"The Conversation"

Coppola divulges the dream that informed his classic paranoid thriller.

Published February 6, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"The Conversation"
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams
Paramount; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of featurette, director's commentary, editor's commentary, trailer

Part of the reason Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 "The Conversation" works so well is that it makes paranoia so poignant. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert hired to trail a young man and woman (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) for reasons he doesn't know and doesn't want to know. "I don't care what they're talking about," he tells his assistant Stan (the wonderful John Cazale). "All I want is a nice fat recording."

Harry begins to suspect that the man and the woman are in danger, and his feelings of responsibility and guilt end up tugging at his already frayed sense of self. The plot unrolls beautifully (Coppola also wrote the script) around Hackman's small miracle of a performance. It's not a showy role, but that's why it's so affecting. Harry Caul is a man folded deep inside himself, but Hackman doesn't resort to "actory" tricks, like adopting a slumped, shuffling walk, to convey it. Instead, he plays Harry Caul from the inside out, carrying himself with the vague self-consciousness of a person who just feels wrong in his own skin. He pushes us away even as he draws us in, priming us for the movie's final, heartbreaking twist.

The extras here are something of a mixed bag. The featurette, "Close-up on 'The Conversation,'" shows Hackman and Coppola at work and gives at least a small sense of the director-actor give-and-take on the set. The twin commentaries, by Coppola and editor and sound supervisor Walter Murch (whose sound design for the picture -- a work of sustained paranoia itself that both mirrors and intensifies the action -- is simply genius), balance each other nicely. Murch's commentary is often fascinating, explaining how certain details of the movie came together. He notes, for instance, that Harry Caul's surveillance equipment looks low tech on purpose. One of the movie's technical advisors was Hal Lipset (a surveillance expert who had examined the gap in the Nixon tapes), who explained that true surveillance hotshots don't buy ready-made, state-of-the-art equipment; they take pride in building their own. Murch also has the good sense to know when to keep quiet, instead of babbling over every scene just to hear himself talk, a failing of so many DVD commentaries.

Coppola's commentary is more rambling, and fairly sleep-inducing. But it's at least a partial truth of DVD commentaries that if someone talks long enough, good things are bound to jump out at you now and then. Coppola describes a scene in which Harry Caul goes to visit his sometime girlfriend, played with vulnerable sweetness by Teri Garr, only to draw away from her when she tries to get closer to him. Coppola explains the genesis of the scene: He used to have recurring dreams in which he'd go to a secret apartment or house that nobody knew he owned. There would often be a woman -- a woman with something very sweet and sad about her -- waiting there for him. Coppola says he took the dialogue for the scene almost verbatim from his dreams, a gift the actors accept graciously and play beautifully. But after "The Conversation" was completed, Coppola noticed a change in his dreams. In them, he still visits those secret homes no one knows about. "But," he says, "there is no woman waiting for me."

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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