The Conversation

The Conversation

name = The Conversation

image_size = 220px
caption = theatrical poster
director = Francis Ford Coppola
producer = Francis Ford Coppola
writer = Francis Ford Coppola
starring = Gene Hackman
John Cazale
Allen Garfield
Cindy Williams
Frederic Forrest
music = David Shire
cinematography = Bill Butler
editing = Richard Chew
Walter Murch
distributor = Paramount Pictures
released = April 7 fy|1974 "(NYC)"
runtime = 113 minutes
country = FilmUS
language = English
budget = $1,600,000
gross =
imdb_id = 071360

"The Conversation" is an Academy Award nominated fy|1974 mystery thriller about audio surveillance, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest, and featuring Harrison Ford, Terri Garr and an uncredited appearance from Robert Duvall.

In fy|1974, "The Conversation" won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, and in fy|1995, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a paranoid surveillance expert running his own company. Caul is obsessed with his own privacy; his apartment is almost bare behind its triple-locked door, he uses pay phones to make calls and claims to have no home telephone, and his office is enclosed in wire mesh in a corner of a much larger warehouse. Caul is utterly professional at work, but he finds personal contact difficult. He is exquisitely uncomfortable in dense crowds and withdrawn and taciturn in more intimate situations; he is also reticent and secretive with work colleagues. He is nondescript in appearance, except for his habit of wearing a translucent plastic raincoat virtually everywhere he goes, even when it is not raining. Despite his insistence that his professional code means that he is not responsible for worrying about the actual content of the conversations he records or the uses to which his clients put his surveillance activities, he is in fact wracked by guilt over a past wiretap job that left three persons dead; his sense of guilt is sharpened by his devout Catholicism. His one hobby is playing along with his favourite jazz records on a tenor saxophone in the privacy of his apartment.

Caul has taken on the task of monitoring the conversation of a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk through crowded Union Square in San Francisco. This challenging task is accomplished, but Caul feels increasingly agonized over his doubts about the actual meaning of the conversation and about what may happen to the couple once the client hears the tape. He plays the tape again and again through the movie, refining its accuracy (by catching one key – though crucially ambiguous – phrase hidden under the sound of a street musician: "He'd kill us if he got the chance") and constantly reinterpreting its meaning in the light of what he knows and what he guesses. Caul avoids handing in the tape to the aide of the man who commissioned the surveillance; he then finds himself under increasing pressure from the aide and is himself followed, tricked, and listened in on, the tape eventually stolen from him in a moment when his guard is down. Caul's appalled efforts to forestall tragedy ultimately fail — because, it turns out, the conversation doesn't mean what he thought it did, and the tragedy he anticipated isn't the one that eventually happens. In the final scene of the film, Caul discovers that his own apartment is bugged and gradually takes it to pieces in an unsuccessful effort to discover the bug, eventually destroying everything there (even, after a moment of hesitation, his plastic figurine of the Madonna) except for his beloved tenor saxophone: at the film's end he is left sitting amidst the wreck, blowing a solo.


*Gene Hackman as "Harry Caul"
*John Cazale as "Stan"
*Allen Garfield as "William P. "Bernie" Moran"
*Frederic Forrest as "Mark"
*Cindy Williams as "Ann"
*Michael Higgins as "Paul"
*Elizabeth MacRae as "Meredith"
*Teri Garr as "Amy Fredericks"
*Harrison Ford as "Martin Stett"
*Mark Wheeler as "Receptionist"
*Robert Shields as "The Mime"
*Phoebe Alexander as "Lurleen"
*Robert Duvall as "The Director" (uncredited)

Cast notes

*Gene Hackman's brother, Richard Hackman played two roles in the film, the priest in the confessional and a security guard. [imdb name|0352549|Richard Hackman]
*Gian-Carlo Coppola, the nine-year-old son of director Francis Ford Coppola, played the small part of a boy in church. [imdb name|0352549|Gian-Carlo Coppola]


Though the script was written in the mid-1960s, the film was released shortly after the Watergate scandal broke and thus reflected contemporary issues of personal responsibility and the encroachment of technology on privacy. On the DVD commentary, Coppola says he was shocked to learn that the film utilized the very same surveillance and wire-tapping equipment that members of the Nixon Administration were using as per the scandal.

It's because of this, Coppola believes, that the film gained part of the recognition it did, as audiences members interpreted the film's subtext as a direct and timely attack on the Nixon Administration, whose complicity in the Watergate Scandal was front-page news at the time. But Coppola notes that this is entirely coincidental. Not only was the script for The Conversation completed in the mid-1960s (before the Nixon Administration came to power), but that the spying equipment used in the film was discovered through research and the use of technical advisers, and not, as many believed, by revelatory newspaper stories about the Watergate Scandal. Coppola also noted that filming of The Conversation had been completed several months before the most revelatory Watergate stories broke in the press. But since the film wasn't released to theaters until several months after Richard Nixon had resigned the Presidency, Coppola says, audiences interpreted the film to be a reaction to both the Watergate Scandal and its fall-out.

The original cinematographer of "The Conversation" was Haskell Wexler. Severe creative and personal differences with Coppola led to Wexler's firing shortly after production began, Coppola replacing him with Bill Butler. Wexler's footage on "The Conversation" was completely reshot, except for the technically complex surveillance scene in Union Square. [Stafford, Jeff [ "The Conversation" (TCM article)] ] This would be the first of two Oscar-nominated films where Wexler would be fired and replaced by Butler, the second being "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), where Wexler had similar problems with Milos Forman.

Much of the style of the film owes a debt to Walter Murch, the supervising editor and sound designer. Murch had more or less a free hand during the editing process, since Coppola was already working on "The Godfather II" at the time. (Ondaatje, 2002, p. 157).

While Gene Hackman's character name Harry Caul was supposedly the result of a typo, the spelling leads to a marvelous visual pun. A caul, is a fetal membrane that protects the fetus at birth. Hackman's character is seen wearing a thin, translucent rain coat, even in the sun. Coppola often uses visual puns and in this case it supports the character interpretation of Harry Caul as a depressive paranoid man who layers his clothing superfluously in response to infantile desires and feelings of vulnerability. Coppola noted in the DVD commentary that Hackman had a very difficult time adapting to the Harry Caul character because it was so much unlike himself. Coppola says that Hackman was at the time an outgoing and approachable actor who preferred casual clothes, whereas Caul was meant to be a rather geeky and sullen loner who wore a rain coat and out-of-style glasses. Coppola said that Hackman's efforts to tap into the character made the actor moody and irritable on-set, but otherwise Coppola got along well with his leading man. Coppola also notes on the commentary that Hackman considers this one of his favorite performances.

"The Conversation" features an austere piano score composed and performed by David Shire. The score was created before the film was shot. [ [ discussion of soundtrack] ] On some cues, Shire took the taped sounds of the piano and distorted them in different ways to create alternative tonalities to round out the score. The music is intended to capture the isolation and paranoia of protagonist Harry Caul. The score was released on CD by Intrada Records in 2001. [Intrada Special Collection Volume 2]


Coppola has cited "Blowup" (Michelangelo Antonioni) as a key influence on his conceptualization of the film's themes, such as surveillance versus participation, and perception versus reality. "Francis had seen Antonioni's "Blowup" a year or two before, and had the idea to fuse the concept of "Blowup" with the world of audio surveillance." (Murch in Ondaatje, 2002, p. 152). There are also several overt borrowings from "Blowup", notably the presence of mimes in both films and the central sequences involving the enhancement of a medium to reveal details previously unnoticed (photography in "Blowup", audio tapes in "The Conversation"). Coppola has also noted the influence of Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf" on the figure of Harry Caul (Ondaatje, 2002, p. 152) and (in the hotel bathroom scene) Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho".Fact|date=February 2007

The concept of an audio technician using his expertise in the investigation of a possible crime was also explored in the 1981 film "Blow Out". Like "The Conversation", it was inspired by "Blowup".

The 1998 film "Enemy of the State" also features Hackman as a security expert who, this time, goes clandestine so as not to leave any trace of his moves. Some fans have speculated that this character is, in fact, an older and wiser Harry Caul. In fact, a screen shot of Hackman photograph from "The Conversation" was used in "Enemy of the State", precisely when the surveillance experts of Enemy of the State get the digital ID photo of Gene Hackman.Fact|date=March 2007

The TV series Moonlight, apparently lifted much of the plot and key elements for the episode Fleur de Lis, which aired November 23, 2007.


In 1995, "The Conversation" was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It won the fy|1974 Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards for 1974:

* Academy Award for Best Picture (Francis Ford Coppola)
* Academy Award for Sound (Walter Murch & Art Rochester)
* Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola)




* Michael Ondaatje, "The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film", London: Bloomsbury Publishing (2002)

External links

* [ Analysis of "The Conversation"]
* [ comprehensive review]
* [ New television series based on The Conversation]

###@@@KEY@@@###succession box
title="Grand Prix", Cannes Film Festival
before="The Hireling"
tied with "Scarecrow"
after="Chronicle of the Years of Fire"
(prize renamed "Palme d'Or")

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