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“He’d kill us if he got the chance”


Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a highly respected private surveillance expert in San Francisco but his 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. Caul is able to cull a coherent recording of the conversation 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.

Let's talk as abstractly as possible to make this mysterious.
I’d never seen The Conversation before getting this review disc but after Gabe’s review a few weeks back I was very keen to. To be honest I’m a little blind to most of Francis Ford Coppola’s work outside of the obvious stuff so going into The Conversation was quite an exciting prospect after revisiting Apocalypse Now and The Godfather recently. From the opening scene this is very much a Coppola movie. His ability to set the scene is always fantastic and those small moments where he just films life happening around his characters grounds us in reality immediately.

What’s so great about this film is that this single, quite lengthy conversation which we slowly get more detail about as Caul cleans up the audio and discovers things that we never heard before seems to change depending on the situation we hear it in. Early on it means nothing to us, just two people talking. Then as Caul begins to get intrigued by the the content, the same conversation seems to change for us to. Then when it’s replayed over a scene where Caul is in a bit of a slump after one of his colleagues records a private conversation between him and a friend and plays it back for all to hear, the conversation seems more specific to Caul's own situation and this goes on adding more and more weight on his shoulders as he carries the burden of his recording and the knock on effect it could have.

Expertly, Coppola keeps it all about Caul. We never get much of an insight into the subjects in the conversation or indeed Caul's employer and because of this we are as cautious as he is. We feel every inch of his paranoia - when he makes an assumption we're totally in the same head space and even with all that seventies technology everywhere nothing feels at all out of date. The Conversation still holds its relevance and Coppola delivers a blinding thriller that doesn't follow the rules and makes it a real character piece.

Gene shoots first.

Video


This distinctly seventies movie looks pretty good. There's a thin layer of grain as expected but the the colours here look fantastic, really natural, bright and alive. Skin tones can sometimes look a bit pinky in interior scenes but nothing outlandish and there's some fine details in close ups such as the wrinkles on Gene's face as he listens to the tapes.

There's a good amount of detail in the frame generally and really it's only the odd darker scene that struggle a bit with the grain levels and overpowering blacks but generally this is a pretty good standard definition presentation that captures the era the film was made in with only minor dirt and and print damage showing up from time to time.

This mini microphone, small enough to fit in car.

Audio


The Dolby Digital track is quite layered, with the opening scenes offering up the most to marvel. The hustle and bustle, the score, digital voice recording sounds and the clear dialogue all make a nice atmospheric feel to the movies most important element and the clever level changes in each element make this quite an airy experience that draws you in to find out more about what's happening.

As we move on, winding reels, more digital noise and audio manipulation play a key part in the sounds of the film and are all crisp and clear and the dialogue remains strong throughout. The score volume rises at the most dramatic moments and of course Caul's saxophone has a nice bit of power to it but it's the apparent murder scene that's an absolute attack on the senses. It's so well handled and has a real effect and I felt as baffled and unaware of what I just saw as Caul was in the film because of it.

Let's go listen to that conversation again.

Extras


The first commentary is with Francis Ford Coppola and I have to say I love his commentaries. He always comes across totally open about his process, whether frustrated or happy and we get every layer of Caul through the eyes of his creator. Most scenes open with Coppola raising questions to us as an audience and his answers widen our understanding of the story and his characters and while Coppola can sometimes go a little off track it never ruined my enjoyment.

The second commentary is with editor/sound designer Walter Murch. His voice can get a little dull but this is a a good lesson in editing and his work with Coppola generally. Sometimes this repeats Coppola's track in the wider descriptions of the scenes and Murch gets a bit quieter towards the end of the film but it's all good stuff.

Next up is the 'Cindy Williams Screen Test' from 1972 (04:46) as well as the 'Harrison Ford Screen Test' (06:28) with him reading Frederic Forrest's part, as opposed to Harrison's role from the film.

“He’d kill us if he got the chance”
'No Cigar' (02:22) is a short bit from Coppola explaining a short film he made with his uncle. It's his firt film and he explains how it influenced The Conversation as well as some other lonely male characters he's had in his films.

The 'David Shire Interview' (10:35) goes into his score for the film. 'Then & Now' (03:38) shows us how the locations have changed between 1973 and 2011. The 'Gene Hackman Interview' (03:56) is from 1973 and offers up a small chunk of from the actor about the film. 'Script Dictations' (47:30) is Coppola's recorded audio notes on the screenplay, reading the scenes and giving the full descriptions on events. 'Close Up on The Conversation' (08:21) is the original short making of with some great interviews with Coppola and a lot of the word "Eavesdropper" showing its more sinister use as opposed to it sounding like busybody listening behind a wall. Lastly there's the trailer (02:44).

Chillin' with his sax.

Overall


Well I have to say, I thought The Conversation was a fantastic film. Gene Hackman's central performance just kept getting better as the film went on and I think as I get older I find myself appreciating Francis Ford Coppola's work more and more. The disc has a nice batch of extras, though it's the commentaries that make up for the lack of retrospective documentaries so be sure to check them out if you haven't already.


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