The Conversation is a 1974 American psychological thriller film written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman with supporting roles by John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall.
The Conversation won the Palme d'Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, and in 1995, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Originally, Paramount Pictures distributed the film worldwide. Paramount retains American rights to this day but international rights are now held by Miramax Films and StudioCanal in conjunction with American Zoetrope.
- 2 Cast
- 3 Production
- 4 Box office gross
- 5 Reception
- 6 Awards
- 7 Enemy of the State connections
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who runs his own company in San Francisco. Highly respected within the profession, Caul is obsessed with his own privacy; his apartment is almost bare behind its triple-locked door and burglar alarm, he uses pay phones to make calls, claims to have no home telephone and his office is enclosed in wire mesh in a corner of a much larger warehouse. Caul is utterly professional at work, but finds personal contact extremely difficult; dense crowds make him uncomfortable, and he is withdrawn and taciturn in more intimate social situations. His appearance is nondescript, except for his habit of wearing a translucent grey plastic raincoat almost everywhere he goes, even when it is not raining.
Caul insists that he is not responsible for the actual content of the conversations he records or for the use to which his clients put his surveillance activities. Nevertheless, he feels wracked by guilt over a past wiretap job which resulted in the murder of three people; this sense of guilt is amplified by his devout Catholicism. His one hobby is playing along to jazz records on a tenor saxophone in the privacy of his apartment.
Caul, his colleague Stan (John Cazale) and some freelance associates have taken on the task of bugging the conversation of a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk through crowded Union Square in San Francisco, surrounded by a cacophony of background noise. Amid the small talk, the couple discuss fears that they are being watched and mention a discreet meeting at a hotel room in a few days. The challenging task of recording this conversation is accomplished by multiple surveillance operatives located in different positions around the square. After Caul has worked his magic on merging and filtering different tapes, he produces a sound recording in which the words themselves become crystal-clear, but their actual meaning remains ambiguous.
Although Caul cannot understand the true meaning of the conversation, he finds the cryptic nuances and emotional undercurrents contained within it deeply troubling. Sensing danger, Caul feels increasingly uneasy about what may happen to the couple once the client hears the tape. He plays the tape again and again throughout the movie, gradually refining its accuracy. He concentrates on one key phrase hidden under the sound of a street musician: "He'd kill us if he got the chance." Caul constantly reinterprets the speakers' subtle emphasis on particular words in this phrase, trying to figure out their meaning in the light of what he suspects and subsequently discovers.
Caul avoids handing in the tape to Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), who works for The Director (Robert Duvall), the man who commissioned the surveillance. Afterwards, he finds himself under increasing pressure from the client's aide and is himself followed, tricked, and bugged. The tape of the conversation is eventually stolen from him in a moment when his guard is down.
Tormented by guilt over what he fears will happen to the couple, Caul's desperate efforts to forestall disaster ultimately fail. He rents a hotel room adjoining the one where the couple said they planned to meet, and uses a listening device to monitor it. He overhears a heated argument between the woman and The Director, and to his horror, the tape being played back at a particularly incriminating moment. He runs to the balcony outside, hears the woman screaming, and witnesses a bloody hand frantically slamming against the frosted glass partition. Overcome with remorse, he retreats to his room and collapses into an uneasy slumber. Several hours later, Caul awakens, picks the lock into the adjoining room, and initially sees nothing amiss. On closer investigation, he flushes the clogged toilet and waves of blood come flowing out. He flees the scene, unsuccessfully tries to confront The Director at his office, and is stunned to see the couple unharmed. To Caul's surprise, the conversation he had obsessed over might not mean what he thought it did: the terrible event he dreaded differs from the one that actually happened. Caul sees a newspaper headline about The Director's death in a "car accident", but Caul knows that the couple killed him in the hotel room. He now realizes that the statement "He'd kill us if he got the chance" was a rationalization of the couple's decision to kill The Director.
While later practicing saxophone in his apartment, Caul receives a call from Stett on his unlisted telephone in which Stett warns: "We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don't get involved any further. We'll be listening to you." At the end of the call, Stett plays back a recording of Caul's saxophone practice, which sets him off on a frantic search for the listening device. He tears up walls and floorboards, ultimately destroying his apartment in the process, but to no avail. The film's end leaves him sitting amidst the wreckage, playing one of the only things in his apartment left intact: his saxophone.
- Gene Hackman as Harry Caul
- John Cazale as Stan
- Allen Garfield as William P. "Bernie" Moran
- Cindy Williams as Ann
- Frederic Forrest as Mark
- Harrison Ford as Martin Stett
- Michael Higgins as Paul
- Elizabeth MacRae as Meredith
- Teri Garr as Amy Fredericks
- Mark Wheeler as Receptionist
- Robert Shields as The Mime
- Phoebe Alexander as Lurleen
- Robert Duvall as The Director (uncredited)
- Gene Hackman's brother, Richard Hackman, played two roles in the film, the priest in the confessional and a security guard.
- Gian-Carlo Coppola, the nine-year-old son of director Francis Ford Coppola, played the small part of a boy in church.
Coppola has cited Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966) as a key influence on his conceptualization of the film's themes, such as surveillance versus participation, and perception versus reality. "Francis had seen [it] a year or two before, and had the idea to fuse the concept of Blowup with the world of audio surveillance."
On the DVD commentary, Coppola says he was shocked to learn that the film utilized the very same surveillance and wire-tapping equipment that members of the Nixon Administration used to spy on political opponents prior to the Watergate scandal. Coppola has said this is the reason the film gained part of the recognition it has received, but that this is entirely coincidental. Not only was the script for The Conversation completed in the mid-1960s (before the Nixon Administration came to power) but the spying equipment used in the film was discovered through research and the use of technical advisers and not, as many believed, by revelatory newspaper stories about the Watergate break-in. Coppola also noted that filming of The Conversation had been completed several months before the most revelatory Watergate stories broke in the press. Since the film was released to theaters just a few months before Richard Nixon resigned as President, Coppola feels that audiences interpreted the film to be a reaction to both the Watergate scandal and its fall-out.
The original cinematographer of The Conversation was Haskell Wexler. Severe creative and personal differences with Coppola led to Wexler's firing shortly after production began and Coppola replaced him with Bill Butler. Wexler's footage on The Conversation was completely reshot, except for the technically complex surveillance scene in Union Square. This would be the first of two Oscar-nominated films where Wexler would be fired and replaced by Butler, the second being One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), where Wexler had similar problems with Miloš Forman.
Walter Murch served as the supervising editor and sound designer. Murch had more or less a free hand during the editing process, since Coppola was already working on The Godfather Part II at the time. Coppola noted in the DVD commentary that Hackman had a very difficult time adapting to the Harry Caul character because it was so much unlike himself. Coppola says that Hackman was at the time an outgoing and approachable person who preferred casual clothes, whereas Caul was meant to be a socially awkward loner who wore a rain coat and out-of-style glasses. Coppola said that Hackman's efforts to tap into the character made the actor moody and irritable on-set but otherwise Coppola got along well with his leading man. Coppola also notes on the commentary that Hackman considers this one of his favorite performances.
The Conversation features a piano score composed and performed by David Shire. The score was created before the film was shot. On some cues, Shire used musique concrete techniques, taking the taped sounds of the piano and distorting them in different ways to create alternative tonalities to round out the score. The score was released on CD by Intrada Records in 2001. In 1997, prior to the official release of the movie soundtrack, British electronic musician Kevin Martin, an admirer of the film, released an unauthorized soundtrack CD titled Tapping The Conversation under the alias The Bug. Martin's notes for the CD stress that he used no audio samples from the film.
The film did very well financially making $4,420,000 in its domestic gross on a $1,600,000 budget. Although not a blockbuster like Coppola's other projects at the time, it was still very profitable.
The film currently holds 98% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average of 8.6/10 based on 43 reviews of which 42 were positive and 1 negative with the consensus: "This tense, paranoid thriller presents Francis Ford Coppola at his finest—and makes some remarkably advanced arguments about technology's role in society that still resonate today."
Roger Ebert's contemporary review gave The Conversation four out of four stars, and described Hackman's portrayal of Caul as "one of the most affecting and tragic characters in the movies." In 2001, Ebert added The Conversation to his "Great Movies" list, describing Hackman's performance as a "career peak" and writing that the film "comes from another time and place than today's thrillers, which are so often simple-minded."
- Academy Award for Best Picture (Francis Ford Coppola)
- Academy Award for Best Sound (Walter Murch, Art Rochester)
- Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola)
The 1998 surveillance-corruption-thriller film Enemy of the State (which also stars Gene Hackman) has thematic connections to The Conversation. According to film critic Kim Newman, Enemy of the State could be construed as a "continuation of The Conversation." 
On Newman's analysis, Gene Hackman's paranoid, musical, technologically brilliant character in Enemy of the State, who uses the pseudonym Brill, closely resembles Harry Caul in The Conversation. He dons the same translucent raincoat worn by Caul, and Brill's cage-like workshop is nearly identical to Caul's workshop in The Conversation. Enemy of the State also uses a still from The Conversation for Brill's National Security Agency file photo.
Enemy of the State also has other references to The Conversation, according to Newman, including a scene which is highly similar to The Conversation's opening surveillance scene in San Francisco's Union Square.