THE CONVERSATION / Special Edition Blu-Ray Review

Francis  Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), is a subdued, existential and ambiguous exploration of the limits of private and public responsibility as personified in the character of surveillance expert Harry Caul (a mesmerising, career-best performance from Gene Hackman) when he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving an unnamed corporation and its chief executive, the anonymous Director. The film becomes both a complex guessing game about the real intent of the two people who work for the corporation, Ann and Mark, that he has been hired to eavesdrop on as well as the gradual unravelling of Caul, an intensely lonely and pathologically private man. He finds his moral judgement, fueled by a refusal to become involved in the work he does and the repercussions of a previous surveillance job, questioned by the revelations on the sound recordings he makes of Ann and Mark's meeting in Union Square.

Caul initially believes, from listening to the surveillance tapes, that Ann (an ambiguous figure who could be the Director's wife or daughter) and Mark are attempting to cover up their affair from the corporation's Director (Robert Duvall). It is intimated that when he discovers their tryst he will kill them - "he'd kill us if he got the chance." However, when the Director's assistant Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) attempts to take delivery of the sound tapes in the Director's absence, Caul begins to suspect something more insidious and threatening. After a visit to a trade show for surveillance experts, where he again bumps into Stett, he invites his colleagues and two women back to his workshop. One of the women, Meredith, stays overnight and apparently steals the tapes at Stett's request. Harry decides to intervene in a hotel room rendezvous, as detailed on the tapes, and eventually discovers, contrary to what he had assumed from the tapes, that Stett, Ann and Mark have conspired against the Director and are about to murder him.

"... the deceptiveness of appearances"
The film can justifiably be seen in context with a number of other conspiracy thrillers released during the same period - from The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976) to Capricorn One (1978) - and which all seem to share the same themes rooted in the anxieties created by the number of assassinations in mid to late 1960s America, the extension of the Cold War via Vietnam, the invasion of privacy and the assaults on public freedoms the 1970s ushered in. As Paul Cobley also notes in Justifiable Paranoia, these films share "a concern with the deceptiveness of appearances, the way the familiar becomes threatening" and operate within "a complex and contradictory political struggle ...[where]... Nixonian and anti-Nixonian paranoia enjoyed a symbiotic relationship."

The idea for The Conversation emerged in the mid-1960s when director Irvin Kershner sparked Coppola's interest in the technologies used for surveillance and espionage. In Gene Phillips's Godfather: the Intimate Francis Ford Coppola it is acknowledged that Kershner discussed with him the long range rifle style microphones that are seen in the superb opening scene of the film, shot in San Francisco's Union Square. It was the idea that a person's private conversation could be recorded at such long distance and in a very public place that inspired Coppola to research further into the methods and technologies that an expert in surveillance would use and then to develop a story about a central character who does it for a living.

According to Phillips, Harry Caul was partly based on a man called Bernard Spindel, known as the "ace of the bugging business" in a Life profile from 1966 and was described in the article as an "expert pilot, consummate lock-picker, foreign adventurer, electronics wizard and the No. 1 big-league freelance eavesdropper and wiretapper in the U.S." Not only does Spindel's obsessiveness correlate to the character of Caul but it also informs one of the other characters in The Conversation, Harry's competitor Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) who declares, just as Spindel does in the Life profile, he tapped his first telephone at the age of 12. 
"... no James Bond stuff"
Coppola also found inspiration in the legendary San Francisco private detective Hal Lipset, famed for bugging an olive in a Martini, who is name checked during the film and served as Coppola's technical adviser. In Patricia Holt's Bug in the Martini Olive and Other True Cases from the Files of Hal Lipset, Private Eye, Lipset recalls, "I told Francis I’d oversee the technical aspects as long as we used state-of-the-art equipment - no James Bond stuff - and tried to show how a real surveillance might work. What you see in that movie is the best of the field at the time with only one fib - the pocket tape recorder does not have a playback function - and one exaggeration: the parabolic mike is too large to use secretly." 

Coppola fused these two real-life parallels with much of his own background and where Caul's intense privacy and religious guilt partially serves as an analogue to Coppola's own. We learn in Caul's bizarre dream sequence, after the party at his workshop, that like Coppola he was a lonely, sickly child, and the character's visit to confession and the film's use of religious iconography also equates with Coppola's own Catholic upbringing. Coppola was also fascinated by gadgets and Phillips reveals that, "as a teenager young Francis even planted a hidden network of microphones behind the radiators in his own home so he could eavesdrop on family conversations."  

The Conversation therefore offers an exploration of an individual's potential power over others and the impulse to listen to conversations, with the Coppola/Caul/Lipset/Spindel figure electing, as Lipset offers, to "never to enter into a conversation and so never have to bear the responsibility for what you say or hear. But once you hear something, even if you’re an eavesdropper like Caul, you’ve heard it. You know it. Now what are you going to do with it?"

The script for The Conversation was developed as early as 1966 but was placed on hiatus as Coppola completed production of Finian's Rainbow (1968). This confirms that the film, when released shortly after the Watergate scandal, was not a direct response to the contemporary anxieties and political scandals of the day. Rather, its complex meditation on the demarcation between the private and the public, and on corporate and state paranoia, is a coincidental but appropriate reflection. Shooting began on the film on November 26th 1972 and was completed March 19th 1973, many months before the Watergate break-in, and was, as Coppola envisioned, more of a commentary about a state "that employs all the sophisticated tools that are available to intrude on our private lives."
"... a depressing and difficult part to play"
The film was made as part of a deal with Paramount after the success of The Godfather (1972) gave Coppola some leverage to get unmade film scripts into production and principal photography began on a revised version of the script he had originally presented to Warners back in 1970.

The shoot was fraught with problems. Famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler began shooting on the complex opening scene set in Union Square where Harry and his team watch and listen in to Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest) walk around the square and observe a homeless man sleeping on a bench before going their separate ways. However, Wexler soon found himself at loggerheads with Coppola, arguing that shooting and lighting such a complex scene - two actors on location with extras in a crowded public space covered by six cameras and long range microphones - was almost impossible to achieve.

As Phillips documents in Godfather: the Intimate Francis Ford Coppola the technicians brandishing the long range mikes on the rooftops around the square were arrested by the police who thought they might be snipers attempting to kill Coppola, Wexler had huge problems keeping the cameramen out of one another's sight and he also poured cold water on Coppola's further location choices. Coppola responded by closing the picture down for ten days and replacing Wexler with Bill Butler, with whom he had worked on You're A Big Boy Now (1966). The director also found his relationship with Gene Hackman under strain as the shoot continued with Coppola allegedly finding Hackman rather aloof and Hackman often struggling to 'get' the character of Caul and recalling, "It's a depressing and difficult part to play because it's low-key. The minute you start having fun with it, You know you're out of character."

And, of course, this is as much Walter Murch's film as it Coppola's. Once shooting had been completed, Coppola more or less handed all the footage to Murch and trusted him to complete the film. He spent a year assembling the cut, guided by regular monthly notes from screenings with Coppola. This was Murch's first credit as a film editor, previously having worked as a sound editor creating a stunning soundscape through a mix of synthesised and processed natural sounds (as well as co-writing the screenplay) for George Lucas's THX 1138 (1971), sound mixing and editing on The Godfather (1972), American Graffiti (1973) and then mixing and editing The Conversation in 1974 while Coppola was hard at work on The Godfather Part II

The Conversation ushered in the new era of film sound and elevated the importance of a film's soundtrack to the development of narrative and character. Murch is credited with 'sound montage' on the film and has indicated that not only was this his own tip of the hat to the way sounds were brought together by the Musique Concrete school in Paris but it was also a way round his nonunion status at the time. In Vincent LoBrutto's Sound-on-Film: Interviews with Creators of Film Sound he describes his time as a graduate at USC as a period of self-revelation in that he "somehow managed to swallow the ohms and the microvolts" and indulge his teenage passion for sound and sound editing.

Indeed, his obsession with the plasticity of sound makes its way into the film and becomes an additional trait of the Harry Caul character. As Murch manipulates the film's soundtrack and picture so does Harry as he edits the Union Square tapes. Murch slowly builds layers of picture and sound, as an analogy to the similar editing processes that are constantly going on within Harry's own head, to arrive at Harry's own shocking conclusion about what he actually heard on the tapes he's recorded and manipulated, about the deceptiveness of an 'ordinary' conversation. During the editing process, both Murch and Coppala saw The Conversation as an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) in which a fashion photographer explores the abstraction of photographic images in order to expose what seems to be an innocent rendezvous in a park and reveal that it is in fact the location of a recent murder.

This is also married to some of the connections that Murch himself forged during the editing process, with him suggesting to Coppola that Meredith, one of the women invited back from the trade show, be implicated in the theft of the sound tapes, providing a more convincing link between the trade show, Meredith's seduction of Caul and Stett's intentions. Murch also turned Caul's meeting with Ann in the park, underlining Caul's initial desire to rescue her from the Director's clutches, into the dream sequence in the finished film, heightening Caul's anxiety and guilt stemming from the deaths of three people on a previous surveillance job. Finally, the twist ending, where we and Caul are provided with a different interpretation of the recording and the line "he'd kill us if he got the chance", was constructed by Murch during the editing process and used a discarded line reading from Frederic Forrest. This shifted the emphasis of meaning in the line to properly ensure that the audience understood Caul's realisation that it was not the intended murder of Ann and Mark by the Director he had been party to but vice versa.
"a single instrument for a single, lonely man" 
Murch's work is both crucial to how sound is manipulated and attached to images in the film making process and in the construction of plot and the internal dynamics of character. We see and hear the Union Square sequence replayed and reconstructed or used in flashbacks as the central tenet of the film is gradually exposed. The soundtrack emphasises the ephemeral nature of sound, of what is momentarily hidden and revealed, what truths Caul's work provides to his clients, through Murch's sound mixing and editing. The corruption of the recordings that Caul makes in Union Square, where Murch uses synthesisers to turn voices inside out and retains the static break up inherent in the original soundtrack made for the film on three mikes, works in tandem with David Shire's minimal piano score, "a single instrument for a single, lonely man" as Murch describes it in his commentary on this set.

As Caul breaks down the recordings from Union Square and attempts to work out the inferences in the conversation between Mark and Ann, the central character spirals into paranoia and this is emphasised by the gradual disintegration of the score. Shire's piano is warped and distorted electronically, its atonality marking out Caul's own disintegration as he realises his assumptions about the conversation are wrong and that he is now the one being spied upon. Often Shire's piano and a number of sounds on the soundtrack blend or overlap, bridging scenes while at the same time adding a dissonance to them. When Caul meets Ann in the lift at the Embarcadero, after feeling uncomfortable in his first meeting with Stett, the piano distorts into a speeded up tape noise as the scene cuts from his claustrophobia to Caul worriedly re-examining the tapes.

The soundtrack's dual role of obfuscation and revelation is completely in parallel with Coppola's own visual expression in the film. Wexler's footage from Union Square is retained in the celebrated opening sequence as the camera very slowly tracks into the crowds and the footage flips between crisp cinematography and a simulation of surveillance footage complete with cross hairs. The figure of the mime who apes the various people around him, and at one point imitates someone's dog, is perhaps a sinister emblem of the distortions and reflections that occur throughout the film, visually and aurally, and the limitations of communication. The jazz music on this scene's soundtrack prefigures Caul's own retreat into music where, much like the mime simulating the passing crowds out on the street, he plays a saxophone in time with the jazz records he listens to in his apartment and the outdoor scene also features the song that Ann sings on the surveillance tapes that triggers Caul's paranoia when he visits his girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr) and she sings the same song.
... his exteriority to the rest of the world
Indeed, the mime also stands next to Caul in the Square, copies his movements and follows him, suggesting that the real Caul is hidden and only outward appearances can be traced or recorded. Union Square reappears throughout the film in other simulations, encompassing a map on a blackboard and an architect's model on display at the surveillance trade show, prominently in frame as Caul and Stett encounter each other in a mirrored lobby area. Caul's pathology is symbolised in the veil like plastic raincoat he wears throughout much of the film, a translucent shield he uses to protect himself from interference, to maintain privacy just like the two-way mirrored windows of the Pioneer Glass van which the team uses to survey the Square or the telephone booth from which he calls the Director. In the scene with Amy he lies about his age and never removes his grey, plastic coat as she tries to ask him questions about what he does and how he behaves.

Caul and other characters are partially obscured during the film in a series of recurring visual motifs - Caul is momentarily plunged into darkness on the bus ride home after leaving Amy; as Caul and Stett first meet and walk to the Director's office they disappear behind a smoked glass screen; when Caul goes to confession he talks to a priest (an eavesdropper just like Caul) who only gradually appears when the camera tracks into the black screen between them; and when Caul slowly peers into the car outside the Embarcadero in a misty restaging of the dream sequence in which he saw her murdered, he gradually sees Ann and then realises the implications of what he has witnessed. During the party at Caul's loft workshop, Caul is also pressured into revealing how he bugged a union official by Bernie Moran but refuses to reveal his methods, becoming a blurred out of focus figure behind a plastic screen in the room. In the aforementioned dream sequence, Caul talks to Ann through a fog and relates a near-drowning incident during childhood and then witnesses her murder very briefly through translucent drapes. We later see the Director's murder shown through drapes, his head suddenly shrouded in plastic as Mark attempts to suffocate him.

These are all devices to emphasise his estrangement from others, his difficulty negotiating the borderline between the private and the public, the secular and the religious and, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), his similar status as an outsider, his moodiness and exteriority to the rest of the world. There is a suggestion that Caul wants to save Ann from the Director's intentions but when the truth is revealed to him, as he peeps into her car, Coppola and Murch emphasise that her persecution is just Caul's delusion, one constructed from his own work as an editor desperate to find the story in the mesh of narrative games, visual and aural ambiguity. This final journey begins with the sequence in the hotel room as Caul bugs the next room in which Ann, Mark and the Director finally meet. Caul is not only obscured by the room's net curtains as he sets about his task but his face is completely distorted and broken down by a frosted glass screen. He is, like the scenario he has created about Ann and Mark, a vague impression seeking some form of clarity from his own delusion.

While the technology he uses provides that truth what he finds simply makes him hide under the bedclothes when he partially sees the murder through the frosted glass on the balcony. Coppola's tip of the hat to Psycho (1960) informs much of this sequence, with Shire's music and Murch's sound taking on some of the characteristics of Bernard Herrmann's score for the film and Coppola's use of quick cutting recalling the virtuoso editing of the shower sequence. This homage, one suggested to Coppola after Murch recalling an incident as teenager trying to flush porn magazines down the toilet to hide them from his father only to have them guiltily reappear after his father flushed it, is particularly evident when Caul gains entry to the scene of the crime and, after flushing the toilet in the bathroom of an otherwise suspiciously clean hotel room, is presented with all the bloody evidence he needs.

At the surveillance convention we also see Caul trying out a closed circuit camera system and not only does the screen momentarily reflect his face back to him but it also reveals that Stett is shadowing him. The movement of the surveillance camera is duplicated at the film's conclusion when Caul, having stripped his apartment looking for the bug that presumably Stett has planted, is observed in much the same way by Coppola's own camera movement, underlining Stett's warning that, "we know that you know and we are watching you." By the conclusion of the film even Caul's religious faith has diminished, his statue of the Virgin Mary (both an emblem of his Catholic faith and his desire to reach out to Ann) reduced to rubble in his desperate attempt to turn the tables on the powerful corporation.  With Caul shown retreating to his saxophone in a room utterly torn to pieces, Phillips notes in Godfather: the Intimate Francis Ford Coppola, that "Harry is trapped from within by the coils of his unravelling psyche" and that he has failed to escape from a state of moral paralysis. 

About the transfer
There are inconsistencies in this transfer and some of those are obviously stylistic, in which Coppola uses the Wexler footage to emulate surveillance camera images for example, but there are short sequences where the picture is quite soft while the rest of the film is sharp and detailed. The dream sequence is very grainy but I suspect that the fog is an optical effect added on to the scene and the footage is a generation down. That said, the transfer demonstrates all other film grain appropriately and crisp detail is best served up in the close ups of faces and objects.

Contrast levels do fluctuate and can be blueish rather than inky black in some scenes. There are occasional specks of dirt on the transfer but they very rarely show up. The colour palette is muted but it seems very appropriate to the texture and atmosphere of the film. If you don't own a previous DVD version of the film then it is definitely worth investing in as this is a solid transfer. As an upgrade from the previous DVD it may be more questionable. Some reviews have suggested that the Lionsgate Region A Blu-ray is marginally better. Murch's superb sound gets a DTS-HD 5.1 mix and very good it is too, robust and full and with the Union Square scene acquiring real dimension and Shire's crystalline piano motifs and the film's dialogue benefiting the most. The original mono is there for purists too and sounds excellent.

Special features
Francis Ford Coppola commentary
It is absolutely essential that at some point you listen to both commentaries on this disc. Coppola covers much of the detail I've included in this review and so much, much more about the genesis of the film, the writing process, the making of the film including the shoot with Wexler and his replacement with Bill Butler, his relationship with Hackman, the casting and screen testing, the structure and editing of the film and the development of the character of Harry Caul. Coppola never disappoints in his commentaries and if you've admired his candidness, detail and thoroughness on the Apocalypse Now and The Godfather discs you can expect the same here.  
Walter Murch commentary
Perhaps not as intense an experience as Coppola's track, with Murch being more measured in his discussion of the film, but nonetheless a wonderful insight into Murch's collaboration with Coppola on the film. If you are as fascinated as I am by the sound design and editing on the film then this is an absolute treat to listen to.
Cindy Williams Screen Test (5:02)
Williams, who eventually played Ann, is actually shown testing for the role of Amy, a part that went to Teri Garr in the film. 
Harrison Ford Screen Test (6:45)
Again, Ford reads for the role of Mark, that eventually went to Frederic Forest, but actually ended up getting the role of the Director's assistant, Stett. He tests on location at Union Square.
No Cigar (2:26)
Coppola introduces and narrates over a short black and white student film of his from 1956, No Cigar. The relevance here is his connection to the character that his Uncle plays in the film whom Coppola sees as an early template for Caul.
David Shire Interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola (10:57)
A short but sweet chat between the film's composer Shire and his director. Shire plays sections of the score on an upright piano and sheds some insight into his methodology putting the music together with the film. He reveals that he was able to record the music and have Coppola play it on set to set the mood and define the characters. He also analyses the way the music becomes part of Murch's sound design for the film.
Then and Now (3:43)
A brief tour of the locations in San Francisco, comparing them as they were in 1973 with how they look today. The final, amusing shot is of that toilet in the Jack Tar hotel, looking just as it did in the film, awaiting the hotel's demolition.
Gene Hackman Interview (4:04)
Archive footage from the set of the film, recorded in 1973, where Hackman briefly explains his approach to the character of Harry Caul.
Script Dictations (49:23)
Audio recordings of Coppola reading sections of the script, presumably for a production secretary to type up, accompanied by stills, clips and actual script pages.
Close-Up On the Conversation (8:39)
Another archive featurette, filmed on set as Coppola shoots the party sequence at Caul's workshop, the surveillance trade show and the climactic moment when Harry tears his apartment up hunting for the bugging device.
Trailer

The Conversation
1974
The Directors Company, American Zoetrope / The Coppola Company / Paramount Pictures

StudioCanal Blu-Ray / Released 31st October 2011 / Running Time: 114mins / Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 / Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4 / Region B (locked) / HD Standard 1080p / Dual Layer BD50 / Colour / Audio Codec: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, LPCM 2.0 Stereo, LPCM 2.0 Mono, German LPCM 2.0 Stereo / English Language / German Language / English Subtitles / German Subtitles / Cert: 12

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