Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed The Conversation between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, a small, almost independent, film about a surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), and the mystery surrounding a conversation between a young man and woman (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) he has been hired to record. Although often forgotten, The Conversation still ranks as one of Coppola’s best films.
US DVD Release Date: October 25, 2011
Original Release Year: 1974
Running Time: 113 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono)
Subtitles: English, English (SDH), Spanish
An Important Note About This Release: Loading issues were found on this title when played back on a Panasonic BD60 Blu-ray player with current firmware. Disc load times from insertion to main menu averaged around 2 minutes, while movie load times (from the point of selecting Play Movie to when the movie actually began playing) where as long as 5 minutes. These issues were non-existent when played back on a Sony PlayStation 3 Slim. Both Panasonic and Lionsgate were apparently unaware of this issue when this reviewer contacted their respective Blu-ray Customer Support departments, with Panasonic indicating that “some Blu-ray CD’s take a long time to load” and Lionsgate saying that they would investigate the issue.
Movie: 4.5 out of 5
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation opens with an aerial shot of San Francisco’s Union Square, setting the tone of eavesdropping in this 1974 mystery thriller. Gene Hackman plays the paranoid and very private Harry Caul, who lives behind a triple-locked door to his apartment, uses payphones for out-going calls, and sees his work as only a job, claiming no responsibility for whatever he uncovers. At least, that’s until he becomes obsessed with the recording made in Union Square, fearing that harm may come to the young couple if the tapes are turned over to the man who hired him (an uncredited cameo by Robert Duvall).
The film does not follow convention, where the audience would expect the focus to be on the young couple and the mystery surrounding the recording. Instead, the focus is entirely on Caul, as we eavesdrop on his private life. Early on, we see Caul getting upset with a neighbor that has slipped a bottle of wine inside his apartment to wish him a happy birthday (getting past the three deadbolts and alarm system), meet his secretive girlfriend (Terri Garr) who desperately wants to know more about him and ultimately leaves him, and how he keeps his co-workers at an arm’s length even in sharing some of the technology Caul invented.
Legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch heightens the sense of paranoia and voyeurism by purposely distorting portions of the recording and repeating those sequences without the audience growing tired of them, keeping that mystery in the backs of our minds. Director of Photography Bill Butler shot most of this film (replacing original DP Haskell Wexler) as if it were photographed by an automated security camera, keeping the frame static, allowing action to move out of frame and slowly catching up with the action moments later.
In addition to Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest, the film also features a very young Harrison Ford (hot off of George Lucas’ American Graffiti) as “The Director’s” personal assistant, a role that was expanded when Coppola was impressed with what Ford brought to the (originally minor) character. The Conversation is much closer to the types of films Coppola envisioned making at American Zoetrope than the more commercially successful Godfather films.
Video: 4 out of 5
The 1080p transfer on this disc (using the AVC codec) approximates the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio, opening it up slightly to 1.78:1. The style of the photography may cause casual viewers to believe that this could have been a better transfer, but The Conversation is a perfect example of 1970s independent film making at its finest. Many of the soft and/or grainy images are intentional, and the transfer allows Blu-ray to do what it does best - replicate how the film would look in a theater. Colors are consistent, as are black levels, and detail is excellent. In the wrong hands, this catalog title could have been a disaster.
Audio: 4 out of 5
Viewers have a choice of listening to the film’s original mono soundtrack or a recently remixed 5.1 track created by the film’s original sound designer Walter Murch. Both are in DTS-HD Master Audio, and sound great. The mono track has been cleaned up, mostly free of hiss and pops, with clear dialogue. The 5.1 track has a bit more punch to it, with deeper bass, and a wider front soundstage with David Shire’s score emanating from the front left and right channels. Surrounds are used almost exclusively for ambiance, as there are no gimmicky discreet effects to be found. Although front-heavy, it is a faithful 5.1 re-interpretation of the film’s original mono mix.
Special Features: 4 out of 5
There are a lot of extras to be found on this disc, some new to this release, all of outstanding quality, and all presented in high definition.
Audio Commentary With Director Francis Ford Coppola: Coppola speaks lovingly of this film, covering the history behind it, how the success of The Godfather and Paramount’s desire for a sequel gave him the leverage to get this film made, working with Gene Hackman and Harrison Ford, the problems he encountered on set, etc. This is a very informative track.
Audio Commentary With Editor and Sound Designer Walter Murch: Murch’s commentary is more technical in nature, focusing, obviously, on the editing and sound design of the film. This is also a very informative track.
Close-Up on “The Conversation” (8:39): This is a vintage 16mm documentary on the making of the film produced prior to the film’s release. Documentaries like this one used to air as filler on local late night television.
Cindy Williams Screen Test (5:02): Interestingly, this screen test has the young actress reading for the part of Harry Caul’s girlfriend, eventually played by Terri Garr.
Harrison Ford Screen Test (6:45): Like the Cindy Williams screen test, Harrison Ford is seen here reading for the part that was eventually given to Frederic Forrest.
No Cigar (2:26): Coppola discusses how the main character, played by his uncle, may have been the inspiration for Harry Caul, as we see in one of Coppola’s early student films.
Harry Caul’s San Francisco - Here and Now (3:43): This is an interesting look at the locations used in the film, how they appeared in the film, and how they look today.
David Shire Interviewed By Francis Ford Coppola (10:57): Shire and Coppola (who is off screen) reminisce on the making of the film and the importance of music, as Shire plays parts of the score on piano. Shire also tells a very funny story about a screening of the film with co-producer Fred Roos, Walter Murch, Coppola, and himself after a big dinner of pasta and wine, in which they all fell asleep after the first 20 minutes of the film.
Archival Gene Hackman Interview (4:04): This is a rough camera take of an on-set interview with Hackman during the shooting of the film.
Script Dictations From Francis Ford Coppola (49:23): Coppola dictated most of this screenplay into a tape recorder, and excerpts from those recording are included here.
Theatrical Trailer (2:50): This is a very typical 1970s style trailer.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5
Loading issues aside (which knock my score down ½ point), this is a great disc for an often forgotten classic from the 1970s, with great picture, sound, and extras to please any fan or film student. It also makes a great companion piece to Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, where Hackman plays a much older version of a character that could easily be Harry Caul.