Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola » Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, 1974 » Region/Time: U.S.A., 113 minutes.

Starring: Gene Hackman as Harry Caul » John Cazale as Stan » Frederic Forrest as Mark » Cindy Williams as Ann » Allen Garfield as William P. ‘Bernie’ Moran » Elizabeth MacRae as Meredith » Teri Garr as Amy Fredericks » Harrison Ford as Martin Stett » Robert Duvall as The Director.

“Sometimes it’s nice to know what they’re talking about.” – Stan
“I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice, fat recording.” – Harry

After the enormous success of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola was given a free pass to create his next film. The movie he chose to make was The Conversation, a pet project he’d conceived of many years earlier in response to Antonioni’s Blow Up. Like Blow Up, The Conversation turns on the protagonist’s (and the audience’s) changing perception of a key piece of information. In Blow Up, it was a photograph that may include a dead body. In The Conversation, it is an audio recording of a couple having a seemingly innocuous conversation in a crowded, public square.

The opening nine minutes of the movie observe Harry Caul and his assistant, Stan, as they use their covert equipment to record this conversation. The opening shot of the film is of a crowded square, shot from the roof of an office building. Using brand new equipment for the 1970s, the camera zooms in slowly and steadily into the crowd. All seems normal, until electronic interference comes through the soundtrack. We begin to focus on a mime, as he harasses passers-by for money. We eventually see him imitate Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Caul, who is forced to leave the square. With this opening shot, the audience is implicated as voyeurs, spying on the characters in the film without their awareness.

Over the next section of the film, Harry puts the conversation together from his various recordings, and we hear it over and over again. It seems initially like a couple having a clandestine affair. Harry puts the tapes together and delivers them to the office, but is concerned when the director isn’t there and the director’s assistant seems a little too eager to collect the tapes. “Those tapes are dangerous,” he says. “Someone may get hurt.” Harry takes the tapes back and re-analyses them, wondering what he missed. He finds one phrase hidden underneath the noise of a busking band that seems to change the whole meaning of the conversation: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Harry is left to wonder how involved he should get with this couple. How culpable is he in their fate?

The movie is only a thriller in a perfunctory sense, however, and is much more interested in being a character study of Harry Caul. One of the most interesting protagonists in film, Caul is a deeply private and religious man who has nothing to hold onto in the world, except for his work and his privacy. He has a mistress, Amy, who he pays to live in a small apartment. He may love her, but he doesn’t tell her anything about himself. When he begins to suspect that the conversation may be a dangerous recording, he is crippled by guilt from an earlier job, in which a man and his wife and daughter were killed as a result of his work. He repeatedly says he doesn’t care what the recordings are about, that he isn’t responsible for what happens, but we see that he doesn’t believe his own words. During a dream sequence, Harry’s guilt over the deaths is revealed. He sees the woman from the conversation and tries to tell her about himself, his childhood illness, his near-drowning experience and that “I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”

The film gently ribs Harry Caul’s obsession with his privacy and work. He is a professional snoop and spy, yet his landlord reads his mail and delivers him birthday presents into his triple-locked apartment. His girlfriend says she sees him spying on her and thinks he has tapped her phone. The director’s assistant trails him and also has his unlisted phone number. His rival, the colourful Bernie Moran, bugs him and records the only private conversation he has in the entire film. The tapes of the conversation are even stolen from under his nose. Even the viewer intrudes on his privacy—there is no moment in the film that does not have Harry present, or is Harry’s imagining of what is happening. Notice how the camera observes him. It is often in a room before he enters, waiting for him to arrive, if he walks out of screen, it will take a moment and then pan to find him. Finally, he discovers in the final moments that his apartment is bugged and tears everything apart trying to find it, to no avail.

Harry Caul is one of Gene Hackman’s greatest performances, along with Detective Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, Buck Barrow from Bonnie and Clyde, Royal Tenenbaum from the film of the same name and Little Bill from The Unforgiven. He is a complete individual and we constantly made aware of what he is thinking and feeling, even as he tries to hide it from others.

In the final scenes of the film, Harry goes to the site of what he thinks will be a murder. Does he intend to stop it? Perhaps, but when the moment comes, he does nothing. The movie has a menacing aura, and this final sequence has one of the most indelible horror images put on film. I’m not sure I should ruin it for you, but the movie sets it up beautifully.

How many different meaning are there to this: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

Up Next in the Film Canon: The power of the human face.