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Francis Ford Coppola
Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Michael Higgins, Elizabeth MacRae, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford
Writing Credits:
Francis Ford Coppola

Harry Caul will go anywhere to bug a private conversation.

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: Part II.

Box Office:
$1.6 million.
Domestic Gross
$4.420 million.

Rated PG

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
English Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 113 min.
Price: $24.99
Release Date: 10/25/2011

• Audio Commentary with Director Francis Ford Coppola
• Audio Commentary with Sound Designer Walter Murch
• “Close-Up On The Conversation” Featurette
• Screen Tests
• “No Cigar” Featurette
• “Harry Caul’s San Francisco – Then and Now” Featurette
• “David Shire Interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola”
• “Archival Gene Hackman Interview”
• “Script Dictations from Francis Ford Coppola”
• Trailer
• Sneak Peeks


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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The Conversation [Blu-Ray] (1974)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 13, 2011)

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 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.

37 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, it presents most of the material in a fairly objective way and the viewers must 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 think it’s rewarding and realistic; we’re never truly sure what “really” happened, and most of the events remain open to interpretation. Coppola uses this method to great advantage and it makes the movie stand out effectively.

This aspect of The Conversation carries 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 - State is a pretty noisy action flick - but I think 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. The story presents the notion of responsibility for one’s actions in an unusual light, as the protagonist’s actions are partially provoked by guilt over the negative ramifications of an industry. 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 guns 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 find The Conversation to be a 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 at the top of his game.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus B+

The Conversation appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. While it clearly showed its age at times, I found the picture to usually look solid.

Sharpness appeared crisp and distinct most of the time. A few wide shots seemed a smidgen soft, but those didn’t become significant distractions. Instead, the majority of the movie was distinctive and accurate. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and edge haloes remained absent.

Some modest print flaws appeared. Light speckles and grit showed up on occasion, but more significant defects like scratches, hairs, blotches, tears or other concerns were absent. There were minor, but I saw more than expected; I’ve gotten used to archival Blu-rays with no defects at all, so the smattering I witnessed here stood out.

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 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; this was mostly noticeable during the shot of Harry and Amy in bed. Despite these mild concerns, the image largely appeared to be good.

I also felt pretty pleased with the remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of The Conversation. This version took the original monaural audio – which also appeared on the Blu-ray - 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 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. The music seemed clear and rich, and also showed fine depth at times. Ultimately, the soundtrack of The Conversation appeared fine for a film of this era.

How did this Blu-ray compare to the DVD from 2000? Audio was fairly similar; the DTS-HD mix might’ve been a little warmer, but there wasn’t much that could be done with such an old track.

Visuals showed the usual improvements. The Blu-ray was more detailed and vivid, so it demonstrated a more distinctive appearance. Print flaws were consistent with the 2000 DVD, though; I didn’t think the Blu-ray looked cleaner. Still, it gave us a more film-like feel and was a decent upgrade.

The Blu-ray includes the same extras as the DVD as well as some new pieces. We begin with two separate audio commentaries, and the first of these comes from director/writer/producer Francis Ford Coppola. While his running, screen-specific track has a few dead spots, they don’t appear frequently, and Coppola provides a lot of compelling details.

Coppola covers a wide variety of topics. He goes 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 find Coppola’s remarks to be consistently engaging and interesting; the piece passes by very quickly and leaves me wanting more. This ends up as a consistently terrific track.

The second commentary comes from editor/sound designer Walter Murch. While he also provides some useful remarks, I think this track is 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 lacks the same high level of involvement in the project, 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 don’t think this is 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.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we get Close-up on The Conversation, an eight-minute and 39-second program that was created concurrent with the film’s production. The show’s brevity means that it won’t be deep, 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, but this one’s largely interesting.

With that, we head to the Blu-ray’s new extras. These launch with two Screen Tests. We get one for Cindy Williams (5:02) and another for Harrison Ford (6:45). I always enjoy this kind of material, and these clips become more interesting than many since both actors auditioned for roles other than those they played in the final flick. Williams plays Ann – the part that eventually went to Teri Garr – while Ford takes on Mark, the character Frederic Forrest portrayed in the movie.

I guess the casting was in flux at the time, as revealed by the shoot dates. We see that the Ford test occurred on November 8, 1972, while Williams’ happened the following day. However, in Ford’s reel, he works with Williams – who plays Amy, her role from the final flick! All of this confuses me, but it’s still a lot of fun to see these tests.

With that we head to No Cigar. It lasts two minutes, 26 seconds as Coppola tells us about a very early short film that Coppola made in 1956. This was his very first flick, and we see shots from it as Coppola narrates. We get a cool glimpse of Coppola’s cinematic history.

A comparison shows up under Harry Caul’s San Francisco – Then and Now. This piece runs three minutes, 43 seconds as it lets us see shots from the film and images of the same spots today. I like this kind of opportunity to see location changes.

Within the 10-minute, 57-second David Shire Interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola, the director chats with the film’s composer. They discuss Shire’s career as well as his work on Conversation. We find an engaging, informative chat between the two men.

Another older piece, Archival Gene Hackman Interview goes for four minutes, four seconds. In it, Hackman reflects on his role, his work on the film and his relationship with Coppola. This is a loose interview that never made it to a final edit; we just get snippets of Hackman’s chat. That means it doesn’t boast great focus, but we get a few interesting observations.

Something unusual pops up under Script Dictations from Francis Ford Coppola. Before we listen to the 49-minute, 23-second audio piece, a text intro tells us what to expect. We learn that Coppola spoke into a tape recorder to narrate the script, and “Dictations” offers excerpts from those sessions. While Coppola speaks, we see the screenplay text as well as shots from the movie and photos. This is an unusual feature, obviously, and generally fun to examine. It probably works best in small doses, but it’s a cool way to inspect the script’s earliest incarnation – especially since we hear an alternate ending.

A few ads appear under Also from Lionsgate. We find promos for Apocalypse Now, Tetro, The Conspirator, Memento and Biutiful.

The Conversation is a rich and subtle experience that benefited from low-key direction and excellent acting. It gets obscured by The Godfather Part II - its more notable year-mate – but it remains a solid film in its own right. The Blu-ray offers pretty good picture and audio as well as some useful supplements. Chalk this up as a quality release of a terrific film.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2.8529 Stars Number of Votes: 34
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