Spy 100, #21: The Conversation

“I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.” So says Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) early in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), a quiet masterpiece about a surveillance expert whose conscience finally gets the best of him.

Caul is a private security contractor who conducts audio surveillance for a price. The film’s brilliant opening sequence depicts Caul’s operation to record the conversation of a young couple, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest), as they stroll through a crowded, noisy park. Caul and his team are recording the conversation from three different vantages, but ambient noise gives it a fractured, incomplete feel. Even as Caul syncs the recordings into a master track, however, he doesn’t really care about what they’re saying — it’s just a paycheck for him.

But clearly the nature of Caul’s business is getting to him. He lives an emotionally closed and paranoid life, one that keeps him at an arm’s length from his assistant Stan (John Cazale), his friends, and his girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr). The paranoia reaches a new level when he goes to deliver the recording to his employer, The Director, only to be confronted by a suspicious assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford). Caul refuses to deliver the tapes to Stett, and his interest in the content of the recording is piqued, drawing him into its dangerous mystery.

Movies like The Conversation don’t get made in Hollywood these days. It’s just pure filmmaking artistry. Coppola deploys effective audio-visual trickery to set up the central mystery and then slowly, gradually peels it away as Caul’s expertise and curiosity put the pieces together. Meanwhile, the unfolding plot reveals more and more about Caul’s tortured psyche, making this at once a gripping thriller and a fascinating character study. It’s not flawless: there is one flabby stretch in the middle, where Caul has an awkward party with other surveillance pros during a security conference, but even that contributes to the big picture. By and large, this is an outstanding film, a hidden classic I would have ranked much closer to the top of the list.

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