The Conversation is a psychological thriller film from 1974 and it was written, produced, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert living in San Francisco. He runs his own surveillance company with his partner Stan, doing work for whoever hires them. Harry is also highly regarded by the other people in his profession.
He makes a point to say to people throughout the film that he doesn’t get involved with his cases. He just does the work he is hired to do and isn’t responsible for the content of his recordings or what his clients do with his recordings. Despite him saying this, he is actually feeling guilt over a past case of his that resulted in the murder of three people.
What is interesting about his character is that he is a surveillance expert and is consumed by his work but is obsessed with his own privacy. He has a triple lock on his door, uses pay phones to make calls, and tells people he has no home phone. This may be because he knows that there are other people like him out there who can spy on his life the way he does on people. The only part of his life not connected to his work or his privacy is his hobby of playing the saxophone.
The case we see him work on throughout the film is the bugging of a conversation between this couple who are walking in San Francisco’s Union Square. A man called The Director hired Harry for this job. The more he listens to it trying to figure out what they are talking about, he becomes emotionally involved. He eventually is able to make out the man saying to the woman, “He’d kill us if they got the chance” and this really spooks him.
He goes to the hotel the couple planned to meet at and gets a room next to theirs and listens in on them. He hears an argument and starts panicking, runs out to the balcony, and hears screaming and sees a bloody hand. This is all too much for Harry and he collapses.
When he wakes up, it is suspiciously quiet. He manages to get into the couple’s room but nothing looks wrong. When he goes into the bathroom and flushes the toilet, blood pours out and he flees. At The Directors office, he is shocked to see the couple unharmed. This is when he starts connecting everything together. He realizes it was the couple who killed The Director. He misheard what they were saying on his tape. The man had actually said “He’d kill us if he had the chance” which means they wanted to kill him before he had the chance to kill them.
One thing that is hard to miss with this film is its use of sound. We constantly hear his tape of their conversation over and over to make the audience feel how he must feel when he has to listen in on strangers everyday. Eventually we can’t get it out of our heads, much like how Harry can’t. There is also this feeling that we are listening to this tape as if we were right next to Harry’s tape player and this is really effective in bringing out the uneasiness of the couple’s conversation. The score of the film is also very effective because it would always replicate Harry’s emotions at a given time and many scenes become more powerful because of this.
The scenes when Harry is working on his tape trying to figure out what the couple was saying was also very good use of sound. The use of distorted sound on the tape was really effective and innovative and it added suspense watching him slowly clean up the tape.
Coppola cited Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup as his influence making The Conversation. This film came just two years after Coppola’s successful film, The Godfather, and he was actually working on The Conversation at the same time as The Godfather Part II, both of which ended up being released the same year.
One interesting fact about this film is that Coppola was shocked to find out years later that the film used the exact same surveillance and wire tapping equipment used by members of the Nixon Administration to spy on political opponents prior to the Watergate scandal. He said that the script for The Conversation was completed in the mid 1960s which was before the Nixon Administration came into power and that all the spying equipment was discovered through research. He noted that this connection was entirely coincidental but felt that since the film was released just a few months before Nixon resigned as President, that audiences saw the film as a reaction to Watergate and it played a big part in how the film has gained the recognition it’s received.