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Independent electronic surveillance wizard Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) leads a bleak, lonely life, although professionally he is highly respected. His latest assignment begins to gnaw at his conscience as he delves deeper into the conversation he secretly records between a man and a woman in a public square. Demons from his professional past re-surface, and his self doubts are fuelled by the apparent danger in which his subjects seem to be caught. Meanwhile, his client is agitating and his professional peers are irritating. A murder seems imminent; but whose?

Review by Louise Keller:
This gripping and memorable thriller written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was shot between the first two Godfather movies. Considered a masterpiece by many, the film has been gloriously restored from the original camera negative with the all-important sound (and haunting music) remastered, and is now available on DVD. And most impressively, there are two priceless audio commentaries – one from Coppola, the other from editor Walter Murch – as well as a fascinating on-the-set feature shot at the time of the making of the film.

The feature is not the kind of slick Hollywood behind-the-scenes piece were are used to seeing these days. Far from it, this is an often roughly shot first-hand view of the actual shoot, filled with a sense of place and time. Coppola’s now famous white beard and hair is still black and bushy and there’s plenty of footage with Coppola and Hackman (Hackman talking about the trust that they shared on set). There’s a lovely scene that shows Coppola sitting with his feet up on-set, singing. He suddenly sees the camera and gives a sheepish grin. It’s a priceless moment. 

In the audio commentary, Coppola talks about how the film came about. After making The Rain People, he was keen to write and make another film using original ideas, but encountered problems raising money to make the film. It wasn’t until the great success of The Godfather, that the money was found and the film made. He had a fascination for the concept of repetition, and was eager to pursue how the film was capable of exploring it, just as painters explore multi-perspective. Editor Walter Murch talks about how when the film was shot, even though the radio mikes used were state of the art at the time, there was no actual complete recording of the conversation itself, which had to be reshot in its entirety.

The plot is simple and chillingly effective. We listen, along with the surveillance expert, to a secretly taped conversation. At first there is nothing special about it – after all, this is what he does for a living. In fact he is known as ‘The best bug-er on the West Coast.’ But as he realises the significance of what he has taped, he sets out to learn what is it that is so important. The relevance of his discovery is a little like David Hemmings’ in Blowup, when his photo reveals more than obvious at first glance. Gene Hackman is superb as Harry Caul, a man carrying many secrets as well as paranoia. He divulges nothing to anyone except to the walls as he buries his soul in playing soulful jazz on his only true friend, the saxophone. While he makes a living from exposing other people’s secrets, he is totally obsessed with his own privacy. Even as he is about to make out with a lonely blonde, he listens to his beloved tapes as if they were an aphrodisiac. Coppola directs each scene to convey so much mood – from the choice of camera shot, the way characters walk in and out of frame and the ominous shadows that form much of the look of the film. John Cazale is effective as Harry’s associate Stan, while Harrison Ford is very young and fresh as the Director’s Assistant. Watch out for Teri Garr as the sweet, lonely Amy, and Robert Duvall in a pivotal cameo. I love David Shire’s fluid, solo jazz piano, incessant in its repetitive phrases, that just builds more and more tension as the film progresses. And, of course, the fact that the crux of the plot hinges not only on the words, but also on the actual emphasis of how the words are spoken, makes this remastering even more exciting. Riveting from the very first memorable frame to the last, The Conversation is a talking point indeed.

Published April 3, 2003

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CAST: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Terri Garr, Harrison Ford

DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9 (feature – 4:3); subtitles, English for the deaf and hard of hearing

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio Commentary by Francis Ford Coppola, Audio Commentary by editor Walter Murch; close up on The Conversation; theatrical trailer


DVD RELEASE: April 16, 2003

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