In an underground world of conspiracy, surveillance and mystery, the film follows expert wire-tapper and spy Harry Caul (Hackman) during a routine investigation. With a haunting past tormenting his every move, Caul makes it a golden rule to stay far outside of each project. However, his latest job turns out to be more than Caul bargained for when he's caught inside a web of murder and secrecy that threatens his safety - and his sanity.
"He'd kill us if he got the chance."
After putting in his time and honing his craft on B-movies under Roger Corman's tutelage during the 1960s, Francis Ford Coppola blossomed into one of America's most important filmmakers in the following decade. In between the (virtually) back-to-back successes of his first two 'Godfather' epics, Coppola also directed a much smaller-scale character piece called 'The Conversation'. Although the film was critically embraced, won the Palme d'Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, and turned a small but comfortable profit, it was greatly overshadowed by the release of 'The Godfather, Part II' later that same year. While those who saw the movie remember it fondly, it rarely seems to enter the conversation (no pun intended) when discussing the legacy of Coppola's career in the '70s. That's a shame, and a little bit ironic considering that the film is all about the importance of paying attention to the subtle details buried beneath the broad strokes.
Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, an audio surveillance expert who's been hired by the CEO of a big company to spy on his wife, who the man believes is having an affair with one of his employees. Harry is something of a legend in his field, but doesn't seek or crave the attention or the adulation. He's a very secretive man who cherishes his privacy, mostly because he knows how easy it is for others to invade it. This has made him very cautious and paranoid. He won't even tell his own girlfriend (Teri Garr) what he does for a living. It's a restrained, understated performance from Hackman, which happens to fall between his more flamboyant turns in the two 'French Connection' movies.
One of the reasons that Harry is so good at his job is precisely because it's just a job to him. He's able to emotionally detach himself from the subject matter he works on. He's been hired to record a conversation between the CEO's wife and her lover in a public park, but he doesn't care what they're talking about. He only wants to turn in the tapes and be done with it. However, upon attempting to clean up the recording to make clear some of the more obscure parts of the conversation, Harry discovers that there's a lot more at stake behind this case than a simple matter of infidelity. The more he brings the conversation into focus, the more invested he becomes in learning the truth behind it.
'The Conversation' fits nicely with the wave of paranoid conspiracy thrillers that were popular in the 1970s. It's also Coppola's homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 art film hit 'Blow-Up', which has a similar premise about a photographer who captures a seemingly innocuous picture that turns out to be more important than he initially believed. (The appearance of a mime in the opening scene of 'The Conversation' seals the connection.) In both films, the characters must dig beneath the surface to find the truth hidden behind a surface veneer, and both must face the devastating revelation that a subtle change in perception can lead to a massive change in meaning. 'The Conversation' may not have the epic sweep of 'The Godfather', but it's an equally important work from a master filmmaker at the height of his powers.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
As part of its distribution deal with American Zoetrope, Lionsgate Entertainment has released 'The Conversation' on Blu-ray. Unlike most Lionsgate discs, this one has no annoying trailers or promos before the main menu.
Like many Lionsgate titles, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer for 'The Conversation' marginally opens up the movie's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio to 16:9 with negligible impact to the photographic composition. For the most part, this looks like a straightforward scan of the film elements with minimal digital manipulation. That's a good thing. On the other hand, the film source itself is often erratic in quality.
The movie's Paramount logo and first couple of shots are heavily grainy, soft and dull. Aside from the studio logo, this appears to be intentional to mimic the look of telephoto surveillance footage. The picture clears up after a few minutes and looks much sharper, detailed and vibrant. However, throughout the film, the photography varies widely in appearance, even shot-to-shot within scenes. Some are sharp and clear, while others are soft and grainy. There isn't always an artistic justification for this. I'm not sure whether this is an issue with the original photography or deteriorating film elements used for the transfer.
Overall, my impression of the transfer is favorable. Most scenes have good colors, contrast and detail. There are no overt Digital Noise Reduction or other distracting digital artifacts, or any issues with film damage such as scratches or dirt. The movie looks its age, but that isn't necessarily a complaint.
The sound design for 'The Conversation' was created by the legendary Walter Murch. As a movie specifically about audio, it stands to reason that he put a lot of work into the soundtrack. There's quite a lot of distortion of sounds, including crackle and pops, when the characters listen to the surveillance recordings. All of this is clearly intentional. It's a pretty fascinating aural soundscape, especially its very analog nature. Outside of the surveillance recordings, the musical score is quite robust and clear, and the soundtrack has a terrific clarity of dialogue and ambient details.
Lionsgate offers both the original monaural sound mix as a 1.0 track as well as a 5.1 remix, both encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. The remix was performed by Walter Murch himself for the DVD release in 2000. It tastefully expands the musical score and ambience without betraying the center focus of the original mix. No gimmicky directional effects have been added.
The Blu-ray edition carries over the limited number of bonus features found on the previous DVD release:
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The Blu-ray also adds a fair number of new (mostly brief) features. Strangely, some of these are encoded as SD footage inset into a small window inside an HD frame, rather than a full-screen SD frame. I don't really see the point of that. It's kind of annoying to watch.
While often overlooked, 'The Conversation' is another great film from Francis Ford Coppola at the peak of his career. The Blu-ray looks pretty good for the movie's age, sounds great, and has a bunch of interesting supplements. This is a worthy purchase.