One of Coppola's very best. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a professional surveillance expert, a wire-tapper and industrial spy for hire by anyone, as long as the price is right. Harry and his assistant Stan (Cazale) use state-of-the-art technical expertise to track a young couple, Ann (Cindy Williams)and Mark (Frederic Forrest), and record their conversations. The client is a mysterious and powerful businessman, known only as the "director" (Robert Duvall, in an unbilled cameo), whose motives are unclear. After listening to the tapes repeatedly, however, Harry deduces that Ann is the director's wife
and that she is having an affair with Mark, one of her husband's employees. To his horror, Harry concludes that his client plans to murder the couple. Plagued by guilt from a previous assignment in which the information he gathered led to the murders of several people, Harry becomes obsessed with preventing the murders of Ann and Mark — for the first time in his career, he decides to get involved — but he gets in over his head.
Following the triumph of THE GODFATHER, writer-director Francis Ford Coppola surprised everyone with this small, intimate, and brilliantly crafted film, which explores the implications of indiscriminate eavesdropping. Gene Hackman is superb as Harry Caul, a painfully lonely, cynical, paranoid and alienated man whose work has driven him to guard his own privacy zealously, although there is precious little to protect. A year later Hackman would play another eavesdropper named Harry, this time a detective in Arthur Penn's NIGHT MOVES, and the similarities between the two characters were not
lost on the actor — NIGHT MOVES could be a prequel to THE CONVERSATION. Twenty-four years later, Hackman again played a paranoid surveillance expert in ENEMY OF THE STATE; though named "Brill," the character is clearly meant to be seen as Harry Caul a quarter of a center later.
THE CONVERSATION was released just after the Watergate break-in, but was written many years before and was already shooting when the news of the break-in appeared. Technically brilliant, THE CONVERSATION does in aural terms what Antonioni's BLOW UP does in visual terms; it's unquestionably one of the key films of the 1970s.
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