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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Harry Caul (Hackman) is a paranoid, socially-withdrawn surveillance expert in San Francisco who runs a personal business in which he spies on people's conversations at the behest of his clients and reports the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. Furthermore, Coppola explained in the DVD commentary he was inspired by the earlier film Blowup, which dealt with a similar premise, but with photography.

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 demonstrated 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. On his DVD commentary, Coppola says the spelling was a typographical error by his assistant, but Coppola recognized and liked the dual meaning.
  • 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.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Harry is loosely based on Hal Lipset, a real-life detective and electronics expert who served as Coppola's technical adviser.
  • Once More with Clarity: Culminating in the Wham Line "He'd kill US if he got the chance."
  • Overt Rendezvous
  • Properly Paranoid
  • Reclusive Artist:invoked 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.
  • The Rival: Moran to Harry, at least in Moran's own mind.
  • Speech-Centric Work: And a significant portion of it is just the protagonist listening to a single line of dialogue over and over again.
  • Spies in a Van: The surveillance van used for the opening scene.
  • Spy Cam: A couple of these (which are high-tech by the standards of the film's era) are demonstrated in passing on the "surveillance experts'" convention.
  • 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.