The Conversation (1974)

The Godfather is usually what comes to mind when you think of Francis Ford Coppola. The Conversation barely registers nowadays, but it's one heck of a film. Gene Hackman is spot on as as surveillance expert Harry Caul, and the wonderful supporting cast, which includes actors you've seen in the first two Godfather movies, make this film one of the best intelligence thrillers ever.


A smart thriller built on tapes, microphones, and a tight Gene Hackman performance.

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The opening of this film is just so damn good. You’re given a glimpse of what surveillance is all about. All the members of the team have their own ingenious way of capturing the conversation. You quickly figure out this job requires nerves of steel and a whole lot of concentration.

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Helped by her female intuition, Harry Caul’s girlfriend manages to uncover a side he wasn’t willing to show, and she begins to ask him about his private life. This makes him highly uncomfortable and they break up. I believe there are two reasons as to why they end up leaving each other. Harry is probably worried for her safety now that she is beginning to discover that he is a surveillance expert. It’s also possible Harry’s ego was hurt since she exposed him so easily whilst his job is all about not being noticed. It might be one of those two, or both. It’s up to the viewer’s interpretation.

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One thing I love is seeing celebrities before they actually got famous. Harrison Ford already had been in a few movies prior to this one, but The Conversation was released a few years before Star Wars, so Ford is pretty young here. And he does a solid job.

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Caul repeatedly listens to his tape recording of the conversation and this quote is what deeply troubles him. Haunted by a past contract which led to the murder of a family, he is now scared of triggering a similar event. This character is clearly an introvert. Caul couldn’t cry or scream his lungs out in despair. Hackman, as an actor, had to work very hard on his non-verbal communication with the camera.

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Moran reveals himself as Caul’s main rival in the surveillance business. Through his constant praise of Caul’s work, you know that, deep inside, Moran takes pleasure in annoying him. He knocks Harry down later, in front of his own colleagues mind you, as he leaks the recording of the intimate conversation Caul had minutes ago thanks to the spy-pen he put in his pocket earlier.

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He wakes up, the woman is gone, and so are the tapes. And I thought the humiliation was over with Moran! Poor guy.

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The minutes the movie spends at the hotel nicely transfer Caul’s disarray unto us. He freaks out, so you don’t really know what’s truly going on. You ask yourself ‘Is he hallucinating?’ and I believe the same question goes through Caul’s mind as well.

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I was fooled just like Harry Caul. I never thought THEY were planning the murder all along. It’s a perfectly-executed twist. I think the girl’s apparent innocence is the main reason why Caul (and I) couldn’t expect such a thing.

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Desperately trying to find a hidden microphone, he destroys everything in his apartment but fails to find anything. What will happen next? I wish I knew.  I like to believe that he gave up on his current job and became a famous saxophonist. The ending kinda leaves the door open for such a possibility.

3 Comments on The Conversation (1974)

  1. I watched this one last night! While I recognize that it’s a masterful film, the movie eventually lost my interest almost completely. There’s a “break” in the narrative when Caul goes to the convention, and we lose the thread of him obsessing over the conversation for a while. For me that part went on forever.

    There are many great aspects to the film… Hackman is fantastic, and Simon, as you point out, him playing an introvert is really masterful and different from the typical Hollywood bombast. I loved that. The surprise twist at the end was really interesting, and the final scene was quite striking. But the rest… It dragged on for way too long for me. Maybe I just wasn’t in that kind of slow, langorous mood.

    The movie reminds me a bit of Le samouraÏ, by the way… I love movies where you watch a protagonist who fascinates you but whose motivation you fail to truly understand.

  2. To be honest, it took me a while to figure out if this movie was worth a “Record” or not. In the end, I was convinced by the date of the film’s release. I compared it with other spy flicks of the time and it was highly different than all of them, especially the most famous spy franchise of all, Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Caul truly is hard to grasp as a character and I believe the reason why is that he barely has a grip on his own self throughout the story.

    There’s a movie which reminds me of “The Conversation” it has to be Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd”. Both involve an introverted spy who struggles inside and out. It’s not a bad film at all, I should consider writing a review on it one day!

    • Yeah; I mean, I definitely see the brilliance of it. It’s weird… I think I didn’t enjoy watching it all that much, but the more I think about it, the more it sticks with me. Maybe I’ll need to rewatch it before too long!

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