The Conversation - Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
Both in terms of video and audio, The Conversation is a film that is extremely difficult to assess, and to promote as demo material, despite the fact that, as you will soon find out, the presentation on both counts is excellent. Why the confusion? Well, in striving for authenticity, Coppola utilised a number of different video and audio formats – almost entirely for the purposes of the opening surveillance operation, which is seen and heard as if you really were using the equipment that the lead character and his team use to pick up snapshots and snippets of their target’s conversation.
To this end, the video quality ostensibly drops significantly during this pivotal sequence, varying considerably in terms of softness, detail and, perhaps most noticeably, grain level, all as a result of the intentional filming techniques which were used to add to the feeling of genuine surveillance. Ignoring this wild variance, purely because it is intentional, one has to observe the more cinematic sequences and assess their worth – and, at the end of the day, it soon becomes apparent that Coppola’s ‘70s thriller truly has never looked this good.
Detail, during these more classically cinematic moments, is excellent; it boasts a consistently sharp image which thankfully has none of the dreaded digital effects trademarks that fans do not like to see – no edge enhancement, no DNR, and no digital defects – the whole movie boasting a fairly substantial layer of natural grain, which not only gives it the necessary filmic feel, but also adds to the gritty tone of the affair. The colour scheme is suitably muted, reflecting the drab setting, the environments never having any vivid tones – almost every location looks dilapidated or, at the very least, worn. As stated there are moments where different filming techniques are implemented, Coppola even injecting them into the main body of the film to add to the ‘surveillance feel’, and, beyond these intentionally different shots, there are scant few instances of unintentional softness, or a drop in quality.
This 1080p High Definition video rendition, in the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1 widescreen, is not a perfect video presentation, nor is it the kind of material which could every really be assessed in terms of ‘perfection’, and there is no way on earth you would ever show this film off as an example of just how well your home cinema equipment can perform but, all that said, this is the best that The Conversation has ever looked, a fitting reflection of exactly what the director intended, given lavish, respectful treatment on Blu-ray.
On the aural front the same noted problems arise with assessment – namely, that the director utilised a number of different audio sources (or approximations of such) to create the impression of a surveillance operation. This means that the ‘recorded’ audio sounds, understandably – and intentionally – quite poor. The actual film’s audio, i.e. the scenes where the characters interact and have conversations that aren’t under surveillance, have a very different, much cleaner and clearer representation. At the end of the day you just have to remember that Coppola wanted his film to sound this way; once you accept this fact, you will soon realise that this is one of be best ‘70s audio presentations that you will likely come across.
There are three audio offerings provided for us – the discerning ‘classic’ film fans, who want to experience the movie’s soundtrack as it was originally recorded, get a remastered LPCM 2.0 Mono track (as well as a LPCM 2.0 Stereo for completeness); newcomers who like their tracks to be more full and flavoursome get a lovingly reworked DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 approximation. I shall look primarily at the latter, although it should be remembered that both tracks are quite front-heavy, as is the nature of the material, so you really don’t lose out too much from choosing the original 2.0 audio – and similarly you don’t really gain a huge amount from the 5.1 upgrade, although it’s nonetheless great that they included it.
Dialogue in the normally filmed sequences comes across clearly and coherently throughout, largely dominating the frontal array, as you would only expect from not only a front-heavy track, but also from a film which is itself inherently dialogue-driven. Effects are keenly observed across the array – though subtlety is the name of the game here, with every crack or pop intentional, every fade-out or drop in audio level pre-determined and designed to add to the surveillance feel. There are no real grand-standing moments, although the score, which similarly plays a back-seat for the majority of the movie, does have a couple of louder moments designed to further emphasise the heightened tension of the corresponding sequences. Surrounds and rears get something to do, but it’s mostly atmospheric, and is simply nothing when compared to mainstream big budget Blockbusters like Transformers. Then again, it sounds entirely as it should – this isn’t a big budget flick, it’s an almost-independent offering from a great director who clearly wants it to sound this way. If you want bass and bombast, pick a different title, but if you love the movie, you won’t be disappointed by this precise, respectful, and atmospheric rendition.
Positively earning its Collector’s Edition moniker, this lavish release of Coppola’s ’74 film comes complete with a full-to-the-brim set of extras, almost all of which are well-researched and thoroughly worth your time.
Audio Commentary with writer/director Francis Ford Coppola – Easily the better of the two tracks on offer, this is an absolute must-listen for fans of the movie, which discusses not only the specifics of the movie production itself – detailing the equipment and techniques that Coppola implemented to bring his ideas to the screen, as well as the cast he selected, the against-type performances he garnered and the shoot itself – but also examining how he set about getting this thing off the ground, deciding to make this relatively independent production in amidst a plethora of considerably bigger-budget more high profile offerings, and being inspired by vague ideas he had several decades earlier, as well as films like Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
Audio Commentary with editor Walter Murch – Coming in second place is never great for commentaries, as so few are going to actually sit down and watch the movie three times just to listen to both tracks. Still, if you do, you’ll find a very good secondary offering that looks most specifically at the editing and sound design of the movie – two key elements for this particular story.
Close-Up on The Conversation – This nine-minute offering, a making-of featurette made at the time of production, gives us brief interview soundbites and clips of Coppola and Hackman working their magic. Far less fluffy than what we get these days, it’s a nice offering that it well worth checking out.
Harry Caul’s San Francisco: Then and Now – Only a few minutes long, this is still an intriguing look at the changing face of San Francisco as exemplified by the locations see in the film, which are given a comparison between what they were like in the 70s, and what they are like now, some four decades later.
David Shire Interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola – a comparatively lengthy 11-minute interview between Coppola and the film’s composer, David Shire, who discusses his work on the film and the importance of the score to creating the right atmosphere in the film.
Gene Hackman Interview – another short offering, at just 4 minutes this is still a nice glimpse of 70s Hackman off-camera, talking about the character he portrays here and the movie itself.
Cindy Williams Screen Test – This is a five-minute look at the screen test of Cindy Williams, here seen auditioning for a different part to the one that she finally won.
Harrison Ford Screen Test – Perhaps far more interesting to fans is this look at a young pre-Star Wars Ford, who is again auditioning for a different part to the one he secured (actually the part of one of the targets in the square).
“No Cigar” – This is brief 2-minute reflection on the 1956 Student Short Film done by Francis Ford Coppola with the assistance of his Uncle, who plays the main character. It is included here because Coppola regards the character as being the basic inspiration for Hackman’s Harry Caul. Clips from the film come complete with a director’s introduction and a running commentary.
Script Dictations from Francis Ford Coppola – The largest extras is this 50-minute offering which has Coppola basically read out the entire script, as it is scrolled across the screen in text format, and as clips from the final film play out to remind you of the relevant scenes. An interesting, intriguing look at his screenplay, this is also worth checking out.
Finally we get the movie’s Theatrical Trailer to round off the excellent selection of extras.
Between Godfather movies, and before he undertook the epic Apocalypse Now, acclaimed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola made a far more personal, small-scale production, the psychological thriller The Conversation, a cleverly-weaved tale of then high-tech surveillance and political conspiracies driven by a strong and unusually restrained performance from Gene Hackman. Whilst neither as perfected, nor as epic as Coppola’s grander, more familiar efforts, The Conversation remains a solid example of simple ideas used to great effect; a comparatively low budget affair which does indeed contend with more blockbuster-styled productions in terms of narrative, characterisation, performance, and dramatic tension.
On region B-locked UK Blu-ray we get excellent video and audio, as well as a comprehensive selection of extras that are sure to please any fans, who will no doubt have this release on pre-order already. If you are familiar to Coppola’s work, but are a newcomer to this particular film, then I recommend a rental at the very least.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.99
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