Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974)


(director/writer: Francis Ford Coppola; cinematographer: Bill Butler; editor: Walter Murch; cast: Gene Hackman (Harry Caul), John Cazale (Stanley), Allen Garfield (William P. “Bernie” Moran), Frederic Forrest (Mark), Cindy Williams (Ann), Teri Garr (Amy), Harrison Ford (Martin Stett), Robert Duvall (The Director), Michael Higgins (Paul), Elizabeth MacRae (Meredith); Runtime: 113; Paramount; 1974)

“A unique film, enhanced further by a great sound track by Walter Murch.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A precious and unnerving thriller; it’s one that never fails to offer some kind of Hitchcockian surprise, as the film is unpredictable throughout. Gene Hackman is brilliant as the loner “electronic surveillance expert,” who through a slow process comes to realize that what he is doing isn’t impersonal but has great consequences on both him and the people he bugs. Hackman is Harry Caul. He lives a very private life, interested only in his work. Caul is diligent at his craft to the point, where he is considered the best in the business. But Caul’s view of life has a cold ring to it, as he believes that human nature and curiosity are not part of the business. Caul is first seen on a case where he has set up elaborate devices to take pictures from far off and to eavesdrop on a couple by using two parabolic microphones he himself created, which are positioned some distance away. Caul also uses a third bugging device carried by his assistant Paul (Higgings), who follows the strolling couple through San Francisco’s crowded Union Square, during noontime, with a shopping bag on his arm and wearing a hearing aid.

Caul becomes irritated with the quality of the work as he listens to the tapes from the back of a specially rigged van, trying to block out the music and din from the lunchtime crowd. Caul’s lead assistant wants to know what this assignment is about and Caul responds by telling Stanley (Cazale): “I don’t care what they are talking about, all I want is a nice fat recording.”

The director (Duval) of an unnamed big business has offered to pay Caul $15,000 to record a conversation between his wife, Ann (Cindy Williams), and a man named Mark (Forrest), who is apparently her lover. Caul has no idea what the purpose of the tape is and says he doesn’t care. Concluding the taping of the conversation, Caul then calls his client from an outside phone because he doesn’t have a phone at home. Caul is told by his client’s assistant to deliver the tapes tomorrow afternoon, and he returns to his scantily furnished but heavily alarmed apartment only to find that the landlord left a bottle of wine on the floor, for his birthday, by getting into the apartment with the spare key. This is something Caul had no knowledge the landlord had and it upsets him more than he is grateful for the gift.

Caul visits his girlfriend Amy (Garr) by quietly slipping the key in the door and throwing the door open, entering her abode like he is on a case. Amy doesn’t even know it’s his birthday, as Caul opens the wine he just got as a gift. Amy is glad to see him and starts asking him personal questions about himself which makes him feel very uncomfortable, causing him to leave the warmth of her bed and tell her he is going but not before he gives her money for the month’s rent.

The secretive Caul is at peace only when he is working. Returning to his workplace, which is located in a dinghy warehouse basement, where he keeps his state-of-the-art equipment he feels at ease again as he replays the tapes from the afternoon with Stan picking up bits and pieces of the couple’s conversation. Caul is alarmed to hear the couple think that they might be murdered if her husband got the chance. This troubles Caul because he got on tape the liaison they set for Sunday in the hotel, including room number and time of date.

When Caul goes to deliver the tapes to the director he isn’t in, but his assistant Martin Stett (Harrison) is there and pays him off. But Caul is troubled by this and refuses to release the tapes to anyone but the director. Leaving the office, Caul notices on separate floors the couple he was following.

The story is chilling, as Caul recalls that previously his tapes resulted in the murder of three innocent people. That upset him so much that he left New York. Caul is a devout Catholic and feels troubled about what is churning inside him, seeking solace in the confession booth. Caul confesses that he is afraid people could get hurt by his work and seems perplexed about what to do.

At a convention for surveillance technology people Caul meets his peers in the field feeling proud that he is superior to them in his knowledge, but for the first time it is beginning to sink into him that he is on the same amoral playing field as they are. This comes about as Caul meets one of his competitors a slimy, overbearing braggart, “Bernie” Moran (Garfield), who engages Harry in false flattery, trying to get him to be a partner. Caul has nothing but contempt for him but he goes along with him and his own crew, as they meet some women and bring them over to Caul’s workplace. Meredith (MacRae) shows an interest in him and in his troubled quiet way he tries to relate to her, expressing some true feelings to her. It turns out that Moran gave him a pen, and that was the device used to bug the intimate conversation Caul had with Meredith. This practical joke unsettles him. After Caul kicks them out he sleeps with her but restlessly tosses in his sleep, as he has a nightmare vision of the couple being murdered because of him. When he awakens he finds that Meredith is gone, along with the tapes.

Caul is told by Stett that the director has the tapes and will pay him his money. The murder that takes place doesn’t happen as he pictured it. But Caul’s soul has been violated and his lifetime of striving for perfection in his field is questioned; and, if that wasn’t enough, someone has outfoxed the master surveillance expert by planting a bug in his apartment that even he can’t locate where it is. Caul’s only solace, is to sit in his sparse apartment and play the sax.

This somber thriller is a beauty, projecting a maddening character study, infiltrating a secretive and cold world where the protagonist, a private business wire-tapper, has lost his sense of direction, now knowing that one’s privacy can so easily be exposed by expert technicians like himself and be used for any purpose. The acting was magnificent on all parts, the story was grippingly told, and its denouement is the equal to any of the great thrillers. A unique film, enhanced further by a great sound track by Walter Murch.

The film is even more relevant today than it was back in the 1970s, as the world has become even more of a place where it is possible for technology to invade the privacy of any citizen.