RopeofSilicon Movie Club: 'The Conversation' (1974)

Gene Hackman in The Conversation
Gene Hackman in The Conversation
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Looking back at my Netflix history, the first time I saw Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation was almost four years ago exactly. For those that have seen my Paused features, this was actually the first film that gave me the idea to do such a feature. In fact, four years ago I took the above screen capture and today was the first time I've used it. Hackman in the shadows and the blue light in the background. I think it's a beautiful shot.

While Coppola's first two Godfather films are rightly considering his masterpieces, there is a lot to be said for The Conversation and Gene Hackman's complicated performance.

Hackman stars here as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert whom we first meet as he and his team are capturing the audio of a conversation between a young couple as they walk circles around Union Square. The conversation, to our ears, is rather innocent, though occasionally disrupted with frequent tears in the wavelength. Brief bits of paranoia come through. "He'd kill us if he got the chance," is heard. What they're talking about, however, is of little-to-not-importance to Harry... at first.

Harry's past, what he hears on the recordings and his brief conversations over the phone with those for whom the recording was made has him paranoid. Surveillance he did in the past resulted in death and since then he's shown no interest in what he records -- an out of sight (or ear in this case) out of mind approach. But he can't escape what he's heard already and he doesn't want blood on his hands again.

It would seem his conscience will only let him suppress his personal guilt so far. The moral quandary causes all sorts of inner turmoil to the point Harry finds himself on the other end of the stick and Hackman nails every nook and cranny of Harry's emotional meltdown.

I don't believe I've seen a better performance out of Hackman. At once he's powerful and confident and, in a flash, as innocent and scared as a ten-year-old boy, and he does it without having to ham it up. His face tells the story.

The scene in which Harry learns a peer of his, Moran (Alan Garfield), has placed a bug on him is excellent. Only minutes earlier he was bathing in their praise, boasting about his equipment like a teenager with a new toy no one else on the block could afford. Then, he realizes he's been had. He feels he's been made to look a fool and acts out like a child.

Only minutes later Harry has a dream in which he may as well be a little boy. He sees the woman he was surveying in the beginning of the film, tells her how he almost died as a child. The fog soon envelops her and he's lost and on his own. If his guilt was ever in question, it seems he's come to the verdict on his own. His growing, paranoid responsibility for his actions takes hold and Hackman and Coppola sell it to no end.

Coppola also has some fantastic directorial moments in this feature from the opening sequence, towering from a bird's eye view, to the overheard murder and the Harry's absolute meltdown concluding with him sitting in a chair playing a saxophone. The floorboards have been removed and the camera pans from left to right, soaking in the carnage.

Walter Murch's sound design is excellent. I love the minimal use of a score and Bill Butler's cinematography has plenty moments of great visuals such as the shot above and the bloody hand on the glass near the end being two of my favorites.

I truly loved this film the first time I saw it and was just as won over this time. It seems it's a film that's occasionally forgotten given the success of Coppola's Godfather films (he was shooting The Godfather Part II before this was even finished) and Hackman seems often mentioned in connection with The French Connection or The Royal Tenenbaums nowadays. Understandable on all accounts, but The Conversation is not a film that should be forgotten. On top of telling a fantastically gripping story, the question over public vs. private concerns and the hypocrisy at its core is fascinating and I'm anxious to hear your thoughts on it.

SIDE NOTE: Hackman would return to a similar role in Tony Scott's Enemy of the State, a film I also enjoy immensely and may have to now go revisit it as well as it has been a long, long time since I've seen it.


The rules are simple and, if necessary, will update as we go along.

  1. No topic is off limits as long as it pertains to the movie of the week or comes as a natural progression of the conversation.
  2. Keep your comments to a reasonable length. I know the urge to write a lot at once is there, but try to rein it in and get out one thought at a time. That way the conversation will move more fluidly and make sure none of your thoughts are overlooked.
  3. NO BULLYING: This is important, while you are free to disagree, do so in a mature manner. Hopefully I won't have to explain that any further.
  4. Suggestions for future Movie Club titles must be emailed to Comments on actual Movie Club articles pertaining to future discussions and not the film being discussed will be deleted to make sure we remain on topic.

  • Criterion10

    I just want to start by saying I’ve had The Conversation on Blu-Ray for a few years now, but never made time to watch it. I’m very glad that this was chosen for the latest installment of this club, as I really liked this movie.

    I was surprised by how thin the narrative was of The Conversation. It really is a character study, and an excellent one at that. Gene Hackman gives one of the best performances of his career, and the fact that he was not nominated for an Oscar is an injustice. It is a subtle, nuanced performance that is absolutely mesmerizing.

    The highlight of the film was Coppola’s direction. There is so much to analyze here, and I wish that I took notes while watching the film. The camera angles that he uses to symbolize Hackman’s isolation and also to represent his paranoia are incredible. The final shot of the film that mirrors the movements of a security camera is pitch perfect. I also loved how Coppola continues to play the recording of the conversation over and over again. I read online that he even distorted the recording so that each time, what Hackman here sounds different than before.

    If I had one complaint, it is that the film does take on a very slow pace. Now, this did not normally bother me, but there were some sequences that dragged on for a little too long. For example, the part where Hackman spends time with some of his friends in his workplace was one of these moments, despite the fact it thematically is one of the most important parts of the film.

    Overall, I really liked this movie and can’t recommend it enough. Coppola really had a tremendous output during the 70s.

    • RagingTaxiDriver

      This is one of the few films I wished I had taken notes too, it may have been a 5-star for me then. You're right there's a lot to analyze here. And I really liked your analysis on the end scene, I thought it was a great scene/shot, but didn't quite perceive it as you had, but now I agree with you on the security camera likeness of it.

      • Criterion10

        I especially love the ending so much because here we have a man who is used to spying on people now being spied on himself. It is incredibly ironic. Plus, it further demonstrates the paranoia of Hackman's character.

        • RagingTaxiDriver

          Exactly, and what was your favorite quote? I'm is most definitely "I'm not afraid of death. I am afraid of murder."

          Perfectly sums up the movie.

          • Criterion10

            Hmm, don't have a favorite quote off the top of my head. I love the conversation itself and Coppola's decision to constantly play it over and over again. Further helped emphasize the themes of paranoia, I felt.

  • RagingTaxiDriver

    To address the acting first; Hackman provides his best performance of his long acting tenure as the extremely paranoid Harry Caul. He is put in the spotlight the whole movie, and keeps the audience’s attention throughout.

    It would be a mistake to not acknowledge the acting in correlation with the screenplay though. These two go hand in hand. As we see Hackman’s character start to become more paranoid, we feel the emotions of his character and his situation becomes to feel our own. While Hackman’s character is trying to piece the audio of The Conversation between the couple he’s spying on, we start to feel a sense of paranoia as well. Neither Caul nor the audience is able to decipher The Conversation to understand what’s going on for a while. Along with the screenplay and acting, a large part of this has to do with the editing, cinematography, score, and sound editing as well.

    The editing is very well done, cutting off scenes when need be, and placing scenes where we can feel the most tension/paranoia from them. Then the cinematography comes into play. They’re not always great shots, but there were some memorable shots like the ending scene, the convention booth with the cameras, the opening scene, and many of the far shots of a solitary Hackman.

    I found the score to be particularly interesting. For a good part of the film, we hear a nice piano score while Caul is by himself, working, etc; taking on a jazz-like feel, and we come to see Caul’s passion for jazz through this while he plays his sax. But whenever the film starts to become tenser, we hear a full an orchestral piece that is up in your face. It’s not an ingenious score, but it is inventive.

    Many find this film too pretentious and drawn-out for the and may only like it for its ending (which is quite a way to top it off), but the whole film is very well executed and insightful to what kind of world we are living in where anyone can know what you’re doing. Overall Grade: 4.5/5

  • Kessler

    I really liked this film as well. It's full of great scenes, impressive cinematography and another great performance from Gene Hackman. In fact, I was really fascinated by his character. Here's a guy who makes a living off of spying on people, and yet, goes out of his way to make sure no one is spying on him. Like when we first see his apartment and the many locks he has on his door. And in the scene that you mentioned where Moran placed the bug on Hackman. He makes money from invading peoples' privacy, but doesn't want anybody invading his. I wanted to know more about him and why he kept working at his job. Does he even like his job? I loved Hackman's character and found his contradicting qualities to be the most interesting thing about the movie.

    The ending was one of my favorite moments. Not the twist, although it did shock me and was well executed. The end where Hackman is tearing down his apartment to find the bug. It's never revealed if Hackman found the bug in his apartment. It ends with him and his saxophone. I thought that was a great way to end the film because it shows him trying to avoid insanity. While he may not ever find the bug (if it's even there), I think it shows that he understands his paranoid state and tries to cope with it through his saxophone.

    As Criterion10 mentioned above, the way the camera moves like a security camera in the final shot is also great. To me, it shows that Hackman still feels like he is being watched. Even if he can't see it, he knows something else is out there watching him. I can understand that feeling and the fact that you can't see it makes it even more frustrating. It only makes you more paranoid and angry which can lead to alienating people as the "pen bug" scene showed.

    So overall, I really liked The Conversation and think it's highly underrated. It's a smart, entertaining and well-made thriller that asks great questions about technology and it's role in today's society. It kept me interested throughout and I even jumped at certain scenes. This is a movie that I will watch again in the future and, hopefully, find even more things to analyze.

  • Randall P McMurphy

    I'll try and post my review or whatever I should call it tonight after dinner, for now all I can say is that I did enjoy it more this time but the ending still drags a lot.

  • Beautifulm

    While, I enjoyed the film. I would have to say it dragged for me a bit. I do agree that the ending was great.

  • Timothy

    In the 70s, Francis Ford Coppola had one of the best runs of any director I've ever seen. From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, all were instant classics. But it seems as if one film from the period was forgotten, The Conversation. While his weakest from the period, it is in no way his worst film. I didn't quite find this to be an absolute masterpiece, but it had it's good points:

    1) Gene Hackman's performance. Simply put, it's amazing. It's definitely his best, but to say that doesn't fully encompass what Hackman does here. He is stupendous, and he makes the film.

    2) The mystery. It's never fully explained who is good, and who is bad. This kind of mystery is the kind I love best, and even though I saw the film a while ago, the mystery still strikes me as being, well for lack of a better word, mysterious.

    3) The surveillance scenes. Having never really dabbled in the field of surveillance, I was quite surprised, even for 1974 standards, how technologically advanced surveillance is. With one call a telephone is now a microphone. I found this fascinating. As well, the scenes with Hackman in the hotel was my favourite, it was so shocking, yet brutally realistic. (When they all went to the convention, I was surprised at how many people were in this field. It was like a whole new subculture that I never knew about.)

    However, as I said above I did find the film had one major flaw.

    1) The pace. The film would not work without the pace, and it is because of it that the film is special, and different from the similarly themed Blow Out. However, the languid pace also burdens the film, and I found myself drifting, and getting slightly bored.

    Finally, I did want to mention the ending, as I found it to work perfectly, and I loved how it brought the film to a conclusion that didn't feel forced, and letting a mystery linger on even after the credits roll.

    Overall, this film is quite good, if slightly flawed.
    My grade: 8/10.

    • IngmarTheBergman

      The film only works since it is 'boring'.

  • RagingTaxiDriver

    Seeing how everyone so far seemed to enjoy the whole film and especially the ending. I was wondering, if any of you would have degraded this film substantially if not for the end?

    I think it may have dropped to 4 stars for me. The whole movie was well executed and thought provoking, but it was all sealed at the end. I'm not sure how else it could have ended, but just curious.

    • RagingTaxiDriver

      And if you weren't a fan of the ending, what could have made it better?

    • Brad Brevet

      Yeah, problem is attempting to try and figure out some "bad" way for it to end and I'm sure we could all list off several cliche, Hollywood endings this could have resulted in, but most times those kinds of endings aren't associated with the kind of material you find in this film.

      • RagingTaxiDriver

        Okay, I'm in agreement in that. There are many endings that could have been bad, so I guess my question is if it was the perfect ending for this film? And from your comment and everyone else's, the answer is it is the best possible ending.

  • Curt

    I'm a huge fan of The Conversation. I first saw it a couple years ago in one of my film classes and was completely floored seeing as how this is completely overshadowed by Coppola's other 70s classics. To agree with what everybody's already posted, Hackman's performance is amazing. If he isn't perfect, this movie would have struggled given how much it relies on the character of Harry Caul.

    The photography and sound design were the two technical aspects that really stood out. Being a film that focuses so much on sound recordings, the layers and variety of sounds are great. As Caul goes through voice recordings, the differences in each tape is notable. As for the photography, there are a lot of shots with Caul behind walls or isolated from others and I think this is a great visual cue regarding Caul's natural paranoia, isolation and social awkwardness.

    The scene mentioned by you, Brad, when Caul discovers that he's bugged is great but I just as much love everything before that as he and his friends party and celebrate. When Caul opens himself up to the one woman, only to be embarassed moments later, is a really emotional moment in a technical heavy film.

    One moment that strikes me is the illusion Caul has while in the hotel room at the end of the film. When he witnesses the murder and sees all the blood. I'm interested to hear what you guys think about this scene. Do you guys see it as an illusion on Caul's part, hinting at some level of madness?

    And of course, the very last scene is a great way to convey the character's descent. I loved him smashing the religious statue looking for the bug and the final shot, leaving him alone in the destruction, playing saxophone, was beautiful.

    • RagingTaxiDriver

      I think the hotel murder scene is definitely hinting at a level of madness of Caul. Not sure what else it could be hinting at. Any ideas?

    • Brad Brevet

      I would have to agree with TaxiDriver, it's certainly an illusion, but I can't for 100% certainty decode the rest of the scene. Is everything an illusion? Even what he hears? Does he hear the murder and his mind fills in the blanks with what he thinks he sees? I'm more inclined to believe the latter.

      • RagingTaxiDriver

        I'd agree to that. Based on his character's dead set opinion of what he was hearing in The Conversation, it wouldn't surprise me if it was just his mind just filling in what he thought was going to happen compared to what actually happened. Good insight.

  • JaneD

    I didn’t know anything about this movie going into it. Thanks for making it part of the Movie Club, Brad, because it is a fascinating character study. Gene Hackman is absolutely brilliant and gives a truly powerful and complex performance. Coppola does a masterful job with his direction and the sound design in the movie is outstanding.

    The movie grabbed me with that opening shot - the slow birds-eye-view of Union Square. As a viewer, I was not sure where to look – who to look at. Initially I was looking for the source of the music, but then as the camera slowly zooms in, the viewer follows the mime. The jazz music is catchy but the brief intermittent sounds of distortion creep in with the music as the camera finally finds Harry Caul. The viewer begins to realize that there is more going on than a relaxing lunch in Union Square.

    I appreciate the foreshadowing used in the movie. When we initially see Harry in his apartment, again there an unusual intermittent sound in the background. It is not until Harry sits on the couch, while on the phone complaining to his landlord, that we realize that the noise is coming from outside the window. The neighbouring building is being demolished. At the conclusion of the film, we witness Harry go on his own demolition spree as his paranoia drives him to tear his own apartment to pieces.

    And what about that cheap disposable, transparent plastic grey raincoat that Harry is always wearing? I found it curious. Was that an ironic statement on Harry’s part? Kind of a - look, I have nothing to hide. When in fact he hides everything. He doesn’t want to talk about himself. He lies about his age and doesn’t give out his phone number to his ‘girlfriend’. In fact, he lies repeatedly about not having a phone.

    I was also intrigued by Caul’s religious devotion as it adds another level of complexity to his character. He reprimands his co-worker for being blasphemous. He does not have a Christmas tree (a secular expression of Christmas) in his apartment but instead has a nativity scene (a religious expression of Christmas) on the table. Then there is his confessional visit. Is it this devoutness that finally has him doubting what he does? Why now?

    This movie also reminded me of Gene Hackman’s performance in “Enemy of the State”. Though it is not a complex psychological character study like “The Conversation”, it is a solid spy thriller. I have seen it a couple of times and I think these two films would make a pretty good double-bill.

    The Conversation – 4.5/5

  • Winchester

    The Conversation was a film I only saw for the first time a couple of years ago but it struck me immediately as a film that was completely open to multiple watches and assessments beyond the main Harry Caul story.

    I agree the main aspect is Hackman's performance (reputedly one of his personal favourites but one he found difficult because of the fact it was so opposite to his own nature at the time) but also the notions of privacy and secrets that lie beyond the general ambiguity of the mystery we never quite get a full explanation for. I think there are also hints of mental breakdown in Caul's character. As an aside that is one thing that Coppolla wanted to hint at with the view outside Harry's apartment that gets slowly demolished as the film progresses, mirroring Harry.

    I also like the notions of perceptiom of reality. The Conversation itself is played many times and each time it is it slightly suggests to the viewer and Harry a different meaning or different possible meaning. The way in which an out of context ckmment can drive a person to obsessive levels of trying to work out what it means. It mildly reminded me of Terry Gilliams treatment of dreams and memory in Twelve Monkeys. I have always wkndered about the bathroom sequence and whether that is one of those things which actually happened or if it was a dream of Harry's. Although according to Coppollas commentary on the film the dream sequence between Harry and Cindy Williams was actually meant to be part of a scene to take place at the end of the film in 'reality' but they lost the location before all filming was done and it was reworked. Creative since it ends up telling us abouy Harry more where it is in the film than it may have at the end.

    It's an excellent film. I may post more once I think about it further.

    • Winchester

      Excuse the typos. I'm using my phone and it's lousy!

  • Susan

    Definitely a film that has been overlooked, if only because of Coppola's other work surrounding the feature. I'm glad to see everyone so gaga for the sound design, which is terrific.

  • Mikey

    I'm a little late to the party, but let me start by saying that I absolutely love the Movie Club feature and hope it will continue. Reading Brad's as well as everyone else's thoughts on this movie has been really fun.

    As for The Conversation, I liked it. I agree with a lot of what has been said here. Hackman's performance is great and nuanced. I imagine if I ever return to the film down the road, I will discover new subtle touches with his performance. However I also have to agree with the pacing issue. The film has a very slow and plodding pace. Now this would have worked if the film was a basic character study through and through. However it also wants to (and on some level does) work as a thriller. Well unfortunately I found that the pace was so meticulously slow that a lot of the tension would drop out of the movie for long stretches of time. Then when the tension atmosphere would finally be reestablished, it would feel diminished.

    Having said that, when the thriller portion of the film reached it's payoff, the scene is absolute dynamite. The entire hotel sequence is just a masterclass in editing and cinematography. Every shot is so brilliantly framed. The hand on the glass has been mentioned before, but I love the bit when Harry walks into the room and the camera slowly looks from left to right. As an audience member, I was scanning each inch of the screen, begging the camera to move a little faster, trying to look for some shred of evidence. The tension just kept building and the shower curtain tease would have been cheap if it hadn't worked so well.

    In conclusion, I think this is a good, but definitely flawed film. It's an interesting little film that was wedged between the two cinematic legends that are The Godfather Pts 1 and 2. It's a much more quiet and personal film, but one that shouldn't be forgotten. 3/4

  • Baca

    I was actually going to post this comment on the article about the ending or Argo, but figured it would fit better here.

    I guess this contains spoilers for Argo...

    In your Argo article you talk about how the tension was ratcheted up and exaggerated from the true story in the third act of the film. I personally did not like this decision. It felt like the decision in Argo was made because it was the only way that the filmmakers could elicit tension at that moment. However, in The Conversation, it is shown that there are ways to construct tension without much happening at all. This is one of my favorite things about Coppola's film. He is able to make a scene very tense, even when there is nothing really happening. The scene of the gathering in the protagonists office is a perfect example. The tension does not come from what actually could happen, but instead from the context of the characters emotional state at the time. Going back to Argo, I think there was a chance to elicit this same type of scene in that third act, but instead the go for that "Hollywood" style of tension that we are so familiar with at this point.

  • Aleonardis

    Fantastic filmmaking and an amazing performance from Hackman. I really don't know what else to say. Everyone pretty much adressed all of my critical meanderings.

    I think we've pretty much hit on it already, but seriously, that final shot blew my mind. Especially because I didn't realize it at first. Somebody else also brought it up, but Caul's see through windbreaker type coat was definitely a character building trait. While not completely see through, Caul is always visible and he doesn't even realize that he's always wearing his paranoia. His hallucination in the hotel room is one of the most interesting scenes in the whole movie. Who's to say that this is real or not real. I don't think we have good enough evidence towards either conclusion. The movie's actually quite scary once you think about it.

    Also, I'd like to ask this because the subject came up in the podcast as well. Would this movie have gotten a PG today? I say no, but why? What's happening on screen then if presented the same way today should be rated the same right? It's just a weird thing, when I see this movie and then Jaws also being a PG. Jaws and this would get an R today. But why?

  • Tieuel Legacy! Motion

    Interesting takes on this film. I never made it all the way through in one sitting. I'll watch it again. TLegacy

  • Helgi

    I love THE CONVERSATION just as much as anybody else. Saw it for the first time when I was 15 and at the end there were four other guys in the theatre. Back then I did not like it much, but today a lot. Just the leisure pace is fascinating, the frames and the music. - Nothing new there, except one thing: at 37:31 (almost out of focus, just after Hackman and Cazale have a minor row) Cindy Williams, when talking once again to Frederick, looks ever so innocently into the camera (from afar). This must be something Francis hates in an otherwise perfect movie.