Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Conversation

Go To

The Conversation is a 1974 psychological thriller film written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, with a supporting cast that includes John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Teri Garr, and Harrison Ford.

Harry Caul (Hackman) is a paranoid, socially-withdrawn surveillance expert in San Francisco who runs a personal business in which he spies on people's conversations at the behest of his clients and reports the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 (Williams), the wife of the director of a big company, and her lover Mark (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 Mark, 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, Mark and the director is dreadfully wrong.

The film is often mistakenly regarded as a reaction to the then-current 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 that he was inspired by the earlier film Blowup, which dealt with a similar premise, but with photography.

This film provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: When Harry listens back to the tape of Mark and Ann, we learn that it was made on December 2, 1972.
  • Affably Evil: Ann and Mark show a fair amount of depth and introspection in their conversation about killing her husband, hosting concern for a nearby homeless man, and reflecting on how their actions haven't hurt anyone yet.
  • Ambiguously Evil: It's never unequivocally stated that Martin is working for Mark and Ann, and if so why he is, and his actions in intimidating Harry at the end could be out of some misguided form of loyalty to the Director.
  • Arc Words: "He'd kill us if he got the chance." Enunciated at the end as: "He'd kill us if he got the chance," changing the meaning from fear the director will murder Ann to Mark justifying their plot to murder the director by pointing out that he's just as bad.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: In confession, Harry tells the priest that besides his moral failings and people being harmed by his work, he's also taken newspapers from a rack without paying for them.
  • Being Watched: Or, more precisely, heard.
  • Berserk Button: Do not record Harry without his knowing. When he finds out that Bernie secretly slipped him a bugged pen as a joke and then played back his private moments to everyone, it's probably the closest we get to seeing the normally stoic Caul truly enraged.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Harry Caul is a for-hire surveillance expert that does this for a living. And in the end, the company makes sure that Harry knows that they are watching him and had been for some time (although the call at the very end may have been a paranoid hallucination, though).
  • The Cameo: Robert Duvall as the Director.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Though not shown explicitly in the film, it is implied that the device being demonstrated at the trade show that turns an ordinary telephone into an eavesdropping microphone is what is used to bug Caul at the end.
    • Played straight by the complimentary pen that Bernie hands Harry at the trade show. Later at the party at Caul's workplace, Bernie plays a private conversation between Harry and Meredith on his recorder to demonstrate that the pen, resting in his suit pocket, is in fact a bug.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Harry fears that the director will murder Ann if he learns about the affair, especially based on his reaction to hearing the tapes. Ultimately averted, since Ann and Mark are the ones plotting to murder the director.
  • Creator Cameo: Francis Ford Coppola is a newsreader talking about Richard Nixon and Watergate.
  • A Deadly Affair: Harry pieces together bits of audio he recorded from a young couple to find out that they're worried about the woman's rich husband killing them before they can run away together. Except that Harry was mistaken, and they were actually talking about their own plot to kill the husband. They end up succeeding.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: The actual conversation was recorded on December 2nd and there are a few reminders of the season here and there (including Ann telling Mark she hadn't bought her husband a present).
  • Distinction Without a Difference: When Harry Caul confronts Martin Stett.
    Harry: Why are you following me?
    Martin: I'm not following you, I'm looking for you. There's a big difference.
  • Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us: Mark and Ann mention that the Director would kill them if he had the chance. It's unclear whether or not this is their sole motive for killing him, or whether it's true, but he does have a somewhat intimidating reaction to hearing the tape.
  • Downer Ending: Ann and Mark 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: Near the end, Harry dreams walking through a foggy park and trying to talk with Ann (the woman of the couple) to reassure her.
  • 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. The Priest who hears Harry's confession also has his face obscured by a screen.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Mark, who seems to be the more active force in the murder of the Director.
  • Freud Was Right: It's implied that Harry had a deep attachment to his mother and it severely affected the way he relates to women.
  • Friend on the Force: Paul, who seems to be the only person to fully and sincerely like Harry, is a cop who moonlights as one of his operatives.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The horrible Scare Chord when Harry witnesses the murder.
  • I Know You Know I Know: The last scene. The company knows that Caul knows they committed murder, and they let him know for intimidation purposes.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: An alternate title for the film is Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. Also, "Written by Francis Ford Coppola" appears immediately after the title in the opening credits.
  • Jerkass: Bernie, hands down, particularly when he makes sure to emphasize everything that happened in a past job that he can clearly tell Harry is tormented about.
  • Karma Houdini: Ann, Mark and Martin all not only get away with the brutal murder of the Director, but also bug Harry's apartment so he can't tell a soul what he knows.
  • Meaningful Echo:
    • The recording of the titular conversation is played over and over, but its true meaning isn't understood until the final repetition.
    • Ann's line about the homeless man on the bench is heard several times, and it could equally apply to Harry, who was sitting on a bench nearby right before she said it.
      Ann: I think he was once somebody's baby boy, and he had a mother and a father who loved him, and now there he is, half dead on a park bench, and where are his mother or his father or all his uncles now?
  • 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.
    • One of his marks for surveillance is named Mark.
  • The Mole: It's implied that Martin is one to Mark and Ann.
  • 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.
  • No-Respect Guy: Stan has been working with Harry for years, without getting much, if any, trust, friendship or tips on bettering his own craft from him.
  • Once More, with Clarity: Culminating in the Wham Line "He'd kill US if he got the chance."
  • Overt Rendezvous: The titular conversation is recorded on one of these, with the speaking couple walking all around a busy San Francisco park trying to fend off tails and Caul using various shotgun microphones and undercover helpers with secret mikes walking around trying to pick the best audio possible.
  • Paranoid Thriller: A seminal example of the subgenre.
  • Properly Paranoid: Harry does everything possible to keep his privacy (to the point that it's a serious, relationship-shattering Berserk Button if someone starts to get too curious about his work and his personal history or even how old he is), including keeping an unlisted office number (and he calls from public phones if he needs to contact someone). By the end of the story, though, it's showcased that the company that contracted him spent time creating an extensive dossier on him and there is absolutely nothing they don't know about him and nowhere that he can go that they can't break in to steal stuff or bug it.
  • 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 doing this to the titular conversation recorded at the beginning—at first to improve on the audio's quality (for the sake of fulfilling the contract), then eventually to get information and because Caul has become obsessed with it.
  • Riddle for the Ages:
    • Where's the bug in the final scene? Is it Moran's phone tapping device? Is it in the saxophone? Or is there no bug at all and the phone call was a paranoid hallucination on Harry's part? Francis Ford Coppola says even he doesn't know.
    • What exactly was in the hotel toilet?
    • If Martin was working with Mark and Ann then why did he ensure that the tape was given to the director when it contained some, admittedly indirect, clues about his impending murder?
  • The Rival: Moran to Harry, at least in Moran's own mind.
  • Serious Business: Don't blaspheme or take the Lord's name in vain in Harry's presence. Just don't.
  • Sidekick: Zigzagged with Stan, Harry's talkative, although somewhat less skilled assistant. He works for Harry and has some somewhat funny comments but their relationship is strained and he quits to work for Bernie. He does seem to show concern and reconsider when Harry pleads that he needs help (given how he's being followed) and promises to treat him more fairly, but never actually assists Harry in anything else (merely going to the party at the warehouse with him and seeming on somewhat good terms with him for most of it), leaving it ambiguous whether he did come back to work for Harry or not.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: "When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin' along" plus several other upbeat jazz numbers.
  • 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 at the "surveillance experts'" convention.
  • Stalker with a Crush: One possible interpretation is that Harry has become this for Ann. The dream he has where he talks to her suggests it.
  • 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.
  • Trouble Entendre: Ann and Mark's conversation in the park turns out to be them plotting the director's murder.
  • Wham Line: Turns out that "He'd kill us if he got the chance" has very different meanings based on what word you stress.