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The Conversation (1974)

tomatometer

98

Average Rating: 8.7/10
Reviews Counted: 46
Fresh: 45 | Rotten: 1

This tense, paranoid thriller presents Francis Ford Coppola at his finest -- and makes some remarkably advanced arguments about technology's role in society that still resonate today.

100

Average Rating: 7.7/10
Critic Reviews: 5
Fresh: 5 | Rotten: 0

This tense, paranoid thriller presents Francis Ford Coppola at his finest -- and makes some remarkably advanced arguments about technology's role in society that still resonate today.

audience

90

liked it
Average Rating: 4.1/5
User Ratings: 33,001

My Rating

Movie Info

Made between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), and in part an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's art-movie classic Blow-Up (1966), The Conversation was a return to small-scale art films for Francis Ford Coppola. Sound surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired to track a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), taping their conversation as they walk through San Francisco's crowded Union Square. Knowing full well how technology can invade privacy, Harry

PG,

Mystery & Suspense, Drama

Francis Ford Coppola

Dec 12, 2000

Paramount Pictures

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All Critics (47) | Top Critics (5) | Fresh (45) | Rotten (1) | DVD (29)

A major artistic asset to the film -- besides script, direction and the top performances -- is supervising editor Walter Murch's sound collage and re-recording.

October 18, 2008 Full Review Source: Variety
Variety
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Coppola manages to turn an expert thriller into a portrayal of the conflict between ritual and responsibility without ever letting the levels of tension subside or the complicated plot get muddled.

August 12, 2007 Full Review Source: Chicago Reader
Chicago Reader
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A bleak and devastatingly brilliant film.

February 9, 2006 Full Review Source: Time Out
Time Out
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Haunting and bothersome.

May 21, 2003
New York Times
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A taut, intelligent thriller.

February 27, 2001 Full Review Source: Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Top Critic IconTop Critic

A film OF the 1970s, The Conversation is rooted in the new American anxiety of the time, the idea that behind every ideal was a rotten, festering truth.

November 21, 2011 Full Review Source: CinemaBlend.com
CinemaBlend.com

The Conversation is for me the masterpiece of American cinema.

November 15, 2011 Full Review Source: Film Freak Central
Film Freak Central

Coppola may have made films of a more spectacular nature but here he makes a virtue of a introversion - so that the film's horror moment is all the more vibrantly terrible when set in relief.

November 8, 2011 Full Review Source: Eye for Film
Eye for Film

Coppola shows off his arty aspirations by doing for audio technology what Antonioni did for photography. But The Conversation is a different animal entirely, steering clear of the existential dilemmas in Antonioni's film and creating a character pi

June 11, 2009 Full Review Source: AskMen.com

There's a strong case to be made for The Conversation being Coppola's greatest film. Which, when you consider what else he's made, is high praise indeed.

March 27, 2009 Full Review Source: Film4 | Comment (1)
Film4

A movie of real authority.

August 12, 2007 Full Review Source: Observer [UK]
Observer [UK]

This is one of Coppola's masterpieces, a prophetic film about paranoia, the growing role of technology in our daily lives, and the impossibility of privacy even in public spaces.

October 31, 2006 Full Review Source: EmanuelLevy.Com | Comments (2)
EmanuelLevy.Com

An absorbing character study of a paranoid loner. Hackman is superb.

October 9, 2005
Fantastica Daily

brilliant conspiracy thriller

August 26, 2005 | Comment (1)
Shadows on the Wall

Hackman e Coppola têm trajetórias profissionais longas e brilhantes - e, assim, não é um elogio qualquer dizer que este é um dos melhores filmes na carreira de ambos.

April 1, 2004 | Comment (1)
Cinema em Cena

Grapples with the moral issue at stake in a country where technology has outstripped out knowledge of how to use and control it

January 18, 2004 Full Review Source: Spirituality and Practice
Spirituality and Practice

Intense, moody, piece of cinematic paranoia.

November 4, 2003
Juicy Cerebellum

Outdated techno-thriller. Hackman is great, but it doesn't hold up.

July 14, 2003 | Comments (13)
About.com

Francis Ford Coppola's remastered masterpiece of modern-day paranoia is far more than a simple rehashing of a classic slice of cinema. It proves to be more prescient now than ever. . .

February 17, 2003 Full Review Source: Sunday Times (Australia)
Sunday Times (Australia)

Director Francis Ford Coppola's paranoid classic is brilliantly revived on DVD.

November 7, 2002 Full Review Source: Netflix
Netflix

A masterpiece of mounting paranoia.

August 18, 2002
Tyler Morning Telegraph (Texas)

Audience Reviews for The Conversation

Without a doubt Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece has to be "The Conversation" not just because of its concrete, magnificent plot, or the immaculately crafted twist, or the stellar performances, but also for the look and the immensity of how this film is designed and shot. From beginning to end Coppola threads through significant character development and intrigue in order to keep us guessing throughout this tightly paced thriller. Hackman is pathetically eccentric and complex in his role as Harry Caul, as he is both occupied with his work, and also soon becomes enraptured with the moral aspects in the choices he has to make. The opening scene is magnificent in its scale as well as scope, and that level of artistry stays present throughout the rest of the film. There's an aspect of moral outrage, as well as a seat of the pants thrill that only seventies Coppola can supply. Altogether this masterpiece has been heralded for its intensity and for its manic thrill, all the more interesting in today's America, intent on keeping the government away from surveillance.
July 13, 2014
FrizzDrop

Super Reviewer

The 1970s was the decade in which Francis Ford Coppola could not fail. The Godfather and its sequel both won him Best Picture at the Oscars, and at the end of the decade he pulled Apocalypse Now out of the mire and made it a masterpiece. Nestled in between these films is The Conversation, nominated for Best Picture alongside The Godfather Part II but somewhat overlooked ever since. While it might not quite meet their epic standards or match their lofty ambitions, it remains a haunting character study and a great, slow-burning psychological thriller.

What marks The Conversation out from Coppola's other words of the period, and from its other contemporaries, is its understatement. Everything about the film is methodical and reserved: the way it is assembled, and shot, and edited, every aspect coils neatly around the central narrative like a tightly-wound spool of tape. All of the main performers are dialling down, resisting any urge to raise their voice or give a bigger reaction than the slightest twitch or glance. Even John Cazale, the loose cannon in Godfather II, holds back from letting off any steam.

The film is first and foremost Gene Hackman's piece. He is brilliant in the central role, a complete contrast from his commanding performance as Popeye Doyle three years earlier. He shrinks into the role just as Russell Crowe does in Michael Mann's The Insider, hiding behind the glasses like they were blinds on a window, and wearing the mac like a suit of armour.

Hackman's genius with the character lies in how he makes him seem completely natural. Harry Caul is a man who rarely lets his guard down, taking extensive precautions over every part of his life. The obvious trap for any actor to fall into is to play every such precaution as a conscious thought; this would result in the performance becoming that of an actor thinking about what to do, and it would quickly become jarring. Hackman, on the other hand, allows Caul's obsessive nature to wash over him - he acts like he isn't aware of it, which in turn makes it natural for the character.

The Conversation is a film about loneliness and isolation, driven by a character that revels and specialises in both these things. Coppola explores the various conflicts in Caul between the need for intimacy and the opposing need to keep at arms' length to avoid giving anything away. This is explored on a personal level, in his relationship with his landlord; a business level, in his scenes with Harrison Ford; a sexual level, in his stunted love affair; and a religious level, in his Catholic faith and the moral implications of his work.

The film also explores how technology intrudes upon our lives and erodes whatever sense of self or personal space we have. It's easy to call it a conspiracy thriller, considering its historical placing around the Watergate scandal, but it's far more of a cautionary tale or moral parable. The society we live in may be more technologically advanced than Caul's, insofar as we have moved on from reel-to-reel tape recorders. But issues surrounding privacy and the manipulation of personal information are still very much at the forefront, making The Conversation feel more than a little prophetic.

Another big theme in The Conversation is paranoia, contrasting the personal paranoia of Caul with the corporate paranoia of his mysterious employers. Caul's conversations with his competitors are immensely terse and evasive: they all work in the same industry, but Caul won't reveal any of his secrets. We aren't sure whether Caul is being delusional as to their true motives, or whether there really is more to them than meets the eye. The moment where Caul finds out he has been bugged at the party is a crushing blow for him: it demonstrates how tragic a figure he is, afraid of everyone and everything, and even more afraid to show it.

The film reinforces its paranoid atmosphere through its visual choices. The majority of the scenes are in faceless office buildings or empty warehouses - places that are so functional and drab that the tiniest unusual sound or out-of-place detail can deeply unnerve us. Caul always has to go through other people to get what he wants, to the extent that we don't meet "the Director" until the final third of the film.

It could be argued that Coppola is using this set-up to make a point about the nature of filmmaking. Caul is the actor, who is desperate to give the best performance he can to preserve and further his reputation, and he doesn't take kindly to being lied to or not being paid in the proper manner. The Director is distant and bad-tempered, refusing to speak to the actor directly until the latter's persistence becomes unbearable. The film doesn't dwell on its self-reflexive aspect like Mulholland Drive or Berberian Sound Studio, but it's still an interesting way of looking at it.

Like the medium itself, The Conversation is a film which follows and magnifies the tiniest details. Its story deals with a plot point that many faster-paced spy thrillers would handle inside of 20 minutes. Because we are not given any idea about the intentions of the Director, we are placed in Caul's position, obsessively scrolling back and forth through the tapes, locating and deciphering hidden meanings. What seems at the start like a normal, innocuous conversation becomes more loaded and ingrained with meaning, and the more we look and listen, the more threat comes out.

On top of its examination of paranoia, The Conversation also deals with the subject of voyeurism. Caul is a devout Catholic who fears eternal damnation and constantly wrestles over whether his occupation is ethical. He wonders whether his professional eavesdropping is helping people or leading to horrible deaths, remarking during the dream sequence: "I don't fear death; I do fear murder". The deaths of three previous clients haunt Harry: he cannot ever bring himself to absolve himself of what happened, let alone accept the Lord's forgiveness.

As before, what makes The Conversation interesting in this regard is its restraint. In Blue Velvet, David Lynch explored voyeurism through striking and surreal imagery, intending to pull the viewer straight into a nightmare, under the pretext that they couldn't and cannot look away. Coppola, on the other hand, is more immediately suggestive, surrounding the viewer with the slow-moving and mundane to make the murder all the more shocking.

Having built up a small cauldron of suspense, the ending of The Conversation is really quite beautiful. After being threatened over the phone by The Director's right-hand man, Caul suspects his apartment has been bugged and promptly tears it apart. When he finds nothing, he sits among the ruins and plays his saxophone, as the camera tracks back and forth and the credits roll. Caul resigns himself to his fate - having worked so hard to avoid detection, only to be bugged anyway, he decides that this is inevitable. Someone is always listening, and sometimes they won't want to hurt you, so the best thing to do is to carry out living and let things take their course.

The only real flaw with The Conversation is its dream sequence. Having worked so hard and held back for so long, the film shifts to a more Gothic sensibility and gives us a lot of disappointing, expository dialogue. Much like the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, it feels like it has been helmed by another director (and in Hitch's case it was - Salvador Dali supervised the whole thing). It doesn't completely derail the film, but it doesn't bring a great deal to the table either.

The Conversation is a great slow-burning thriller and one of the best films of Coppola's career. Its story may appear more simple and straightforward than either The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, but it still has a wealth of ideas to intrigue and unnerve the audience. Hackman's performance contains some of his very best work, and he is complimented wonderfully by John Cazale and a rare villainous turn from Harrison Ford. You'll certainly have a lot to talk about afterwards - just be careful where you choose to talk about it.
April 28, 2013
Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

A fantastically plotted and acted paranoid thriller which features Gene Hackman's best performance in his highly decorated career as a lonely surveillance pro who finds himself in a dilemma when he suspects the people he is listening in on might be targeted to be killed at some point soon. Francis Ford Coppola had potentially the best movie year of any director ever in the history of cinema, nailing "The Godfather Part II" as well as this splendid piece, which is suspenseful all the way through and fittingly tragic seeing what happens to Hackman's character. A terrific film, and one that should definitely be seen.
April 12, 2013
Dan Schultz

Super Reviewer

Coppola, the maniacal poster child of the new hollyood era, sure had an exceptional run in the early 1970s. While most would point to the Godfather series as being the pinnacle of his creative endeavors, I would at least like to present exhibit B-The Conversation.

Although not as epic in scope or as poignant as the first two Godfather films, The Conversation is a quiet, powerful look at the paranoid American. As civilization "progresses" and technology improves by leaps and bounds every year, we as a people discover more ways to not only loosen our ties that bind humanity together, but we also become more adept at keeping tabs on our opponents.

Harry Caul could even be seen as the everyday American in 2012. Technology allows him to be well-versed in the lives of others, but at the end of the day, seldom is known about what makes him tick. He is a shrewd surveillance expert. His hands are not drenched in the blood of others. Yet, his work offers such intrusion into the lives of others, that deep down he knows he is in some ways culpable for the crimes committed because of his life's work.

What starts as just a well-crafted thriller, evolves into a psychological thriller about the conscience of a man who is so immersed in the minds of his fellow man, that he hasn't yet fully figured out his own.

These themes are augmented by David Shire's entrancing piano score. It slowly builds tension and really adds to the mental terror experienced by the protagonist. I was really impressed by Hackman's performance as well. Delivering a performance as layered as an onion, and from what I understand, something very different from Hackman's real life personality.

Maybe I was just starved for something meaty to chew on. But this film helped me realize just how much of a creative force Coppola was in the early 70's.
November 23, 2012
axadntpron
Reid Volk

Super Reviewer

    1. Harry Caul: [upset, walking over to Martin seated] What are you doing here?
    2. Martin Stett: Take it easy I'm just a messenger. I brought you a drink
    3. Harry Caul: I don't want your drink. Why are you following me?
    4. Martin Stett: I'm not following you I'm looking for you. There's a big difference.
    – Submitted by Adam O (20 months ago)
    1. Stanley: What a STUPID conversation.
    – Submitted by Adam O (20 months ago)
    1. Mark: He'd kill us if he got the chance.
    – Submitted by Adam O (20 months ago)
    1. Harry Caul: I'm not afraid of death... I am afraid of murder.
    – Submitted by John B (21 months ago)
    1. Stanley: Nice guy to be a cop.
    – Submitted by Victor M (24 months ago)
    1. Meredith: A job. You're not supposed to feel anything about it. You're just supposed to do it. That's all. Relax, honey.
    – Submitted by Victor M (2 years ago)
View all quotes (13)

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