Film: The Conversation

The Conversation is a 1974 psychological thriller film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman.

Harry Caul (Hackman) is a paranoid, socially-withdrawn surveillance expert in San Francisco who runs a personal business in which he spies on people's conversations at the behest of his clients and reports the information back to them. He is strictly professional in his activities; never questioning why his clients want those he surveys spied on, nor intervening accordingly. However, his latest assignment has been to spy on Ann (Cindy Williams), the wife of the director of a big company, and her lover Marc (Frederic Forrest). He hears in their recorded conversations the phrase: "He'd kill us if he got the chance". He thus theorizes that Ann's husband suspects she is having an affair and is planning to murder her and Marc, and thereby is torn over whether to adhere to his non-intervention rule or do something.

As it turns out, the theory he has regarding Ann, Marc and the director is dreadfully wrong.

The film is often mistakenly regarded as a reaction to the Watergate scandal. In reality, the resemblance was just a prophetic coincidence; the screenplay and filming were completed prior to the scandal hitting the press.

This film provides examples of:

  • Being Watched: Or, more precisely, heard.
  • Big Brother Is Watching
  • Chekhov's Gun: Though not shown explicitly in the film, it is implied that the eavesdropping device being demostrated at the trade show is what is used to bug Caul at the end.
  • Downer Ending: Ann and Marc murder the director. The director's assistant, with whom they're working, knows that Caul knows the truth. They plant a bug in his own apartment and tell him about it. He tears up the place in a paranoid frenzy trying to find it, but is unable to. He resorts to playing the only thing he has left in his life: his saxophone.
  • Dream Sequence
  • Epic Tracking Shot: The opening shot starts in an overhead shot of Union Square in San Francisco and zooms in slowly to reveal Gene Hackman pacing the courtyard.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The Director.
  • The Faceless: Harry's employer, played by a very well known actor, is only ever seen in deep shadows.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: An alternate title for the film is Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.
  • Meaningful Echo: The recording of the titular conversation is played over and over, but its true meaning isn't understood until the final repetition.
  • Meaningful Name: The last name of Harry is Caul, which sounds like "Call". Also, there may be a connection with the meaning of the word caul: a piece of membrane that can cover a newborn's head and face.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Harry mentions this to Meredith.
  • My Greatest Failure: Harry is haunted by a job he did in New York which was closely followed by the murders of a man, woman and child.
  • Once More with Clarity: Culminating in the Wham Line "He'd kill US if he had the chance."
  • Overt Rendezvous
  • Playing Against Type: Harrison Ford going for a much less heroic & charming role and more of a creepy villainous one, though this film did precede his more well known roles.
    • Hackman, too. Caul is exceptionally skilled in his field but is a far cry from the kind of badasses Hackman usually plays. Coppola noted in the DVD commentary that Hackman, generally gregarious and relaxed, had a lot of trouble playing the nervous, reclusive Caul.
  • Properly Paranoid
  • Reclusive Artist: Harry doesn’t work well with public relations, and his fellow surveillance experts certainly see him as an example of this trope.
  • Rewind, Replay, Repeat: Almost the entire movie revolves around this trope.
  • Speech-Centric Work: And a significant portion of it is just the protagonist listening to a single line of dialogue over and over again.
  • Technology Porn: In spades. Aligning playheads, long distance mikes re-mounted and aimed by snipers, and each multiple audio pass savored for its methodical slowness. In the digital age, it still qualifies as analog porn that would make the typical Diesel Punk aficionado blush.
    • This attention to detail got the film some unusual recognition when it turned out that it used many of the same techniques used by the Nixon administration. Coppola insisted that the screenplay had been written in the mid-sixties using conventional research and technical advisers.
  • Wham Line: Turns out that "He'd kill us if he got the chance" has very different meanings based on what word you stress.
  • What Could Have Been: It was originally envisioned as an horror film and would have starred Marlon Brando.
  • Write What You Know: Coppola considers this his most personal movie, largely because he incorporated so much of his personality into Harry Caul. Like Harry, Coppola suffered from polio as a child which temporarily left him paralyzed. He was also obsessed with gadgetry from an early age and bugged his parents' phone when a teenager. Harry's ardent Catholicism and prudishness tally with many descriptions of Coppola.