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A lone surveillance expert, with a meticulous devotion to his work and a policy of never getting personally involved in the jobs he's given, finds himself slowly drawn into an assignment that he starts to detect has major ramifications. He then grapples with his code of non-intervention.
For more about The Conversation and the The Conversation Blu-ray release, see the The Conversation Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 16, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Gene Hackman, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, Robert Duvall
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
» See full cast & crew
The Conversation Blu-ray Review
Every single day, every thing you say, he'll be watching you.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 16, 2011
In this post-9/11 world, we've become used to covert surveillance, and in fact to overt surveillance. Security cameras track our every move at local department and grocery stores, and in London, to cite just one example, there's virtually no public place anywhere that isn't under the watchful eye of a camera. The numbness many of us feel as we notice these omnipresent Big Brothers watching us is perhaps a defense mechanism, a wall we unconsciously erect from a perhaps atavistic fear that all of these cameras will indeed steal our souls. How incredibly prescient, then, was Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 when he tackled many of these same issues, albeit in microcosm, in his stunning film The Conversation? Coppola's smaller, almost indie-like, production was somewhat eclipsed that year by the filmmaker's immense triumph with The Godfather Part II, but in certain critical circles, The Conversation is perhaps the more lionized film. This disturbing look at a professional surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman in one of his career defining performances), is a frightening look at alienation, paranoia, and a perhaps necessary dissociation which is analogous to the numbness mentioned above. Caul is all about his business, in this case capturing and then deciphering a stolen conversation between two people (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they make their way through San Francisco's Union Square. Are these two married? Illicit lovers? What exactly are they talking about? These intriguing questions are compelling enough in and of themselves, but they open a window into Caul's very soul, his raison d'être, which Caul no doubt wishes fervently would remain closed. Caul is overwhelmed by guilt of a past job gone horribly wrong, and as he finesses the recording of the couple, uncovering bit by bit more and more of what they're saying, he becomes obsessed by the idea that tragedy awaits the pair and that he must do everything in his power to keep his findings from the client who hired him, something which is distinctly at odds with his "don't get involved" persona. Later in the film when Caul realizes he himself is (perhaps) being watched and listened to, the tables suddenly turn, and his guilt is suddenly thrust up against an increasingly manic paranoia about what secrets of his own might be divulged to some unknown "other".
The Conversation starts with an overhead shot of San Francisco's iconic Union Square, teeming with crowds during the holiday season. A bizarre electronic buzzing-beeping noise can be heard. What is that? The camera catches the antics of a mime performing for the crowd, and only after the film has revealed its main storyline do we understand this is perhaps Coppola's famously impish sense of humor delivering a quiet but meaningful punchline, for a mime would be about the only person professional eavesdropper Harry Caul couldn't listen to. Suddenly we see what looks like a young man aiming a rifle into the crowd from a perch atop a neighboring building and we wonder for a moment if we're about to witness something akin to the University of Texas tower sniper killing spree in the sixties. Suddenly it's clear this is no sniper, but someone armed with (then) high-tech eavesdropping equipment, which is honing in on a young couple in the square having an apparently banal conversation. We then figure out that Hackman's character Harry Caul is in charge of a surprisingly large and sophisticated coterie of surreptitious listeners (and photograph takers), all positioned strategically around the park, including from a headquarters inside the back of a van fitted with one way windows that passers-by mistake for mirrors.
It's one of this film's brilliant left turns that instead of delving immediately into the mystery of the focal conversation and the couple having it, Coppola instead almost laconically drifts to following Harry, entering his rather sad and isolated private life. Harry is obviously a man who jealously guards his privacy, no doubt because he's only too aware of how fragile personal space really is, and his apartment is a refuge where he can play along to his beloved jazz records on a dilapidated tenor saxophone. Slowly, though, Coppola, begins to let us Harry "in action," as he attempts to filter through the crowd noise of his recordings of the couple to figure out what exactly they're talking about and why it might be of such interest to his client.
The Conversation is rather subtle in how complex it is. Coppola makes no bones about having been inspired by Antonioni's Blow Up, but for all the iconic Italian director's famous discursiveness, Coppola, while a much more direct director (so to speak), actually delivers the much more complexly structured film. We return to the conversation again and again, always with a glint of new information, as Harry's growing suspicions that the two people he's been tailing may be in real life or death danger from his client. His natural inclination not to get involved is balanced against his immense guilt, fomented by his deep Catholic faith, that his inaction led to three deaths in a previous case.
This is an intriguing thriller that also owes as much in its own way to Hitchcock as it does to Antonioni (as Coppola himself avers with regard to one scene which he discusses in his excellent commentary included on this Blu-ray). But this is the Hitchcock of Vertigo, a slow but inexorable descent into madness and paranoia. It's kind of interesting that both Vertigo and The Conversation are set in San Francisco and utilize the city copiously for location footage. But Hitchcock's San Francisco is like the stuff of dreams, slightly ethereal and just out of reach. Coppola's city by the bay is a gritty, grimy metropolis that's dissolving before Harry's eyes (keep an eye on the building across from his apartment house to see what I'm talking about).
Hackman has never been better than he is in The Conversation. Harry is a deeply conflicted character, and Hackman brilliantly balances Harry's buttoned down persona with an incipient anxiety that is slowly taking over his better instincts. The scene where he viciously destroys a plastic Madonna fearing that there may be a listening device inside serves as a brilliant metaphor for Harry's dissolution of faith in the face of his increasing paranoia. Several then young and relatively unknown actors give compelling supporting performances, including Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest as the couple being eavesdropped upon, Teri Garr as a lady friend of Harry's (doing a sort of Shirley MacLaine bit), and Harrison Ford as a perhaps overly natty assistant to Harry's client, played by Robert Duvall. But it's Coppola's writing and sure-handed (and completely non-showy) directorial technique that make The Conversation such an immensely riveting accomplishment. Coppola talks quite a bit in his commentary about wanting to make more personal statements than the blockbusters with which his name is more usually associated. There's probably no finer example of what he's capable of in that regard than The Conversation.
The Conversation Blu-ray, Video Quality
Keep a couple of things in mind as you watch The Conversation's AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. First of all, Coppola himself is on record in this commentary stating that with regard to the Union Square footage, he wanted to utilize as many of the kinds of cameras real surveillance experts would, replete with looks approximating smaller millimeter formats and technologies like zoom lenses, in order to give the film more of a verité feel. Coppola also talks about wanting even the more staged elements of the film to feel like a surveillance video, and so often cameras will suddenly veer off of the main characters and move into unexpected objects. This Blu-ray is frequently quite grainy, as befits its source elements, but it also is breathtakingly sharp almost all of the time, even within the context of Coppola's vision. Whole new levels of fine detail are apparent throughout the film, for the most part. There are a couple of strangely softer moments which I am assuming (with absolutely no proof whatsoever) might have been shot by a second unit. These include a shot of Harry sitting at a desk, one fade out shot of him playing his sax in his apartment, and a couple of establishing shots around San Francisco. Otherwise, though, this is a stellar effort that perfectly recreates the original film experience while upping clarity, saturation and contrast to considerable new heights.
The Conversation Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Perhaps because Coppola still co-owns distribution rights to The Conversation, it's been given a bit more care than usual with typical catalog releases, for we're offered not just the film's original mono track in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, but also a very, very good, surprisingly nuanced lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Purists may want to stick with the mono track just to experience the film the way it was originally released, but I highly recommend at least checking out the 5.1 track, which has some incredible immersion, especially with regard to the central Union Square sequence, something the film returns to over and over again as it progresses. Voices dart in from the right and left, crowd noise moves seamlessly between channels and the wafting voices of Williams and Forrest peek through unexpected channels as they make their way around the square. David Shire's haunting score also sounds fantastic in the 5.1 repurposing. Dialogue is clean and clear, and fidelity is superb on both of these tracks. The Conversation is filled with intriguing, sometimes almost mystifying, sound effects, and those also pop with a sonic vivacity that really makes this one of the standout catalog releases of the year in terms of a repurposed 5.1 mix.
The Conversation Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Conversation Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Conversation is arguably Francis Ford Coppola's finest film. It is certainly one of his most personal, as he himself talks about at length in his commentary. Haunting, moody, melancholy and in the end significantly disturbing, this is a film that manages to put the emphasis on the "you" of "Big Brother is watching you." In this instance, Big Brother Harry Caul is a deeply conflicted man who ultimately can't separate his professional detachment from his innate desire to prevent a tragedy. Brilliantly structured, impeccably performed, and smartly written and directed, The Conversation is quite simply one of the most brilliant films of the seventies, and quite possibly well beyond. This Blu-ray looks and sound magnificent, and comes jam packed with fantastic supplements. Highly recommended.
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The Conversation Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Coppola's Classic The Conversation Pre-order - August 8, 2011
Lionsgate's upcoming October release of Coppola's award nominated classic The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman, is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com with a price of $17.49 on BD, which comes with several special features.
• The Conversation Blu-ray - August 2, 2011
Lionsgate has announced the Blu-ray release of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 classic The Conversation. The film, which is often referenced for its innovative sound design, stars Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford. A release date of October ...
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