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 Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, 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Harry Caul (Hackman) is a paranoid, socially-withdrawn surveillance expert in San Francisco who runs a personal business in which he spies on people's conversations at the behest of his clients and reports the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 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:
- 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.
- 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 eavesdropping device being demonstrated at the trade show is what is used to bug Caul at the end.
- Creator Cameo: Francis Ford Coppola is a newsreader talking about Richard Nixon and Watergate.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: 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.
- 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 unlisted office number (and he calls from public phones if he needs to contact someone). By the end of the story, 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: 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 was in the hotel toilet?
- 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.
- 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 on 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.
- 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.
- Wham Line: Turns out that "He'd kill us if he got the chance" has very different meanings based on what word you stress.
- Your Cheating Heart: Ann and Mark.