The Conversation

The Conversation (1974)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Gene Hackman
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Featurette, Trailer

Some twenty-odd years ago the thought of having one’s conversation surreptitiously recorded by dark agencies had an exciting air of Cold War paranoia about it, but it wasn’t a situation that most people really had to worry about. Fast forward to the dawn of the new millennium and witness a society in which every word spoken over a cellular phone or typed into a computer is subject to surveillance from all manner of nefarious Nosey Nellies, and the picture painted by Francis Ford Coppola in his 1974 movie ’The Conversation’ suddenly takes on newfound relevance.

’The Conversation’ is a taut psychological thriller that stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a professional wiretapper hired to tape the conversation between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s busy Union Square. As he begins to piece together the snippets of dialogue that he and his team recorded, Harry finds himself growing more fearful of the corporation that hired him to carry out this task. The story unfolds exclusively through Harry’s eyes so the viewer only learns about the unfolding conspiracy as Harry does. The result is a very deliberately paced movie that effectively translates Harry’s growing paranoia into building tension on the part of the viewer. In nightmarish images we feel his fear, and ever so often get a glimpse in his past, where before he was unknowingly caught in a similar situation and made what in his eyes was the wrong decision.

While the film features cameo performances by Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford, and Teri Garr, it is Gene Hackman’s starring role that is the primary focus of the movie. Being in almost every shot of the film, he carries the entire plot on his shoulders, and does so admirably. His Harry Caul is a brilliant portrayal of a socially insecure man who is sure the world is out to get him. Such recent characters as Mel Gibson’s Jerry Fletcher in ’Conspiracy Theory’ and even Gene Hackman’s own Harry Caul clone, Brill, in ’Enemy of the State’ can be traced back to this original, ground-breaking performance.

’The Conversation’ is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the <$16x9,anamorphic> print is, for the most part, quite good. The picture is nice and sharp and only a few scenes suffer from slight damage to the source materials and light grain. The grain is inherent in the film stock itself and never appears exaggerated, giving ’The Conversation’ the authentic look it requires in order to make this story a credible exploration of Caul’s character. Colors have that faded 1970s feel to them and the palette is intentionally drab so don’t adjust your set. Black level is pretty good with only a few of the darkest scenes degenerating into non-discernible shades of gray. All in all, I was quite pleased with the work Paramount did in remastering the video for this release. No edge-enhancement is evident and the compression has been done equally well, as it is mostly free of compression artifacts.

The audio has also been remastered into a new <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix. Since the new soundtrack is based on the original mono recording don’t expect it to be bombastic by any means. What we are given instead is a very well-balanced mix that doesn’t try to do too much with the materials at hand. Dialogue is clear, if a bit tinny at times, and the stark musical score is nicely spread across the front soundstage. Surrounds are used for ambient effects quite frequently but never become obtrusive or overbearing. As to be expected, dynamic range is somewhat limited and also your LFE channel will be mostly quiet. On the whole, the audio is more than serviceable and the new <$5.1,5.1 mix> has added some real life to the original mono soundtrack.

Now on to the extras. First and foremost is a running commentary by none other than Francis Ford Coppola himself. His enthusiasm is infectious and it’s always a pleasure to listen to a great director who obviously enjoys his work and doesn’t mind sharing his thoughts. He reveals much about the film, ranging from technical considerations to some of the deeper meanings that he attempted to explore. Given the fact that the film is over 26 years old by now, it is surprising how vividly familiar Coppola is still with the material. Next up is a second <$commentary,commentary track> featuring audio supervisor Walter Murch. Unfortunately, this track is quite dry and the gaps between his comments are often very long. If you have the patience you can learn some important facts about the use of sound in a movie in which the audio is almost a secondary character. Also included on the DVD is a vintage making-of featurette that runs just over eight minutes in length and provides some nice behind-the-scenes footage. Finally, the film’s original theatrical trailer is presented in all its beat-up glory.

’The Conversation’ is an unsettling film that seldom allows the viewer to know precisely what is happening on-screen. Most of it is up for interpretation – a trait that was quite common in intelligent 70s cinema and has mostly gone lost in today’s films. Since the story is told through the eyes of one man, the audience must analyze the unfolding information at the same time as Harry. In the end, this thought-provoking film will leave you with many more questions than answers. While ’The Conversation’ is overshadowed by another film that Francis Ford Coppola directed that same year – ’The Godfather II’ – it is no less a masterpiece than its more well-known sibling and Paramount Home Video’s new DVD finally gives it the treatment it so richly deserves. With newly remastered video and audio and a handful of quality bonus features to back up this fine film, ’The Conversation’ comes very highly recommended.