Prick up your ears for some thrilling retro releases

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The Conversation
The Conversation: Francis Ford Coppola's Palme d'Or winning tale of surveillance is back, with extras

Widely heralded as one of Francis Ford Coppola’s finest films, The Conversation – Special Edition (Studio Canal) is now back in print, with an expansive array of extras to boot.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman, The French Connection) is a highly respected San Francisco surveillance expert, whose esteemed professional reputation is at odds with his visible discomfort in social situations. Secretive around his colleagues and nervous in crowds, the nondescript Caul maintains that his strict professional code frees him of any responsibility for the content of the actual conversations that he records – or the subsequent impact of his surveillance activities. However, in truth, Caul is wracked with guilt over a previous wiretap job that left three people dead. Haunted by a soundbite contained within his latest assignment – in which a young couple speculate “He’d kill us if he got the chance” – Caul finds himself re-examining the ambiguous tape and re-interpreting its meaning, eventually taking the proceedings into his own hands, as he seeks to prevent more carnage from compromising his conscience.

Interestingly, aside from Apocalypse Now, The Conversation was the only other Coppola film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. In many ways The Conversation is the anti-Apocalypse Now – quiet, bleak, and painstakingly measured – with none of the later film’s bombastic edge. Underpinned by a memorably against-type performance from Hackman, The Conversation Special Edition is a welcome re-release of an often-overlooked Coppola movie, and a classic slab of 1970s cinematic paranoia. Powerful stuff.

Hammett: Wim Wenders and Francis Ford Coppola combine on the noir film about the father of noir Dashiell Hammett

Originally conceived by Francis Ford Coppola as Wim Wenders’ American directorial debut, Hammett (Studio Canal) is a postmodern noir thriller that reimagines the events that inspired Pinkerton detective-turned-crime writer Dashiell Hammett to write his seminal novel The Maltese Falcon.

Coaxed out of his self-imposed retirement by old detective buddy Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle, Everybody Loves Raymond) Hammett (Frederic Forrest, Apocalypse Now) finds himself tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of a beautiful Chinese cabaret star in San Francisco’s sleazy underbelly. It isn’t long before the frustrated would-be writer is thrust headlong into a sordid world of vulnerable teenage hookers and wealthy men with dark desires. As the case progresses Hammett accumulates plenty of great material for his novel, but risks biting off far more than he can chew…

Most talk of Hammett tends to focus on its tumultuous production, and if rumours are to be believed, the notoriously difficult-to-please Coppola was so dissatisfied with Wenders’ finished product that he re-shot the bulk of the film himself, even recasting some key roles after the cast grew frustrated at the film’s lengthy schedule. Although it has never been officially confirmed by Coppola himself, it is believed that as little as 30% of Wenders’ footage made it into the 1982 release of the movie, a notion supported by the fact that the film is now being re-released alongside a number of well-known Coppola flicks. Considering it is widely regarded as an intriguing mess, Hammett makes for a surprisingly cohesive viewing experience, and there is much to enjoy for film noir fans – not least the grubby San Francisco location, the eclectic cast and the smart-mouthed script. All in all, far better than expected.

Buried Alive
Buried Alive: Jennifer Jason Leigh leads in the Blood Simple-esque horror film

Four years before surging to prominence with The Shawshank Redemption Hungarian-American film director Frank Darabont was handed $2 million to helm his feature-length debut Buried Alive (Second Sight) for the USA Network.

Hard-working construction company owner Clint (Tim Matheson, Animal House ) is married to the sultry Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh,  Last Exit To Brooklyn), but unbeknownst to him she is having an affair with sleazy doctor Cortland Van Owen (William Atherton, Die Hard 1 & 2). Even worse for the hapless Clint, the pair are plotting to murder him and claim a substantial life insurance pay-out for themselves. In a bid to cover their tracks the pair poison Clint using toxins extracted from a tropical fish, but unfortunately for them, the poison wears off – when Clint is effectively dead and buried. Horrified to wake up in a cheap coffin, Clint fights his way out of his shallow grave and sets about wreaking revenge on his devious wife and her similarly repellent lover before they can scarper with their ill-gotten gains.

The ‘Buried Alive’ conceit has been used numerous times in recent years, from Tarantino’s CSI guest episode Grave Danger through to last year’s stomach-churning Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds, but Darabont’s engaging thriller offers a refreshingly unique spin on the idea. Part-Blood Simple-esque crime caper, part-claustrophobic B-movie horror, Buried Alive is a quirky little curio elevated above TV-movie nonsense by committed performances from the three charismatic leads.  The horror genre has loomed large in Darabont’s work since he scripted A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 back in 1987, and although his work in the horror sphere arguably reached its peak with zombie series The Walking Dead – prior to his untimely sacking – Buried Alive represents an appealing footnote in an often-inspired career.