The Conversation
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   J E N N I F E R   M.   W O O D

Though his filmography consists of more than 25 films throughout a 40-year career, Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaim as a director is most often attributed to his involvement with The Godfather films. This positive affiliation has served him well throughout the lows of his career (of which there have been a few), but it has also served to diminish the impact of some of his more important work. In 1974 particularly, Coppola’s Godfather success cost him a particularly high price. This was the year that The Conversation, a film that Coppola both wrote and directed, went largely unseen because of the coinciding release of The Godfather Part II. Though both films garnered Oscar nominations for Coppola, The Godfather’s triumph caused The Conversation to fade into a state of underappreciation.

After the movie was out of print on video for several years, Paramount Home Video released a brand new DVD version of The Conversation in December 2000. While the digital video format will certainly assist the film in allowing it to be seen and praised by a new generation of film lovers, it also provides the proper format for a film where the plot is so heavily invested in awakening more than just the visual sense of the audience.

By not limiting the channeling of his creative tendencies solely to the script, Francis Ford Coppola reinvented the use of sound in film with The Conversation, just as Robert Altman had done four years previously with M*A*S*H. It is through his inventive application of sound that Coppola is able to execute his story.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who lives for his work. He is paid to eavesdrop and not ask questions. He does his job well until the conversation at the heart of this film makes him question his actions. The film opens with an extended long shot of a park in San Francisco where we are introduced to three of the film’s main characters: as Ann and Paul, two young lovers, walk around in circles, Harry follows close behind, recording every intimate moment and desultory exchange. As innocent as the conversation seems, the audience knows that there must be a hidden agenda. Why else would Harry be taping them? Though not one to normally become involved in the lives or crimes of his prey, Harry himself begins to question what it is these two have done wrong.

stills from The Conversation

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What makes The Conversation such a unique cinematic experience (and one richly deserving of the technology the DVD can afford it) is Coppola's use of sound: when Harry's tape recorders are only receiving 40 percent of the sound, the audience is also only receiving 40 percent of the sound. Loud sound distortions intermingle with voices and music. P.O.V. shots and a handheld camera further instill the idea that Harry is not the only one spying on the couple: the audience members have also become voyeurs.

Released in 1974, The Conversation arrived at a time when faith in American political instiutions had deteriorated -- due to Vietnam and Watergate. A growing sentiment of disillusionment was becoming ingrained in the American psyche. The Conversation speaks directly to this growing sense of mistrust. Through a masterful and creative use of sound, Coppola takes advantage of the audience's apprehension and suspicion.

Though Harry’s occupation puts him in a God-like position, it is his technology that also causes his skewed perception of reality. In searching for the truth in the conversation that is at the center of the film, Harry uses self-engineered technologies to eliminate all other intrusive noises from the recording. Yet, in doing so, he is eradicating the realness of the conversation. As Harry tells his assistant Stan, "Pay more attention to the recording, less to what they’re talking about." It is the same distinction that is often drawn between "hearing" and "listening." While Harry is hearing the words that are being spoken, he is not listening to their meanings. He ignores inflections and tones. So, while he does find out that an act of murder is at the core of this conversation, he attributes the crime to the wrong party. Just as people cannot always be trusted, neither can their documents. As we learned during the '70s, truth is transitory.

In the end, Harry becomes the target of his own mastery. In a disquieting final scene, Harry must destroy all that he has come to know as his reality--his furniture, his apartment, even his faith in Catholicism--as they have all failed him, and perhaps even played a part in handing him over to the government that wants to silence him. Yet, it is not because of who Harry is or what he has achieved that he becomes a mark; it is his erudition of sound that has made his enemies. Through these audio maneuverings, The Conversation tells not only the story of Harry Caul, but the story of America as well.

The Conversation is now available on DVD from Paramount Home Video. The disc's special features include a featurette; commentary by director Francis Ford Coppola; commentary by film editor Walter Murch; and an original theatrical trailer. The DVD is presented in widescreen format and enhanced for 16:9 TVs.