Essentials #15: THE CONVERSATION (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoid thriller features a rare side of Gene Hackman in a character study about Catholic guilt and moral responsibility.

HARRY CAUL: “I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”

Anyone who’s grown up Catholic could probably relate to this film much more whether they’re lapsed or still active in the church. The culture of Catholicism is based around guilt and the process goes something like this: if you do something wrong, confess your sins and you will be forgiven.

This is why redemption is another recurring theme for Catholic filmmakers like Coppola, Hitchcock, or Scorsese. There’s that burning need to make a wrong a right or the conscience and soul will never be cleared.

THE CONVERSATION is about Catholic guilt and the worst sin of all. Murder. Yes, the film has the outer workings of a psychological thriller, but Coppola is too great a filmmaker to resign himself to standard procedure. This is why we’re still talking about this film. Coppola intelligently focuses more on the inner demons of the main character, because let’s face it: no one really remembers the exact plot of a film. Rather, they always remember the character. In this case, we have a repressed man struggling with his scruples.

Harry Caul (in a masterful performance by Gene Hackman) is a surveillance sound expert whose job is to spy on people through audio recording devices. In a brilliantly staged opening sequence set in San Francisco’s Union Square, Caul operates a sting involving undercover sound men recording from multiple vantage points.

The Mark: A benign, young couple just having a normal everyday conversation.

Caul successfully acquires a clean recording of the couple but after repeated hearings, begins to think something is off about it. Or is it? That’s the main question of the film:

What is really said and what are the implications of what is being said?

“He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

Or is it:

“He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

The drama is heightened when we find out that Caul was involved in a similar job in the past where his recordings led to the deaths of three innocent people. That’s Caul’s biggest fear. That he may be, in fact, responsible for another set of deaths. But like I mentioned, the film isn’t merely a “Whodunit?” It’s a character study.

Harry Caul has got to be one of the most intriguing characters in film. He’s smart like a computer. He’s the kind of the person where the word ‘error’ is not in their vocabulary, but the words “it was your mistake,” is. His job is to spy on others and find out their most intimate secrets.

Ironically, he’s extremely private. He has 5 locks on his door. He’s naturally paranoid and distrusting of people. When his neighbor leaves a bottle of wine in his apartment as a birthday gift, Caul first reaction is hostile and inquisitive, “How did you get in my apartment?”

He attends confession regularly and is a devout Catholic — even as far as getting into a major argument with his co-worker (the late, great John Cazale) after he mentions the Lord’s name in vain — hypocritically, Caul is a regular patron of a prostitute; his work and clientele border on immoral and illegal activities.

What I love about THE CONVERSATION is how restrained the film is. There is no glamorization of the genre, no car chases or shoot-outs. Much of the suspense is what happens off-screen or what’s implied. The movie is shot and edited conservatively too. Not to say that’s it boring, but there are no flashy montages or camera angles, just straightforward filmmaking. It makes sense for this particular story. If we’re going to follow someone as repressed as Caul, the camera should not move quickly but rather deliberate and cautiously. The ingenious thing that Coppola does is take the mundane events of work and social interactions, and gleans drama and mystery from it.

This makes the film more unsettling because you get the feeling that this could actually happen in real life, which also poses the question of moral responsibility: Is the person who unknowingly assists the murderer in finding their victim(s), partially responsible for their deaths?

Like its main character, THE CONVERSATION suppresses its emotions up until the very end, where we are finally left with an image that will haunt the viewer past the closing credits.

And it all started with a seemingly harmless chat.


  • Walter Murch’s sound design is exemplary. Try to watch this film with good speakers or headphones [as you should be doing anyway].
  • David Shire’s score is exemplary. Again, watch this film with good speakers or headphones.
  • John Cazale delivers yet another underrated performance. He truly is one of the greatest actors of that period, and it’s a shame we lost him too soon. Fuck cancer.
  • Look out for a young Harrison Ford in a minor role. Given he’s always the good guy, it’s amusing to see his rare dark turns. Also, Robert Duvall, Alan Garfield, and Teri Garr all play key minor roles that would otherwise go unnoticed in a subtle film like this.
  • While San Francisco isn’t highlighted like a travel brochure like VERTIGO for instance, the film really makes use of the cold and somber atmosphere the Bay Area can sometimes have. It’s oddly beautiful.
  • If you like this film, I highly recommend Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW UP (1966), and Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT (1981), two other films on my list.

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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