-Up on The Conversation, Screen Tests, No Cigar, Harry Caul’s San Francisco: Then and Now, David Shire Interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola, Interview with Gene Hackman, Script Dictations, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall
Genre: Drama and Thriller
Length: 113 minutes
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