The Conversation is a 1974 American psychological thriller film written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman with supporting roles by John Cazale,Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall.
The Conversation won the Palme d'Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, and in 1995, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congressas being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Originally, Paramount Pictures distributed the film worldwide. Paramount retains American rights to this day but international rights are now held by Miramax Films and StudioCanal in conjunction with American Zoetrope.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who runs his own company in San Francisco. Highly respected within the profession, Caul is obsessed with his own privacy; his apartment is almost bare behind its triple-locked door and burglar alarm, he uses pay phones to make calls, claims to have no home telephone and his office is enclosed in wire mesh in a corner of a much larger warehouse. Caul is utterly professional at work, but finds personal contact extremely difficult; dense crowds make him uncomfortable, and he is withdrawn and taciturn in more intimate social situations. His appearance is nondescript, except for his habit of wearing a translucent grey plastic raincoat almost everywhere he goes, even when it is not raining.
Caul insists that he is not responsible for the actual content of the conversations he records or for the use to which his clients put his surveillance activities. Nevertheless, he feels wracked by guilt over a past wiretap job which resulted in the murder of three people; this sense of guilt is amplified by his devout Catholicism. His one hobby is playing along to jazz records on atenor saxophone in the privacy of his apartment.
Caul, his colleague Stan (John Cazale) and some freelance associates have taken on the task of bugging the conversation of a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk through crowded Union Square in San Francisco, surrounded by a cacophony of background noise. Amid the small-talk, the couple discuss fears that they are being watched, and mention a discreet meeting at a hotel room in a few days. The challenging task of recording this conversation is accomplished by multiple surveillance operatives located in different positions around the square. After Caul has worked his magic on merging and filtering different tapes, he produces a sound recording in which the words themselves become crystal clear, but their actual meaning remains ambiguous.
Although Caul cannot understand the true meaning of the conversation, he finds the cryptic nuances and emotional undercurrents contained within it deeply troubling. Sensing danger, Caul feels increasingly uneasy about what may happen to the couple once the client hears the tape. He plays the tape again and again throughout the movie, gradually refining its accuracy. He concentrates on one key phrase hidden under the sound of a street musician: "He'd kill us if he got the chance". Caul constantly reinterprets the speakers' subtle emphasis on particular words in this phrase, trying to figure out their meaning in the light of what he suspects and subsequently discovers.
Caul avoids handing in the tape to Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), who works for The Director (Robert Duvall), the man who commissioned the surveillance. Afterwards, he finds himself under increasing pressure from the client's aide and is himself followed, tricked, and bugged. The tape of the conversation is eventually stolen from him in a moment when his guard is down.
Tormented by guilt over what he fears will happen to the couple, Caul's desperate efforts to forestall tragedy ultimately fail. To Caul's surprise, it turns out that the conversation he had obsessed over might not mean what he thought it did: the tragedy he had anticipated differs from the one which eventually occurs. To Caul's surprise, The Director was killed in a "car accident", but Caul knows that in fact he was murdered by the couple in the hotel they referred to in their conversation. He now realizes that the statement "He'd kill us if he got the chance" was a rationalization of the couple's decision to kill him.
When a phone call informs Caul that "We know that you know; keep your mouth shut" and plays a recording of his saxophone practice, he goes on a frantic search for the listening device, tearing up walls and floorboards and ultimately destroying his apartment - to no avail. The film's end leaves him sitting amidst the wreckage, playing one of the only things in his apartment left intact: his saxophone.
- Gene Hackman as Harry Caul
- John Cazale as Stan
- Allen Garfield as William P. "Bernie" Moran
- Cindy Williams as Ann
- Frederic Forrest as Mark
- Harrison Ford as Martin Stett
- Michael Higgins as Paul
- Elizabeth MacRae as Meredith
- Teri Garr as Amy Fredericks
- Mark Wheeler as Receptionist
- Robert Shields as The Mime
- Phoebe Alexander as Lurleen
- Robert Duvall as The Director (uncredited)
- Gene Hackman's brother, Richard Hackman, played two roles in the film, the priest in the confessional and a security guard.
- Gian-Carlo Coppola, the nine-year-old son of director Francis Ford Coppola, played the small part of a boy in church.