The reason I love DVD is that it's seeing the re-release of films that I've never seen, and that they're appearing cheaply in venues I can stroll into off the street. I'm big on the cheap side of this, I might add, because I don't have the money to go buying different region coded films and getting them sent over here (which would present a problem for my one region coded DVD player I bought for ninety bucks, but that's not as if it present a problem for more than a couple of hours). But I love the fact that the proliferation of DVDs in general society now is so high that films are constantly being reduced to prices like fifteen bucks, and I love that fact that I can pick up something like The Conversation and find a really excellent film from the otherwise hit and miss director of Francis Ford Coppola, and not have had to go to any stress level for it.
After watching The Conversation, my belief is now that Coppola has made three excellent films: Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, and The Conversation. That pretty much covers his work in the 70s, with the exception of The Godfather 2, a film I've never really seen the fascination with. Far as I'm concerned, without Marlon Brando, that following Godfather films were limp and weak affairs.
But the Conversation isn't. Rather, it's a quiet, taunt thing that is an excellent use of perspective.
Fronting the film is Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who, working in the private industry, is hired to record people. As the film opens, he is involved in recording a couple walking through a crowded square at lunch time, an elaborate job that produces the recording that Caul becomes obsessed with during the film. His obsession grows out of his personality, for Caul is a man filled with paranoia and secrets, and both are kept in a spartan, empty life that he refuses to allow anyone into. He has become so closed off to everyone around him that his girlfriend doesn't know what he does for a living, and his only friends are those connected to his life, and all of which are being shut out by him.
Outside the opening shots of the couple through the park, the entire film is told from the point of view of Caul. Everything he sees, everything he feels... that is transferred to us, the viewer. The problem with a lot of films nowadays is that the perspective is often that of an omniscient figure (the director, one feels) who is watching the film, and trying to feed you every characters thoughts and feelings. The result, of course, is that the audience rarely connects with any of the characters in a film and is left with a hollow experience when the film ends. However, in The Conversation, when Caul goes to hand in the recordings to the director who hired him, but instead finds the director's assistant, played by Harrison Ford with just a hint of suit and power sinister, the viewer agrees with Caul that he shouldn't hand in the tape of the couple speaking;and when later, Ford is following him, that hint of sinister rises, even as he says, "I'm not following you, I'm looking for you. There's a difference. And you're in a convention of wiretappers--the math was simple."
It's a perfectly valid explanation, but by this time, you've been invested in Caul's paranoia so much that you go with it. In other scenes, where his girlfriend asks questions, you begin, like Caul, to suspect that something isn't quite right. You see dangerous shadows at every corner. You agree with Caul's lies. It's really a fantastic immersion in point of view from Coppola and Hackman, the latter providing a subtle performance where his underplayed note allows for the character flaws to establish themselves slowly. In another film--say in Enemy of the State--Hackman virtually screams to the audience, "I'm a paranoid bastard! Believe me or our insides will be fried by Government lasers in space!"
(I don't reference Enemy of the State for no particular reason, I might add. Hackman's character and wire cage in the film are recreations from the The Conversation. The only difference is, of course, that Tony Scott is behind the first and the 70s Francis Ford Coppola in the latter. It's quite a large difference, naturally, because Scott believes that you got to blow some shit up regularly to make a good film.)
However, The Conversation is really a superb film. A perfect example of perspective for anyone interested in fiction in any medium or genre, and I can't recommend it enough.