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Blu-ray Review: THE CONVERSATION - Grimy, Morally Ambiguous Thriller

It's a grimy, morally ambiguous journey into the world of professional surveillance.

rating: 4

Francis Ford Coppola needs little introduction. He€™s brought such titanic titles to your screens as The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now and if you haven€™t heard of him, I€™m assuming that you€™re a new born child - if so kudos to reaching such an advanced reading age so early. The Conversation is actually a further examination of a character that the writer/director had explored in one of his first unknown short films, one that has interested Coppola throughout his years as a film-maker; a lonely, introverted man with little to no connection to the people around him (as divulged by the man himself in the Blu-ray extras). A newly released Collector's Edition Blu-ray hits stands today and here is our review. The Conversation follows professional eavesdropper Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a secretive loner whose only focus is on the job. After bugging the conversation of a couple, Ann and Mark (Cindy Williams & Frederic Forrest) for a mysterious corporate director, he begins to defy his own rules of emotional separation. Obviously stirred by the Ann€™s audibly empathic nature he becomes increasingly connected to her through his recordings. Caul becomes convinced early on that his clients intend to harm these seemingly innocent young lovers and suffers a crisis of conscience that starts to unravel him even more thoroughly than those that he€™s charged to survey. The Conversation is a pure form of character driven drama whose plot occurs in the peripherals of a much more intimate story. Instead of a focus on the conspiracy that€™s obviously at work, we delve thoroughly into Harry€™s life, his work, his very nature and it€™s only then that we can truly understand this characters unique reaction to the unfolding events. He€™s a mistrusting man and Coppola€™s direction always maintains a sense of a barrier between him and the other characters; if someone mentions a detail from his life that he isn€™t comfortable being aired (which is most to be honest) then he€™ll move behind a mesh to empty a bin, or behind a screen to make a drink. The film itself adopts this constantly shifting, agitated tone as Harry becomes more and more obsessed with the recorded conversation. Hackman seethes with internalised anguish in The Conversation, managing to somehow maintain Caul€™s seemingly unflappable composure while still exuding the depression of a man trapped in a self-made prison of opposing conflict. In The Conversation each aspect of Harry€™s life is called into crisis; the crisis in his work causes a crisis of faith, a crisis of self, of conscience, of morals. This is character driven story at its upper echelons. Sure, it€™s a little sluggish and not much really happens on the surface but underneath the plot is an explosion conflict which can be just as heart-pounding as any plot driven conspiracy thriller, provided you invest. Hackman makes this easy though. From the moment we€™re introduced to him, in a terrific extreme long shot which sees him ousted from his hiding spot among a crowd by a mischievous mime, his aptitude as a character actor is apparent. It€™s a weighty cast all round; although geared specifically around Hackman€™s powerhouse performance, Harrison Ford appears as the liaison between he and the mysterious director and along with a sinister appearance from Robert Duvall as the director himself the pair have a constant air of ambiguity around them that houses one of the films major themes. Corporate duplicity is one of the key values examined in The Conversation €“ I€™m still not sure exactly what the function of the company that Caul is hired by is, it€™s purposely never explained. And without context, the recorded conversation becomes increasingly ambiguous too, although Caul still jumps to his conclusion, haunted by the memory of a past case in which someone we never learn much about was harmed thanks to his work. Nothing is certain here; indeed one of the films myriad of meanings is that context is key and without it even a seemingly sure thing casts a shadow of doubt. Perhaps at its core though, The Conversation looks at accountability. Harry uncovers a conspiracy to murder early on but still does nothing more than watch it unfold. Even when he talks of the job from his past, in which innocents we€™re hurt; it€™s left to the audience to interpret individually whether or not he€™s owed a share of the blame. It€™s this sense of empowerment to the audience that makes The Conversation such a bold piece of Cinema; Coppola never attempts to tie his story into a neat conclusion but instead leaves us to decide where Caul sits in the grand scheme. It€™s not often, especially in this plot-driven age, that audiences are given so much power over the final connotation of a movie.

Quality

This Special Edition Blu-ray release lays out its transfer on an AVC encoded 1080p visual track with an anamorphic 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Admittedly it€™s a gritty, grainy affair but this can€™t help convey the movies darker tones, being something of a hallmark for pictures made during the 1970€™s. It gets a little scratchy over the opening, the credits and during some of the movie€™s original reel changes but overall it€™s a satisfying visual experience. The Blu-ray lossless DTS-HD master audio 2.0 track isn€™t exactly as mammoth as it gets by today€™s standards but the audio remix most certainly provides a vastly enhanced level of aural detail, in the ambient soundscapes especially, and it certainly improves on the audio capabilities of previous releases. Special Features € Commentary tracks by Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch (sound supervisor). Coppola talks about the movie with as much passion as if he€™d made it this year. It€™s a great track, brimming with insight and information you just wouldn€™t get anywhere else. Definitely one of the better audio commentaries I€™ve heard of late. € Cindy Williams Screen Test (4.46 minutes) This is one of actress Cindy Williams€™ original screen tests for the role of Caul€™s girlfriend Amy (actually played by Terri Garr). € Harrison Ford Screen test (6.28 minutes) Another screen test, a little longer this time. It€™s always interesting to get a glimpse of an actor attempting to secure a role which we know they were eventually given. And these two included screen tests are no exception. € No Cigar (2.22 minutes) This is a short interview with Coppola in which he explores the inception of The Conversation and more specifically the character Harry Caul. It€™s interesting, if over before it really gets going, but it does provide some quick insight into Coppola€™s career even before it begins on IMDB. € David Shire Interview (10.35 minutes) David Shire, the composer of The Conversation€™s Jazz driven sound track, talks at length about his involvement in the film and what his music achieves for it. It€™s candid and insightful, and a nice length to boot for such a peripheral contributor. This feature thoroughly earns a place on the disc. € Then and Now (3.38 minutes) A nostalgic look at the locations from The Conversation as they looked in the 1970€™s compared with photographs of how they look today. A nice whimsical feature here, but unfortunately it appears to fill little function other than a slight distraction. € Gene Hackman Interview (3.56 minutes) Here€™s another great interview with one of the Conversation€™s key players that€™s ultimately defeated by its meagre run time. That said though, it is hugely insightful and Hackman is just as interesting an interviewee as he is a performer. € Script Dictations (47.30 minute) This is by far the most in-depth feature on offer on the special edition Blu-ray release. Coppola himself dictates key scenes straight from the script and compares them to the final film. I found these to be enthralling and so should anyone with an academic interest in Cinema (which will be a sizeable amount of The Conversation€™s audience I suspect). € Close-up on The Conversation (8.21 mins) This isn€™t a bad feature but it isn€™t much more than you€™re standard behind-the-scenes expose either. Obviously a commercial endeavour pushed by the distributor, it provides some insight but nothing quite as deep as some of the previous features. € Theatrical Trailer In a nutshell€ (rating out of 5) Film €“ 4.5 It€™s a grimy, morally ambiguous journey into the world of professional surveillance. Coppola€™s infinitely deep character study both chills and rivets it€™s audience, presenting forces of antagonism that can never be seen, only felt. The Conversation often falls below some of this directors other contributions to cinematic greatness, but it€™s no less the masterwork for it. Quality €“ 3.5 It€™s a dirty transfer, full of grain and soft focus, but this seems to only harmonise the tones of the story. It has that inherent feel of a seventies movie (the kind that always makes a film feel more important) that€™s maintained in this Blu-ray pressing and I couldn€™t grumble too much at the scratchiness in places; it all just felt like part of the experience. The sound is rich and immersive too, creating excellent ambient soundscapes that all come across as nicely realistic, even if the audio track doesn€™t exactly challenge modern capabilities. Presentation €“ 4 The box is covered by an incredible promotional still €“ Hackman in profile, the image made up from a collage of tiny stills from the film itself €“ that sets the tone for the movie to follow with effortless grace and subtlety. Within the disk, the menu blares out hazy freeform jazz while the menu is intuitive enough to rarely feeling cumbersome. It€™s a high level attention presentation for a film that definitely deserves it. Special Features €“ 4 There€™s a whole lot to get through here and much of what€™s on offer delivers a weight of information that completely justifies the Special Edition moniker attached to the release. In fact there€™s very little in the way of filler in the bonus section of the disc; almost everything there provides a satisfying level of insight into the characters, the story or the director/writer himself. Value €“ 4 At mid to low range pricing, The Conversation is a must buy for any self-respecting Cinema lover. It€™s an important movie from the Coppola canon and with its decent audio/visual transfer and a veritable wealth of extra features, if it€™s not on your Christmas list, then it should be. Overall €“ 4 It€™s an intimate character study that never forces its audience into a forgone conclusion, but rather lets us make our own decisions about the themes put forth. The Conversation is an influential piece of Cinema history, given an admirable Special Edition release on Blu-ray this Halloween. The Conversation is out now on Blu-ray. You can win a copy of the Blu-ray for yourself HERE.
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Stuart believes that the pen is mightier than the sword, but still he insists on using a keyboard.