“The Conversation” - Francis Ford Coppola (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is a more contemplative work than his great blockbusters, The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979), but it is
in no way inferior.  Written, directed, and produced by Coppola, The Conversation takes a thoughtful look at how the nature of narrative profoundly structures and governs our very conscious existence [1,2].  It tells the story of a man who has surreptitiously recorded an intimate conversation, and who is then troubled by the mysterious narrative implications of what he has recorded.  In this respect the film bears close comparison to two other films with similar themes – Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) [3] and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981).  Indeed, Coppola acknowledged from the outset that Antonioni's Blow-Up was a key inspiration and influence on his development of The Conversation.  

However, there are some fundamental differences between how narrative affects the main characters in the two films.  In Blow-Up, the protagonist Thomas, who is a photographer, is affected by the narrative implications of visual images, while the protagonist in The Conversation, Harry Caul, is occupied by the narrative suggestions in sound recordings.  Moreover, Thomas, in Blow-Up, finds himself constantly distracted and seduced by the suggestive narrative possibilities he encounters; whereas Harry Caul, in The Conversation, steadfastly avoids getting himself involved in any external narratives, as if all narratives involving other people are threats to his autonomy and identity.

Despite these contrasts, both films are great, and The Conversation received many plaudits from top critics [4,5,6,7,8,9,10].  In addition, the film won the Best Film award (the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film) at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, and it was also named Best Film by the National Board of Review.  Moreover, The Conversation was also nominated for 3 U.S. Oscars, including one for Best Film (losing out on that one only to Coppola’s own The Godfather Part II, which was released in the same year).  

With respect to the general topic of how narrative underlies our understanding of reality, it may be useful to quote some of my own earlier commentary on the topic [3]:

Narrative form is fundamental to how we understand the temporality of the world [1,2].  We tell stories about what we see, and we learn more about the world around us from others’ stories that we hear or read.  We even understand ourselves in terms of the stories that we tell and remember about ourselves. Although we may store lots of information about the world in various structured formats, at a primordial level this information was originally gathered in terms of innumerable narratives that serve to structure the lives of all of us. These stories are co-created by the participants, so apart from purely fictive creations, the stories are not under the exclusive control of the person who tells the story.  This is what make narrative construction fascinating: we are constructing a plausible story – one that “makes sense” – out of the material that we have experienced.  In the stories are various environmental conditions along with (perhaps numerous) goal-oriented causal agents, which often include ourselves among the players.

In The Conversation, the story’s protagonist, Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman), is a private surveillance expert who secretly records conversations of people who are of interest to his clients.  Caul is not interested in the potentially damning narratives that could be constructed from what he records – that is something he leaves to his clients.  Caul is only interested in the technical quality of his recordings, which because they are often obtained from a safe distance and under noisy conditions, he must ensure have content that  is comprehensible to his suspicious clients.  Indeed, in Caul’s profession, it behooves one to keep his lips sealed about what is under surveillance.  So Caul just prides himself on being an expert technician, and he is reputed to be one of the best in the business.

The story of the film passes through three general phases that represent rough stages in both Caul’s understanding of a surveillance case he is working on and also stages in the progressive revelation to the viewer of just who Caul is.

1.  A Sophisticated Surveillance Job
The film opens with a spectacular 3-minute, overhead moving-camera shot showing Caul’s crew spying on a young couple walking around San Francisco’s crowded Union Square.  Caul has a remote camera and three separate recording devices tracking the couple, Ann (played by Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest), as they chat to themselves while walking in the square.  

Later when Caul goes home and opens the triple-locked door to his own flat, we get to see how secretive and a loner Caul is.  Because he evidently treasures his own privacy, he is alarmed to discover that his landlady has a key to his flat, and she even knows that today is his birthday.  At home, Caul just likes to sit alone in his room playing his saxophone – not on his own, but to accompany a phonograph record.  

When he goes to visit his mistress Amy (Teri Garr), he sneaks in to her apartment, and she becomes so frustrated with his withdrawn, paranoid reticence that she announces she is breaking with him.  Caul then just glumly departs without a word.

Then Caul goes to the large corporate office of his wealthy client who has commissioned his latest surveillance operation.  The man is just known as the “Director” and is not in at the moment, but the Director’s assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), tells him that the contracted tapes can be handed over to him.  Caul, however, refuses and insists he will only give the tapes personally to the Director.  As Caul is leaving the building, he separately sees Mark and Ann in the corridors, so now he knows that his two surveillance targets are employees of the Director’s company.

Later we see Caul working with his assistant Stan (John Cazale) in his sound editing lab, which is located in a caged area of an upper floor in an abandoned warehouse.  Stan is raucously curious about the tapes they are editing (they are attempting to combine the three recordings into one refined tape), but Caul tells him to shut up and just work.  Caul tells Stan he should not be interested in content, only in sound quality.  But after Stan leaves in a huff, Caul manages to refine one previously obscured piece of the surveilled conversation so that he can make out what was said – “he’d kill us if he got the chance.”

So little by little, and against Caul’s inclinations, some pieces of the narrative puzzle of the surveilled targets are starting to fall into place.  In addition we also learn at the end of this section that Caul is a devout Catholic, and he still has guilt feelings from the memory of one of his past jobs that ultimately ended up later with the murders of the three people he had spied on.  Since as a religious man, Caul believes that God is always watching, he doesn’t want to do anything now that will add further to his guilt.

2.  The Surveillance Convention
Now a commercial convention for professional surveillance practitioners opens in the city, and this introduces some opportunities for the reclusive Caul to open up and have some social interactions.  Caul attends it, and as he wanders among the display booths on offer, he is quietly pleased to be recognized by some people as a famous surveillance operative.  One admirer is an envious surveillance rival of Caul’s, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield), from Chicago, who sings Caul’s praises to anyone in listening distance.  But Caul is somewhat unsettled to see Martin Stett in attendance and also to learn that his employee Stan has left him and is now working for Moran.

Nevertheless, Caul is sufficiently buoyed by the activities at the convention to invite his admirers and colleagues to a private get-together at his lab that evening.  There he meets and flirts with another woman, Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), who has been working for Moran.  When Caul has a tender moment alone with her he confides to her some of his personal concerns.  But he is quickly alarmed to discover that the prankish Moran had planted a small recording device on him and had recorded Caul’s conversation with Meredith, which is then played back to everyone else’s mirthful delight.  So Moran has made a mockery of Caul’s precious privacy.  Angrily, Caul orders everyone to leave, although Meredith lingers.

That night Caul beds down with Meredith, but when he wakes up in the morning, he sees she is gone, and he realizes that she slept with him only so she could steal his secret tape he has worked on.  However, Caul soon gets a call from Stett telling him that the Director now has possession of the tape, and that Caul can come over and collect his fee.

During this section of the film, Caul has been tentatively opening up to people, and even though he was burned in that respect, he is starting to have concerns about some other people besides himself, such as Amy and Ann.  With respect to Ann in particular, he remembers the part of the recorded tape that said, “he’d kill us if he got the chance”, and another recorded part mentioning an intended secret meeting of Mark and Ann in room 773 of a particular hotel on the weekend.  So Caul worries that once the Director hears the tape, he may arrange to have the couple killed in that room.  Caul even has a dream of his meeting Ann and confiding to her some private details of his severely health-troubled childhood.  

Caul at this point is now worrying seriously about Ann, and the narrative he is constructing about her is very disturbing to him.

3.  Unraveling the Narrative

Caul goes to the corporate office and finally meets the Director (Robert Duvall), who sullenly turns over to him his fee, $15,000 in cash. While in the office, Caul also notices a domestic picture of his surveillance target Ann, revealing to him that she is the Director’s wife.

So now Caul needs to take action.  He goes to the given hotel on the day of the meeting and gets a room next to 773.  There he does some professional sound eavesdropping on the room next door.  Soon he is extemely disturbed to hear the sounds of an argument and then of physical violence.  When he later manages to pull himself together, he goes and cracks the doorlock to room 773 and enters.  Everything now looks tidy in the room, showing no signs of it previous occupation.  But when he flushes the bathroom toilet and blood comes out, he freaks out.  Something horrible must have happened to Ann, and they’re trying to cover it up.

Caul rushes to the Director’s office, but he is barred from entry.  Out on the street, he sees Ann perfectly okay sitting in a parked limo.  He then soon reads a newspaper headline reporting that the Director has died in an auto accident.  Thus the narrative about Ann that Caul had constructed in his imagination was all wrong.  Something horrible had happened in room 773, but not what he had imagined.  Evidently Caul had misinterpreted or not noticed the verbal stress in the phrase “he’d kill us if he got the chance.”

In the end Caul gets a call warning him that “they” will always be watching him, and he is left to live in a dystopian world of total paranoia.  His knowledge of surveillance techniques makes him even more suspicious of snooping devices potentially lurking everywhere in his apartment, and this makes him more paranoid than ever, as he tears up his apartment in search of bugs.  With noone he can trust and now no possible privacy whatsoever, he can only curl up alone in his shell with his saxophone.

Of course all this was filmed more than forty-five years ago, and we now live in a world where ubiquitous surveillance technology is making privacy more and more of a hopeless dream.  In fact, it seems to be the goal of the Chinese government to record what all their citizens are doing at all times [11].  So the issues of privacy and identity are now more pressing than they have ever been.

We must remember that all personal identities in this samsara world are based on the narratives that have been constructed out of evidence from observations [12].  But we intuitively feel that these narrative constructions can never really capture the true essence of who a person is.  In fact, we feel that we actually have different identities depending on the differing social and physical environments we find ourselves in.  That is why we feel the need to preserve our own privacy and have some control over what we reveal about ourselves to others, depending on the circumstances.  

Harry Caul, working, himself, in the surveillance business, seems to have had an instinctive awareness of how observational evidence could be misconstrued to form a false narrative about someone.  That is presumably why he didn’t want to reveal anything about himself and was generally paranoid.  Thus it is ironic that in this film, Caul was guilty of the same false-narrative construction error that he feared from others.  

So even though Harry Caul was a paranoid misfit, we can basically understand his fears and feel for him.  And that is because today,  forty-six years after The Conversation was made, we have an even greater apprehension that soon we, too, may be facing Caul’s dystopian surveillance world that is so fascinatingly depicted in this film.


  1. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, volumes 1, 2, and 3, (1984, 1985, 1988), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  2. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality" (1991). Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Blow-Up’ - Michelangelo Antonioni (1966)”, The Film Sufi, (14 August 2014).   
  4. Roger Ebert, “The Conversation”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1974).   
  5. Roger Ebert, “The Conversation”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (4 February 2001).   
  6. Andrew Sarris, “Postscript from Cannes”, Films in Focus, The Village Voice, (6 June 1974).    
  7. Andrew Sarris, “Who Wants Privacy?”, Films in Focus, The Village Voice, (13 June 1974).   
  8. Andrew Sarris, “Sexophobes and Saxophones”, Films in Focus, The Village Voice, (20 June 1974).   
  9. Judith Crist, “All That Money Can’t Buy”, New York Magazine, (8 April 1974).   
  10. Brenda Austin-Smith, “The Conversation”, Senses of Cinema, (April 2001).   
  11. “Mass surveillance in China”, Wikipedia, (27 September 2020).   
  12. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Helen Tworkov, In Love with the World: What a Buddhist Monk Can Teach You About Living from Nearly Dying, Bluebird, (2019). 

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