Lionsgate // 1974 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // October 20th, 2011
I am not afraid of death. I am afraid of murder.
Francis Ford Coppola made four films in the '70s. Three of these -- The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and Apocalypse Now -- have taken on legend status, iconic works that need no introduction and regularly make lists of "Best Films Ever."
In 1974, the same year The Godfather: Part II took home six Academy Awards, Coppola had another film in release, no less a masterwork than his "Big Three" of the decade. The Conversation might lack the epic sweep of Coppola's better-known work, but it's a brilliant film, a haunting meditation on life and loneliness wrapped up in a thriller.
Lionsgate offers a superb Blu-ray of this classic.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman, Bonnie and Clyde) is not just a surveillance expert, he's a surveillance legend, the go-to guy for complex eavesdropping and other sorts of spy jobs. Harry has mastered technique and technology, and he performs with a laser-like professionalism.
Despite being privy to scores of secrets about his clients' personal and professional lives, Harry remains emotionally detached from his work. In fact, Harry seems emotionally detached from the world around him, a grey little man who goes anonymously through life by his own choice.
Harry is hired by the head of a corporation to record a conversation between a young man and woman, Ann (Cindy Williams, American Graffiti) and Mark (Frederic Forrest, The Rose). It's a complex operation: the two are walking in a crowded park at midday, not in any particular pattern or direction. The conversation itself seems insignificant -- small talk between two people who seem to be having an affair.
But something about the girl touches Harry, makes him want to protect her, even as he realizes his recording could put her in danger.
Of all the great films of all the great directors from the '70s, none affects on me the way The Conversation does. It is a perfect film.
Now, calling something "perfect" merely invites an examination of its flaws, and certainly, if I were to deconstruct The Conversation note by note, I'd find things to carp about. But the combination of tense mystery/thriller -- complete with eye-opening twists -- and sobering examination of a life disconnected lived in shame and paranoia creates a complex film that resonates intellectually, emotionally, and as entertainment. Coppola's script and direction are dynamic and thought-provoking, the acting is exceptional, and the technical elements -- including David Shire's melancholy piano score -- top notch.
The film gained attention when it was first released because of its timing: a film about surveillance in the time of Watergate. In fact, Coppola had begun the script before Richard Nixon was president, and the film was completed before much of the Watergate story broke. Nonetheless, this added to the box office appeal and made it seem "timely."
But what's so striking about The Conversation, particularly all these years later, is how timeless it is, how -- technological considerations aside -- this story could take place in any era. The themes -- paranoia, apathy, loss, guilt, loneliness, alienation -- are universal, and Coppola provides just the right surrounding story to express them.
Harry Caul is the guy you don't want to grow up to be -- friendless, fearful, he carries guilt and shame around like a suitcase full of bricks. He's a man with only a marginal life, but too many secrets, and too many wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise, that just won't scab over.
In another film, Harry's efforts to do the right thing might be an epiphany. In another film, Harry might walk away wiser, heroic, a better man.
But Coppola shows no mercy for Harry Caul; The Conversation is a profoundly cynical film with a stunningly nihilistic ending that all but demands repeat viewings.
Besides his enormously satisfying script, Coppola's direction here is dead on, his compositions masterful. Small scenes stand out, such as Harry's visit to a confessional -- rendered beautifully on this disc, incidentally -- and an appointment Harry keeps at the corporation, with Harry and two other players in frame and a fourth player, significantly, represented by a photo on the wall, staring down at him.
Hackman had already won an Oscar for The French Connection, and would go on to win another for Unforgiven. The Academy didn't nominate him for The Conversation, which is a crime, as it's arguably his finest work. Hackman is so subtle and intuitive here, so internalized -- which is perfect for the role of a man who's shut himself away from most meaningful contact. Hackman wears Harry Caul the way Harry Caul wears the cheap vinyl raincoat we most often see him in.
The whole cast is stellar, with stand-out work from Terri Garr (Tootsie) as Harry's mistress; John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon) as his assistant; Harrison Ford (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back) as a corporate tool; Elizabeth MacRae (Gomer Pyle, USMC) as a floozy; and Allen Garfield (Nashville) as a rival surveillance expert.
Lionsgate gets a lot of heat for its less-than respectful work on older titles, but they acquit themselves nicely with this Blu-ray. The image is solid, a marked improvement from the 2000 standard-def release, with excellent colors, very good contrast, and a nice amount of depth. There's a fine grain so the feature retains its film look, and the occasional nick or scratch seems part of the film.
There are two audio options: the original mono presented as DTS 2.0 or a DTS 5.1 track. Both tracks are effective, with the 5.1 sounding great -- it's immersive, picks up the subtle sounds nicely, and represents David Shire's piano score very well.
We get a good slate of supplements, some new and some ported from the earlier release:
* Two commentary tracks, one with Coppola and the other with editor Walter Murch. These tracks -- both of which are excellent -- were on the previous release. As befitting a film as personal as The Conversation, Coppola's track is filled with insights about himself and his creative process; Murch talks more on the technical side of things, but also comments on the film's context.
* "Close Up on The Conversation" -- a vintage, "behind the scenes" featurette that focuses on Hackman and Coppola; also ported from the previous release.
* Script Dictations -- A year before shooting the film, Coppola dictated the script into a tape recorder while sitting in a cafe. This new featurette offers around 50 minutes worth of those recordings. The dictations are divided into seven segments, including scenes that weren't used. Coppola's voice plays over scenes from the film, production photos, and text pages of the script. This is an absolutely outstanding, essential featurette; it offers insight not only into Coppola's creative process, but also a look at how The Conversation might have turned out had the writer/director gone with some of his original ideas; the alternate ending is particularly chilling.
* "Francis Ford Coppola Interviews David Shire" -- A charming lookback with the composer and his former brother-in-law; features a cute surprise at the end.
* Archival Interview with Gene Hackman -- From 1973, Hackman talks -- a little awkwardly, at times -- about the character and the film.
* Harrison Ford Screen Test -- Ford originally tested for the part of Mark (played by Frederic Forrest), and this footage shows him walking in the park with Williams recreating The Conversation.
* Cindy Williams Screen Test -- Williams testing for the role of Harry's mistress.
* "Harry Caul's San Francisco" -- a look at the city then and now.
* "No Cigar" -- A look at the first film Coppola ever made (he was around 17 at the time), which offers glimpse into the creation of Harry Caul; it's kind of remarkable that a kid would have such an interest in middle-age malaise and loneliness.
There's also the film's original trailer, as well as trailers for other Lionsgate releases, including the Apocalypse Now Blu-ray, Memento Blu-ray, and Tetro. It would have been great if they'd included an essay by a film historian, but I really can't complain about this overall great set.
Just a note that, on my machine, at least, the menu screen is a little slow to accept commands from the remote.
I'll admit, I'm a huge fan of this film -- it's my favorite Coppola work. Kudos to Lionsgate for going the extra mile to put out a genuine Special Edition Blu-ray for a film that doesn't have the pop-cred of some of the director's other work.
Lionsgate has turned out a great Blu-ray for this seminal film; definitely worth the upgrade, highest recommendation.
This challenging, provocative film looks better than ever on Blu.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #98
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Screen Tests
* Short Film