The Conversation: A Nerve-Shattering Masterpiece

The Conversation’s opening scene perfectly sets the film’s themes and overall tone in such a brilliant and unrivalled way; as we see Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Caul, walk through a crowd in San Francisco as if viewed through a security camera, it is immediately established that this is a film to question the very meaning of privacy and identity in the most paranoid, nerve-racking way. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film (no, not The Godfather Part II) is one of the most tense thrillers ever put to screen, a film where the hunter is the prey, and where the world is a deadly place, where secrets have a price tag, bought and sold with no regard to the often mortal consequences; through its genius editing, score and story structure, The Conversation conveys a feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia that is unmatched, and delivers one of the most enjoyable and apprehensive two hours you’ll ever experience.

The Conversation tells the story of Harry Caul, a surveillance and security whiz, who runs his own private company in San Francisco that specializes in anything from the small stuff like bugging telephones and recording conversations to bigger scandals like spying on presidential candidates. He is the best in the business, but he keeps to himself, and refuses cooperation with anybody. He is a socially awkward loner, a devout catholic ridden with an overwhelming feeling of guilt, and a highly secretive character with an almost paralyzing sense of paranoia, which shows in his behavior, little mannerisms and way of life. He is in the midst of a job where he has to record the conversation of a young couple as they walk in a busy square, but midway, his feelings of guilt return and he starts to suspect that the recording are going to be used to hurt, or even possibly, kill the two young people.

The first’s act is an exposition of the character of Harry Caul, but at the same time, it is very meta in the way it constantly fuses multiple layers through seamless editing as the pieces of the conversation he is trying to record come together. The film’s biggest juxtaposition is that a man whose only job in life is to spy on people is so careful and worried about his own privacy that he goes to such extremes to protect it. His mistress knows nothing about him, not even his telephone number, as he claims to have no home telephone and makes all his calls from payphones, his home is completely empty except for some jazz record and a saxophone, and his office is completely fenced. When he attends a convention for security systems and later parties with some of his acquaintances, his character is revealed more clearly than ever when put in contact with other people: a genius in his work, and completely lacking in the social niceties, and willing to go to any measures necessary to protect his privacy.

A simple way to describe how the story progresses in The Conversation is to say that the first half is feeling, and the second is action, but feeling and action here are definitely not meant in the traditional sense, as the film itself is very unorthodox to say the least. The shift from an act in the film where the character of Harry Caul is dissected and analyzed, where his paranoia and guilt are visible on screen, to an act where his emotions can no longer be bore, where he finally takes action, is done flawlessly. I think that certain shift comes with the dream sequence in the middle of the film, where he apologizes to his “victims” for having spied on them, claiming he never knew the consequences would be so dire.

In the final act of the film, Harry Caul’s feeling of guilt becomes so unbearable and unquenchable by mere catholic confessions that he takes action and decides to destroy the tapes and keep them away from his client and when that fails, he exposes himself to danger even more gravely and implements his unmatched spying techniques to try and find out what is to become of the people whose privacy he invaded. The final scene of the film is what resonates with the viewer the most long after the credits have rolled, where after searching his entire apartment to see if it is bugged, we see a weary Harry Caul in the midst of the wreck he made of his place, playing his saxophone to a soft jazz record, perhaps not realizing that the bug is in the instrument itself. The film’s photography has very strong noir influences, and just like the cinematography of the 40s and 50s movement, the use of shadows here is abundant and brilliant. Much of Harry Caul’s character is portrayed through the use of closeups throughout the film, a technique which here perfectly captures the feeling of heavy burden his character conveys.

Gene Hackman’s performance of a man so awkward and tense here is perfect, especially coming from an actor who was pretty outgoing and casual at the time. Much of the film’s nerve shattering feel is the result of his brilliant performance, but a huge portion of that is the result of Walter Murch’s editing, who pretty much had a free hand since Francis Ford Coppola was busy working on The Godfather Part II, and of course, it would be a crime not to give David Shire’s score its proper credit, a piano instrumental soundtrack often edited and distorted to create unnerving tonalities and seal the effect this film produces in its audience.

The Conversation is a very uncomfortable watch for viewers whose idea of a film is a fun time, but for somebody looking for a more intense experience, you can’t do much better than this masterpiece. A slow burn which sets an extremely claustrophobic and paranoia inducing tone, this film traps you in your own head and makes you doubt everything around you.


  1. What an absorbing movie!! I can't wait to see the movie :)

    1. absorbing review* (and movie as well )

    2. Thank you so much, hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


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