Conversation, The (Blu-ray Review)7 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams.
As the “other” movie Francis Ford Coppola directed in the year of his Oscar-winning The Godfather Part II, this preceding more modest jewel remains on the highest side of the repertory arthouse staples (back when there were still repertory arthouses) that Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson and other chosen few were directing in the same period. Yet in this case — and without the usual components to entice conservative Academy voters who normally looked down on psychological thrillers — Coppola’s April release went on to earn a best picture nomination as well. For a short period — basically, a little less than a decade — Coppola had his wine (artistic success) and could drink it, too (earning loud accolades from those other than unwashed critics).
Of course, there was no way The Conversation was ever going to be very commercial — though you have to believe that its modest cosmetics (basically two indoor sets and some compressed outdoor shooting) kept the costs down, as did a cast that didn’t rely on (as yet) big names beyond its already Oscar-winning lead Gene Hackman. But make no mistake: In my town, the movie’s first-run opening was relegated to the same rinky-dink venue (somewhere between 150 and 200 seats) where I also had to see the local launch of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The big houses in those days were reserved for mass-audience ephemera: the stagebound Neil Simon comedy of the month or maybe some first cousin of Freebie and the Bean.
Now that smartphones can do everything (including showing movies), the “neat” techno stuff from The Conversation probably seems quaint to some — though with the brilliant Walter Murch as its sound editor, you can bet that the movie’s audio element was up to date for its day. And it was quite a day: contributing to the movie’s stature in the cinema-of-paranoia were the widely rampant spring-of-’74 hopes that Richard Nixon would soon be listening to some cellmate play “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” on a harmonica over his henchfolk’s bugging of the Democratic Headquarters a little less than two years earlier.
This kind of covert surveillance is the domain of Hackman’s Harry Caul (good name for a bugging pro), whose Catholic Guilt was long ago exacerbated by a murky incident that spurred some fatalities. Now in San Francisco, he is tracking a young couple (Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams) whose obvious in-love-ness makes them sympathetic subjects — especially when it appears that her husband (someone powerful but also murky) is making their lives miserable. But Harry doesn’t ask many questions and doesn’t like it when his partner (John Cazale) wants his own curiosity satisfied. Sound minus context can be tricky, though, which Harry eventually discovers.
Even early on, Coppola had an instinct for casting. In 1969’s The Rain People (three years pre-Godfather I), he gave Robert Duvall a sizable role, and Duvall shows up here in a cameo that’s even smaller than the small bona fide part that goes to a young Harrison Ford (looking to be direct from high school). Somehow, Coppola knew that minor actress Elizabeth MacRae would be effective as a worn beauty who befriends Harry, even though her main claim to fame had been playing Jim Nabors’ girlfriend on “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” back when CBS was going for the hill-jack demographic. And he rounded up what had to be some of the unhealthiest male skin tones in the industry for a long scene at an audio equipment trade show where industry dweebs (Allen Garfield and other lonely guys) gather to test the latest spook equipment.
Coppola’s framing is brilliant (sometimes, key action takes place out-of-frame), and in some ways his and Murch’s use of sound is to this maybe-or-maybe-not mystery what the photo development lab was to visuals in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up. Like the Blu-ray Paramount released of The Godfather, this Lionsgate release artfully emphasizes film grain without descending into eyesore territory. The bonus extras are a mix of retained oldies (including separate Coppola and Murch commentaries) and some shorter newbies. On one of the latter, the director’s former brother-in-law (composer David Shire) notes that his sparse piano score, abetted by Murch’s sound contribution, led him to land more spinoff work than anything in his musical career. From the era, Shire’s is the most memorable score of its kind together with Harvey Schmidt’s for Robert Benton’s Bad Company — a 1972 Paramount release that I’d love to see get this kind of Blu-ray treatment. Especially given that Gordon Willis shot it (the picture he did after The Godfather, in fact).