Judge Paul Corupe reviews Francis Ford Coppola's surveillance thriller.
"This is a quad in the center of a city. All right, these are steps coming in here, benches all around. Now, it's 12 noon, which means it's lunchtime for all the people that work in these offices around here. The people are walking, talking, having lunch; it's crowded. Two people are constantly moving in circles in and out of the crowd. We don't know whether they'll sit down or what. They're convinced they can't be recorded because they're in a crowd and constantly moving. They're the targets. Now, the assignment is to get everything they say. How would you do it?"—Stan (John Cazale)
The Godfather, The Godfather II, and Apocalypse Now represent the peak of Francis Ford Coppola's career in the 1970s. Sandwiched between these undisputed classics of film, The Conversation may be Coppola's least recognized but most personal work of the decade; a calculated study of a professional wire-tapper forced to question his morals, when drawn too far into an assignment. Gene Hackman's exceptional performance makes this multifaceted thriller one of the preeminent films of the '70s, worthy of standing beside Coppola's most significant contributions to American cinema.
Facts of the Case
Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman, The French Connection) is contracted by the mysterious Director (Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now) to record a lunchtime conversation between Mark (Frederic Forrest, Lonesome Dove) and Ann (Cindy Williams, American Graffiti). Always the consummate professional, Harry asks no questions. However, his assistant Stan (John Cazale, The Deer Hunter) can't help wondering what their young subjects are talking about, and more importantly, exactly who wants to know.
Harry completes the assignment by combining audio taped by an off-duty policeman with recordings from parabolic microphones set up around the perimeter of the quad. When assembling the pieces into a master tape, Harry hears something that disturbs him deeply. Confused, he can't help but break his own rule, involving himself personally in the conversation and its participants. Years ago, an assignment resulted in the death of three people, and Harry fears, if he turns over the tapes, it might happen again. However, the Director's assistant (Harrison Ford) is prepared to do anything to get a copy of the conversation.
Although it draws obvious influence from Blow-Up, The Conversation is less of a thriller and more a careful study of one man's alienation. Coppola's film is extremely detailed, probing ethical and personal issues related to spying and surveillance firmly rooted in the 1970s, but still having meaning for us today. Slowly, the layers of the mysterious conversation are peeled away, leaving only the suspicions of poor, paranoid Harry Caul at the center of this engaging motion picture.
Harry's privacy is his most treasured possession, an obsession that borders on maniacal. Familiar with all the techniques and technology used to capture secret moments, he is singularly absorbed in keeping his own life private. Although it probably has more to do with literature than real life, this duality to Harry's character is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film. Even though Coppola consistently puts Harry in vulnerable situations, from his nosy fellow wire-tappers to the security camera-like movements of Coppola's shots, Harry only shares intimate information twice during the film—once in a dream, and again in a confessional booth. Other times, the professional eavesdropper subconsciously shields himself with wire fences, translucent plastic sheeting, and window drapery to deflect prying questions. By refusing to reveal any part of his life to others, Harry unintentionally sabotages relationships with his mistress and his friends.
Before long, this process of involuntary isolation crosses over into Harry's professional life. Whenever Stan asks Harry if he is curious about the subject of the recordings they make, Harry is always ready with an answer. "That's not part of what I do," he protests, "I'm not responsible." Coppola is clearly scrutinizing people who justify ethically questionable jobs, and throughout the film, Harry struggles to maintain a scientific objectivity to the facts. When he hears the pivotal line in the conversation, he can't help but let his emotions interpret what he has heard, immediately recognizing this as a weakness. What Harry Caul is afraid of is emotion, of how the facts will be interpreted by someone without a professional detachment—something that even he is no longer able to maintain. In the resulting ethical crisis, Harry's weakness and fear continue to play out until the final plot twist.
There are shades of Hitchcock in the film, but true to his character, Harry is not an innocent who finds himself the target of unknown forces. Instead, Harry stands on the periphery of the mystery, alienated from the plot unfolding before him. Coppola keeps Harry at arm's length from the action, and there's little evidence to show he could make a difference, even if he wanted to. In one of the iconic images of the film, Harry wedges himself into a crevice under a hotel sink, trying in vain to discern what is being said in an important conversation in the next room.
Hackman's performance in The Conversation is one of his best. The early 1970s saw wildly diverse roles for the actor, from his fascinating turn as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection to the murky depths of The Poseidon Adventure. Harry is a complex character; neurotically unemotional, and eccentrically detailed. There is a quiet dignity to Hackman's portrayal, which becomes all the more tragic during the course of the film. A young Harrison Ford also deserves mention for his intense portrayal of the suspiciously motivated Director's assistant, Martin Stett, and Teri Garr is equally notable as Harry's inquisitive mistress Amy.
Another intriguing aspect of The Conversation is the innovative use of sound; something that would come to full fruition in Coppola's Apocalypse Now. The first shot of the film is a slow zoom in on San Francisco's Union Square. As the shot closes in on the center of the quad, the ambient sounds of conversations and music are suddenly interrupted by a discordant bubbling, a peculiar sound revealed to be the fractured sound waves of the conversation as interpreted by one of the long-range microphones. Throughout the film, the repetition of this audio distortion, along with key phrases from the conversation, draws the audience into the film in an entirely different way than the photograph did in Blow-Up. The conversation itself is not static; it is a fluid, amorphous clue being constantly restructured, rearranged and repeated. No matter how far we get into the character of Harry, the conversation always remains the focus. It is this ambiguity, and this dense layering of meaning, that makes Coppola's film compelling viewing.
Paramount's presentation of The Conversation leaves a little bit to be desired, although overall it's not bad considering the age of the film. Occasional artifacts aren't too noticeable, but grain is present throughout the entire film. Also, colors appear to be slightly washed out. This isn't a film that would benefit from a bright pristine transfer, but I can't help feeling that some of the imperfections could have been cleaned up. A small fault, but a fault nonetheless.
While it is nice to have a new Dolby 5.1 remix for this release, it really wasn't essential. Instead of using the surround sound to heighten atmospheric noise, it's really only the score for the film that benefits from the extra channels. This film probably could have been satisfactorily presented as a stereo track. Still, it all sounds pretty good. Dialogue is clear and Walter Murch's manipulation of sound is brought to the forefront.
The commentaries alone are enough to justify a purchase of Paramount's DVD release of The Conversation. Included is the first commentary that Coppola ever recorded, and it is among the best that you will ever hear. He gets very deep into discussing the process of making this film, from working with Hackman on set to how he implemented the different themes. Other times, he consciously pulls back and gives the film context to then-current events, and even tosses in a few interesting anecdotes. Sometimes you might feel like you are attending a film school lecture, but taking the time to listen to this track will definitely increase your appreciation for what The Conversation does. It is not to be skipped even by those who normally do not listen to commentaries.
On a separate track, sound designer and editor Walter Murch offers a slightly different take on the film, getting much more into the nuts and bolts of making Coppola's film work—the actual recording of the conversation, achieving the proper look for Harry's equipment, and so forth. It's just as informative as Coppola's track, but is subject to occasional pauses.
Also included on the disc are a trailer and an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that shows Coppola and Hackman working together. This short film is interesting, but probably not something you'll watch more than once.
There still may be a little room for improvement, but The Conversation certainly looks and sounds the best it ever has on Paramount's release. Don't let those quibbles stop you from picking up this disc, because otherwise you'll be missing out on one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of the 1970s; a top-notch collaboration between Gene Hackman and Francis Ford Coppola that results in a calculating and engrossing mystery.
The defendant is completely innocent of all charges, but should Paramount choose to revisit this title in the future…we'll be listening.
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Scales of Justice
• "Close Up on the Conversation" featurette
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