Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Conversation: Special Edition (1974)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures

Francis Ford Coppola's provoking mystery-drama explores the morality of privacy and stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, expert surveillance man. A routine wire-tapping job turns into a modern nightmare as Harry hears something disturbing in his recording of a young couple in a park. He begins to worry about what the tape may be used for and becomes involved in a maze of secrecy and murder. Set in San Francisco, the film also features Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford and Frederic Forrest. Nominated for Best Picture of 1974, The Conversation was made between The Godfather and The Godfather Past II.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederick Forrest, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Picture; Best Screenplay; Best Sound, 1975.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French monaural; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 12 chapters; rated PG; 113 min.; $29.99; street date 12/12/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Director Francis Ford Coppola; Audio Commentary from Editor Walter Murch; “Close-up On The Conversation” Featurette; Theatrical Trailer; DVD Production Credits.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/B

Every once in a while, a director experiences a year that really makes history. It’s one thing for someone to create one successful movie, but how about those years in which the same filmmakers has made two big pictures?

Victor Fleming remains the champion of this game: in 1939, he directed both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, a pair that virtually define the word “classic”. Steven Spielberg got a nice double whammy in 1993 when he helmed box office champ Jurassic Park and claimed Oscar gold with Schindler’s List.

Add Francis Ford Coppola to that list as well for his 1974 résumé. In that year, he directed two films, both of which were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The Godfather Part II took home the prize, while The Conversation was one of the four runner-ups. No, that pair doesn’t maintain the “dazzle” of the films made by Fleming and Spielberg, but considering the incredibly small number of times a director has had two noteworthy films in the same year, it remains an incredible achievement.

26 years after the fact, The Conversation stands as easily the lesser-known of Coppola’s two 1974 movies. The stellar appeal of the Godfather series seems to simple have overwhelmed it and it has become something of a footnote because of its more-famous sibling. However, The Conversation definitely doesn’t deserve that status. While it lacks the epic grandeur of the Corleone saga, the film is a tight and taut little thriller that kept me enthralled.

In The Conversation, we find surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) at work. He records a seemingly-innocuous conversation between a young couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) and becomes more and more engrossed in its details as the film progresses. Ultimately the story turns into a Hitchcockian thriller in which the hunter becomes the hunted.

However, don’t take my description of the film as a thriller to let you think it’ll be a ham-fisted series of cheesy clichés. The Conversation is a movie of uncommon depth and subtlety in which the filmmakers do little of the work for the audience. Instead, we’re left to our own devices. Although the picture is shot from the point of view of Caul, most of the material is presented in a fairly objective way and the viewers are left to make their own decisions about what any of it means. Some may find this technique - which continues through the end of the film - to be maddeningly ambiguous, but I thought it was rewarding and realistic; we’re never truly sure what “really” happened, and most of the events remain open to interpretation. Coppola really used this method to great advantage and it makes the movie stand out effectively.

This aspect of The Conversation carried through to the performances. Hackman strongly dominates the film; he appears in literally every scene, and he’s easily up to the task. He makes Caul believably small and tight, which is a long way from the broader leading-man parts he played in movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The French Connection. Caul was a somewhat risky role for him, but it allows Hackman to display his range as he neatly inhabits the character.

One fun footnote: in 1998’s Enemy of the State, Hackman played Brill, a bitter and isolated surveillance expert. Gee, that sounds familiar! The two films possess few similarities - EOTS is a pretty noisy action flick - but I thought this pseudo-update of Caul creates a fun little connection between the two movies.

The Conversation is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen in some time. As with 1999’s The Insider, the story presents the notion of responsibility for one’s actions in an unusual light. In The Insider, the protagonist’s actions were partially provoked by guilt over the negative ramifications of smoking. Caul’s surveillance jobs fall into a similar category, and it’s one that also applies to manufacturers of weapons. Although Caul doesn’t directly harm anyone through his work, what responsibility does he have if his tapes are used to negative ends? Folks can claim that tapes don’t kill people, people kill people, all they want, but the concept remains valid, and that subtext adds a haunting quality to The Conversation.

All in all, I found The Conversation to be a tremendously solid and compelling piece of work. All aspects of the film are executed nicely and the picture provides a nuanced and gripping offering. The low-key nature of much of the movie may seem frustrating at times, but the ultimate pay-off is much greater because of this subtlety. The Conversation stands as a great film from a legendary director who was then at the top of his game.


The Conversation appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While it clearly shows its age at times, I found the picture to look quite solid during most of the film.

Sharpness appeared crisp and distinct throughout the movie. Virtually no instances of softness marred the image, and it looked nicely defined and accurate. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no substantial concerns, and the artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV seemed very minor. Some modest print flaws appeared, but these appeared quite small for an older film. I saw a little light grain at times, and speckles and grit showed up on occasion, but more significant defects like scratches, hairs, blotches, tears or other concerns were absent.

Colors looked consistently clear and accurate at all times. The Conversation often utilized a fairly drab palette - the subject doesn’t lend itself to bright, chipper hues - but they always seemed solid, and exteriors were marvelously vivid. Black levels appeared generally deep and rich, though shadow detail sometimes appeared somewhat thick. Most low-light sequences came across as clear and appropriately opaque, but some of them were a little too heavy and tough to discern. Despite these minor concerns, the image largely appeared very good.

Also strong was the remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Conversation. This version took the original monaural audio and spread it out nicely. The soundfield remained appropriately modest for much of the film. The stark piano score echoed neatly from the front speakers, and both the forward and surround channels consistently provided gentle but involving ambiance with occasional modest panning between them. During a few scenes - such as the convention and Harry’s dream - the audio kicked in more actively and offered some quite engaging sound.

The quality of the sound seemed relatively positive. Dialogue came across as somewhat hollow and thin at times, but it generally appeared crisp and acceptably natural. A little edginess appeared in the speech on occasion - especially during the convention scenes - but these instances were infrequent. Effects also showed some light distortion at times, but for the most part they were clean and accurate and they offered good bass when necessary. The music seemed clear and rich, and also showed fine depth at times. Ultimately, the soundtrack of The Conversation appeared very strong for a film of this era.

The Conversation tosses in a few nice supplements. First we find two running audio commentaries. The first of these comes from director/writer/producer Francis Ford Coppola. I’d previously heard Coppola’s remarks for Tucker and thought it was a decent but unspectacular track; he offered some solid information but the commentary suffered from a lack of coherence and too many empty sections.

While his track for The Conversation also has a few dead spots, they occur much less frequently, and Coppola provides a lot more compelling details. He covers a wide variety of topics from the genesis and making of this film to some fun anecdotes to a bit of analysis to a few general discussions of his career. I found Coppola’s remarks to be consistently engaging and interesting; it passed by very quickly and left me wanting more. This terrific track makes me even more anxious to get similar commentaries for the Godfather films.

The second commentary comes from editor/sound designer Walter Murch. While he also provides some useful remarks, I found this track to be much less compelling than the one from Coppola. It features many more dead spots - so many that I occasionally wondered if Murch had passed out - and since he lacked the same high level of involvement in the project - The Conversation was really a personal creation of Coppola’s - Murch doesn’t have nearly as much to say about it.

Nonetheless, Murch covers enough interesting ground to make the commentary worth a listen. Not surprisingly, he touches upon much more technical data than does Coppola, and this is the aspect of the track that provides the best information. For example, we learn how much (or little) realism there was in the surveillance techniques used, and he also discusses some interesting ways that the story was altered in the editing room. Murch repeats some of Coppola’s comments, but for the most part he relates new details. I didn’t think this was a great commentary and it’s not nearly as strong as Coppola’s, but fans of The Conversation will want to give it a listen.

Next up is a featurette about the film. Called “Close-up on The Conversation”, this eight-minute and 35-second program was created concurrent with the film’s production, and that’s what makes its special. The show’s brevity means that it can’t ever be great, but since it focuses heavily on the film itself and lacks much promotional sheen, it’s a fun artifact. We find lots of footage from the set and a few interview snippets with Coppola and Hackman. Vintage featurettes are always hit or miss, and this one’s largely interesting.

Finally, we find the film’s original theatrical trailer plus some DVD production credits. It’s not an overwhelming package of extras, and the absence of deleted scenes is a disappointment - during the commentaries, we learn that the original cut of The Conversation lasted about five hours, so there obviously is a lot of unused material - but the supplements complement the movie well.

Since The Conversation is such a solid film, it’s nice to see that it got such fine treatment on DVD. The movie is a rich and subtle experience that benefited from low-key direction and excellent acting. The DVD offers very good picture and sound plus some good extras. The Conversation would make a nice addition to any DVD collection.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top