Released after “The Godfather” in 1972, the same year as “The Godfather II” in 1974, and five years prior to “Apocalypse Now,” “The Conversation” represents one of four bona fide masterpieces writer/director Francis Ford Coppola brought to the screen during his incredible run throughout the 1970s. This low-key, character driven thriller might be the least famous title on that esteemed list, but it is more than worthy to be remembered among them.
The Mighty Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a San Francisco-based surveillance expert willing to take most any job that pays well. Harry never questions his employers because he doesn’t want the answers. You give him the job and he’ll give you the tape. It’s all very simple and clean… until it isn’t.
Though he moved a couple thousand miles away, the one thing Harry can’t escape is his past. Somebody was killed once upon a time, and Harry isn’t about to allow himself to shoulder the blame. But this devout Catholic is punishing himself, probably without even realizing it. He lives alone, is alone and he’s only willing to let himself get as close to someone as his suspicions and guilt will allow — which isn’t very close at all.
Harry’s latest job seems simple enough. All he’s been asked to do is record a young couple’s conversation as they stroll through a busy park during the workday lunch hour. This is the easy part for a man known as the best in his profession. A microphone here, a microphone there, put it all together and what you have at first appears to be a rather innocuous and even dull conversation. The difficult part comes later.
It’s the client who raises Harry’s suspicions. Actually, it’s the client’s assistant Martin Stett (Harrison Ford). Something’s off about the whole situation, but worse still, something’s familiar. Something reminds Harry of what happened in New York, and now he might be faced with only two options, both of them horrible. He can take his money, walk away and possibly allow a murder to take place, or he can do something to prevent the murder. However, that means the unthinkable — admitting he could’ve and should’ve done something in New York, which in turn means that he was in some way responsible for it. For too many years Harry’s been guarding himself against that.
Besides the superb, emotionally complicated story and an unforgettable central performance courtesy of Hackman, nothing makes the Blu-ray more worthwhile than Coppola’s decision to shoot mostly on location in 1974 San Francisco. There is nothing that will ever replicate the look of urban America during this time, where the city is just as important of a character as any of the actors. And it looks absolutely gorgeous here. The grit, the beauty, the feel and sound all come alive — especially the sound, which was mixed and edited by the legendary Walter Murch.
Other notable performances include the wonderful John Cazale as Stan — Harry’s wormy assistant; Teri Garr, who makes the most of her single scene; and Harrison Ford, who’s absolutely perfect as a looming, menacing figure who never shows all his cards. Robert Duvall is perfectly cast in a small role, and Cindy Williams will surprise you, especially in her final moments.
If you own the original DVD, all of the extras, including Coppola’s commentary, Murch’s commentary, an on-set interview with Hackman and a making-of featurette are still there. The Blu-ray also includes some brand new extras, including a charming interview conducted by Coppola with composer David Shire, whose piano score is so masterful you feel more than hear it. You’ll also find a featurette titled “Harry Caul’s San Francisco,” which is self-explanatory and a fascinating audio archive of Coppola dictating his original screenplay.
Intelligent, tense, expertly paced, and always compelling, “The Conversation” is a is a one-of-a-kind film delivered by a one-of-a-kind filmmaker at the height of his extraordinary creative powers. And when you’re done enjoying “The Conversation,” catch “Enemy of the State” (1998), which just might give us a look at where Harry Caul ended up 15 years later.