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Paramount Studios presents
"Since when are you here to be entertained? I don't care what they're talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording."
DVD ReviewThe Conversation opens with an aerial view of Union Square in downtown San Francisco. The camera zooms in. A young couple walks in random patterns throughout the park, trying but failing to look casual. They make small talk for awhile, admiring street musicians, lamenting on the plight of a homeless man sleeping on a park bench. The woman, only half-serious, comments that an older man with a hearing aid and a paper shopping bag seems to be following them. The older man melts away into the crowd as if in answer to her softly-voiced concerns. They begin to speak on more serious subjects.
As it happens, the older man was following them, his shopping bag concealing a sensitive tape recorder. High over there heads and two hundred yards away, two extremely sensitive parabolic microphones are trained on them. Another man in a van snaps photographs of them. None of these devices will successfully record their entire conversation, but this is of little consequence to surveillance expert Harry Caul, who sits unobtrusively on a park bench nearby, observing. He will take the various tapes back to his lab, filter out background noise, and combine the various audio sources to create one nearly seamless recording of the conversation. He doesn't know who the couple is and, initially, he doesn't care. He just wants the $15,000 that a mysterious man he knows only as "The Director" is willing to pay him for it.
Caul is an insanely private man who is comfortable with his routines and solitude. But, as we meet him, his comfortable little world is starting to fray severely around the edges. His mistress (Garr), whom he runs to for nights of uncomplicated pleasure, is suddenly too inquisitive, asking him so many "private" questions ("Where do you live?", "What do you do for a living") that he retreats away from her. His long time employee, Stan (Cazale), is deserting him for one of his competitors, a distasteful loudmouth named Bernie Moran (Garfield). Lastly, and most important, he has started to break his own rules about not caring about the targets of his surveillance. With the conversation he recorded in Union Square, some of the things that were said are starting to work on his nerves. He begins to fear that a murder or two might result from his turning the tape over to his client. Something similar happened years before and he has never quite gotten over the guilt. The brutish and sinister behavior of his client's assistant (Ford) is not helping to calm his nerves. A time is rapidly approaching when he may have to make a choice between his work ethics and his conscience, with either choice promises horrendous consequences.
The Conversation goes in unusual directions from the start. Without knowing anything about the film's stars, a viewer might expect the camera to follow the young couple once the conversation in Union Square has ended. Instead, it follows the eavesdropper. Behind the film's active bookends is a mental exploration of the protagonist through his words and actions, making this a rather difficult role for a lead actor to pull off. Hackman, as Caul, handles the challenge beautifully. Supporting him in his efforts are several Coppola film veterans, including Cazale (Fredo in The Godfather) and Forrest ("Chef" from Apocalypse Now), not to mention Harrison Ford (who also appeared briefly in Apocalypse Now), Teri Garr, Cindy Willams ("Shirley" from Laverne and Shirley), and the uncredited Robert Duvall (The Godfather).
The Conversation features solid work behind the camera. The Conversation was Coppola's first work after his work on the 1973 Best Picture winner, The Godfather. His use of steady camera shots and slow, deliberate pans and zooms makes the audience feel like it is spying on Caul as he goes about his business of spying on others. The Conversation earned three Oscar nominations of its own, including one for Best Picture, but it would lose out to another Coppola feature, The Godfather II. Coppola has written and directed a fine film here. It succeeds both as a character study and as a thriller, and without the wall to wall chase scenes and explosions that a modern rendition would almost certainly possess. It's only major fault lies in the meandering pace of its middle act, but the payoff is more than worth it.
It is of some interest that The Conversation would be released the very same year that Nixon would resign from the presidency over a scandal revolving around scandalous tape recordings. With the continuing expansion of the Internet in our lives and the constant erosion of our privacy at the hands of other agents, The Conversation is perhaps more relevant for today's audiences than those of twenty-six years ago. Naturally, the technology Caul and others utilize in the film, while undoubtedly state of the art in 1974, is laughable now, but the fundamental moral questions this film raises are still trying to be answered today.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The Conversation is a 26-year-old film so it is little wonder that it looks its age. Colors are somewhat subdued. The print exhibits omnipresent grain and a higher than average amount of dirt and blemishing. On the other hand, when you factor in the age of the print, it looks pretty darn good. Detail tends to be very good and shadow delineation is better than I would have expected. Overall, this DVD makes for a very pleasing visual experience. This new anamorphic transfer is almost certainly the best this film has ever looked.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The Conversation also features a new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio remix. Like the image, the audio shows its age. The sound lists towards the heavy side with an often muddled presentation. Dialogue is not always as clear as it should be when it competes with background sound. I found myself turning on subtitles to make sure I got all of the dialogue on more than one occasion. The 5.1 remix is a little gimmicky with the surround channels being used almost exclusively for bolstering David Shire's piano-heavy original music and for occasional audio effects (such as in the elevator sequence). Several good opportunities for employing the surround channels for atmospherics, such as in the opening Union Square sequence, are passed over. On the other hand, separation across the front sound stage is very good, offering a full, rich audio experience from there.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola (writer/director), Walter Murch (film and sound editor)
Layers Switch: 50m:12s
The Conversation also features a vintage featurette, entitled Close-Up on "The Conversation". Made at the same time as the film by Coppola's American Zoetrope Productions, it features on-set footage as well as running dialogue with Coppola and Hackman. The original trailer rounds out this very nice batch of extras.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsKudos must go to Paramount for giving one of the better films of the 1970's its just due on the format we know and love. Two commentary tracks, a short vintage featurette, and a nice anamorphic transfer should make lovers of The Conversation very happy.
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