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Blow Up in the Key of Sound.
nycritic14 March 2005
Warning: Spoilers
He's supposed to be the leading authority in freelance surveillance, but from the start there are hints that while he's good, he's also careless. While his apartment is locked, his landlord leaves him a Happy Birthday present. His mistress, Amy (Teri Garr in a small role) tells him she saw him standing in the staircase for an entire hour. He invites a rival co-worker to his office (which seems to be a warehouse) with several other people and carelessly allows the man to record his own conversation by means of what looks to be an innocuous pen which wouldn't be out of place in any James Bond movie. And his liaison with a call girl he meets at that party results in her stealing the tapes of a conversation he has recorded and that has lately been the focus of his obsession.

This is Harry Caul, a loner who is a little too glum to be good company and takes his work seriously. Maybe too seriously -- which eventually proves to be his downfall. The fact that his own co-worker Stan (John Cazale) leaves him to go work for a rival agency, Moran, only serves to prove Harry is really someone who is so much a loner he drives anyone away from him. He can't seem to have any form of relationship -- it's only time when Amy will also leave him as she seems somewhat frustrated by this wall of privacy he's built around himself. His entire life revolves around secrecy, and he only is able to live vicariously throughout others, even if he himself feels guilty about it and would deny it because to top it all, he has a strong religious streak, and discloses under confession that he was witness of a surveillance gone wrong and which resulted in the deaths of three people. Now this assignment has him worried: he's listened to a conversation between a man and a woman and is afraid the woman's husband may try to kill them both.

But is this what he's heard, or has been misinterpreted due to the limitations and distortions of sound? Like 1966's BLOW UP, which dealt with what the human eye is capable of discerning through the mechanism of a camera and what happens when one zooms in, THE CONVERSATION deals with the manipulation of sound to make out a sentence that lies just underneath the sounds of the city. But while that elusive sentence comes through -- "he's kill us if he had the chance" -- what Harry fails to catch is the intonation itself, which would have radically altered his deduction and completely shifted his attention. Like the definition of the word "caul", Harry is unable to see (or hear) the reality, or that he's been a victim of his own occupation by the end of the film; by making himself visible to whom he thinks was in danger, he's now made himself the target of surveillance by the same agency who employed him as he receives that disturbing call at the end: "We'll be listening to you." Whether it be real or not, one shot implies it is: a panning shot to the right, then to the left, from an elevated angle, showing us the destruction of Harry's apartment through his own hands as he has fruitlessly tries to debug his place. It's the tell-tale pan of a surveillance camera, which he has failed to discover. Again.

This is most definitely not an action-packed thriller, but one that is totally cerebral -- it forces you to pay attention, to listen, to heighten your senses and discover for yourself what Harry is trying to find even when we know he will be wrong all along. Even as he seems to teeter over madness near the end as his grisly discovery of blood pouring out of a toilet bowl at the Jack Tarr Hotel indicates, we still wonder if he's actually seeing this, or not. Like BLOW UP, this is one of those mysteries that doesn't look to get solved cleanly, but by being inconclusive, lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled, and in the process, leaves one man destroyed.
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Paranoia and alienation.
bat-57 February 2000
The Conversation is a quiet film that slowly builds on the central theme of paranoia. Gene Hackman is hired to record a conversation between two people. As Hackman pieces the dialouge together, we get to hear more and more of what's being said. Only thing is, we don't know exactly what is being referred to. Hackman seems to have an idea, as does the audience. As he starts to realize what's at stake, Hackman starts to develop a feeling of regret and refuses to hand over the tapes to the "director." Along the way, we see just how alone Gene Hackman's character is. His only solace in life is playing the saxaphone along with jazz records. He values his privacy and has trouble connecting with people, even members of his own team. Francis Ford Coppola keeps the story moving and lets it build naturally. He gives us glimpses into Hackman's mind as he "thinks" he knows what's going to happen to the people he recorded. The only way to see what happens in the end is to watch this quiet masterpiece. To tell about the ending would ruin the fun, not to mention the suspence of this understated thriller.
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Everyone's Talking at Me.....I Think I Hear Every Word They Say.
tfrizzell7 November 2003
Enigmatic, frustrating, confusing, intelligent and overall extremely brilliant work by writer/director Francis Ford Coppola (Oscar-nominated for his screenplay) has surveillance expert Gene Hackman recording a conversation between Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest. It immediately appears that the duo are having an affair behind Williams' very wealthy husband's (a cameo by Robert Duvall) back. However nothing is quite as cut and dry as it seems. Hackman, a devout Catholic, has a bout of conscience as he worries that Duvall might have deviant plans for his wife and her apparent lover. Apparently Hackman's work had meant the lives of some he had spied on many years earlier in New York and he is shown as a quiet man who has some loud personal demons within his soul. The suspense builds when Hackman is followed by Duvall's shady employee (Harrison Ford) and eventually the heat rises to a boil as all the very loose ends are tied together in a wickedly twisted final act. "The Conversation" was Coppola's other film from 1974 (remember Best Picture Oscar winner "The Godfather, Part II"?). With this movie, Coppola created arguably the two best films of that dominant cinematic campaign (of course Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" would have something to say about that). Hackman delivers a deceptively difficult and dark performance as a man who seems to be self-destructing slowly on the inside out. By the end "The Conversation" is a thought-provoking product that will chill you to the bone with its cold elements. 5 stars out of 5.
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One of the 1970s best!
Infofreak12 March 2002
'The Conversation' sadly doesn't get mentioned as much as Coppola's other (more flamboyant) seventies movies ('The Godfather' parts one and two, 'Apocalypse Now'), even though it as good as, if not better than the aforementioned. In fact if someone argued that this was his greatest achievement as a director, I would be hard pressed to disagree.

'The Conversation' bears many similarities to Antonioni's 'Blowup', another superb movie that requires multiple viewings to really appreciate. Both movies are very much of their time, and therefore 'The Conversation' is fuelled by the keywords of the decade it was made in - paranoia and deceit. The other main difference between the two movies it that 'The Conversation' is not only a head trip but also a taut and suspenseful thriller. Post Simpson/Bruckheimer audiences may not have the attention spans to appreciate it, but that is their failing, not this movie's.

Gene Hackman gives one of the finest performances of his career here as the complex and troubled surveillance expert Harry Caul, one that is possibly rivaled only by his too little seen gem 'Scarecrow'. And the supporting cast is first rate, and includes the late John Cazale, a favourite of Coppola's, Harrison Ford, Frederick Forrest, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr, and (an uncredited) Robert Duvall. Last but not least a superb turn from the underrated Allen Garfield, an actor who has appeared in many odd movies, from 'Get To Know Your Rabbit' to 'Destiny Turns On The Radio'. He is dynamite here, in a role originally intended for the legendary Timothy Carey, as a pushy rival bugging expert.

'The Conversation' is hypnotic, multi-layered and haunting. See it whatever you do.
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Privacy and Responsibility - A Conflicting Moral Choice
wshelley9 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 classic is an ingenious, meticulous examination into the nature of voyeurism, as well as a harsh criticism of the deceitful morality of privacy. At its basic form, however, The Conversation is a film that carefully follows a man who is curiously trapped within his own secretive existence of solitude. Harry Caul is nothing more than an observer; we do not witness any noticeable personal interests outside of his profession, aside from his occasional musical performances. But notice how Harry is always playing along to another band (contrast this to the solo at the ending), and never performs for an audience. There is no audience for Harry, a man who is entirely absorbed within his occupation, and allows his neurotic obsession to control his personal relationships. Harry treats himself like he treats his clients, he divulges no personal information, displays no easily distinguishable characteristics, and remains blissful in his peaceful state of ignorance. Whenever he is not entirely engulfed within his work, Harry disappears into his apartment, satisfied with his general indifference towards any truly beneficial, active existence. Harry has thoroughly convinced himself that it is inappropriate to become involved in his client's affairs. After all, Harry's job is not to take responsibility for himself, or to investigate any potential consequences resulting from his surveillance intrusions. Harry's job is to take orders, display no personal interest in the content of his recordings, and deliver the results completely unconcerned for anyone's potential safety or security. It is only after Harry accepts his need to take responsibility that he is able to take interest in his client's mysterious, dangerous affairs.

As Harry slowly drags himself into the precarious business of strangers, the film's intentions become increasingly suspenseful and perplexing. Coppola maintains his deliberately methodical pace throughout the entire film; it is only through our imagination that we are capable of creating and perpetuating such a consistently fascinating atmosphere surrounded by a cloud of tension and mystique. The Assistant Director never physically carries himself as an intimidating antagonist; it is through the complexity of the film's plot and through the continual uncertain environment that we are able to associate this element with his character. Every person that carries himself in a convincingly dubious manner immediately becomes a potential suspect. Harry becomes compulsively obsessed with the fate of his client's targets, completely submerging himself into the substance of the recordings, looking for any potential details that might assist him in solving the mystery. Harry's investigation quickly becomes our task as well, as we begin to subconsciously observe and scrutinize each character involved. The beauty of Coppola's film is the fact that it makes its point by using the audience as proof of the inherent devious nature of privacy. The movie transports us into Harry's world, as we become infatuated with the secretive plot unfolding before us, and we desperately search for clues into the lives of the film's characters. Of course, after intense investigation, Harry ultimately comes to realize that he has violated all of the principles that he had once stood proudly for. Whether or not Harry ended up better off by becoming involved in the dealings of others is a completely subjective matter, but it is a crucial question that the viewer must ask him/herself.

The ending of the film is what interested me the most about The Conversation. The consequences of Harry's obsession become manifest through the destruction of his own privacy, his property and even his faith. Was Harry morally appropriate when he decided to intervene into the relationship and associations of complete strangers? Did Harry do the right thing by taking responsibility for his actions, and reaching out to help another in desperate need? These are the most important questions that the film ultimately asks its audience. The final shots of Harry perfectly capture the ambiguous mood of the film's finale. Harry is sitting alone in his stripped down apartment looking exhausted, humiliated, and defeated. But if you look closely you will realize that he is indeed playing the saxophone to his own beat, for a change. At what costs do we accept the need for our responsibility to others?
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You Have To See This More Than Once
ccthemovieman-12 November 2005
This is one of those films I'm glad I gave a second chance because it got much better, and has continued getting better with each viewing (I've now seen it four times).

I know a few other people who watch this and ask, "What's the big deal?" Well, do what I did and give it another chance. Here's a tip: put on the English subtitles. It helps understand what is going on, as the taped conversations are often difficult to discern. Then, you might discover what I did: a fascinating character study, one that did not bore me as it had on the first viewing.

It's the study of a paranoid loner who is suffering a guilty conscience over the work he has done over the years, and what tragic consequences could happen with the latest project he's involved with. Without giving anything away, the loner's fears are realized in a shocking ending, but not in the way he imagined.

Gene Hackman, as always, does a super job of acting. He dominates the film as the main character, "Harry Caul." The topic matter - high-tech surveillance - was intriguing, too. After watching this film, I wondered what kind of surveillance tools are available now, 30 years after this film was made.
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Ingenious and frightening!
andy-22710 May 1999
"The Conversation" is a really great movie. I was quite surprised when I saw it. Not at how good it was, but how few people have seen it or heard of it. This is a classic suspense thriller, and a terrifying psychological horror film! From the opening credits, I, like the characters, was unsure of where I was going, or what the opening conversation (which is what the entire film is built around) might lead to. It seemed so unusually powerful, despite its masterfully simplistic execution. There is no overkill or excess in this film, nor is it under written or underplayed. It's just perfect! And I was even more surprised at how little was shown, and how much it could engross or frighten the hell out of me! My heart was racing, even though there was little action! This is the kind of film Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to direct. The direction went to another master instead, Francis Ford Coppola. I felt ahead of the movie at its opening credits. But then, it blasted me and got miles ahead of me. It is an attack on our psyche and our fear, and it's amazing how, like the film itself, the conversation in the film that seemed so small and irrational could lead to something as big as it did!
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A Subtle Horror
alexkolokotronis14 June 2008
To me The Conversation is one of most underrated movies ever. The movie carries on so quietly throughout that the suspense of the movie keeps on building up to one of the best endings in movie history.

The directing of this film was among one of the best I have ever seen. Coppola is able to craft his way through another one of his classics. The movie is just perfectly edited together and is so gripping throughout. His directing really takes the audiene to another world that most to almost all of us do not know about. That world is the world of security surveillance and spies. This though is not an ordinary spy movie, it is a very realistic psychological portrayal and the affects of knowing the real truth. Instead of this movie becoming a complete flop it becomes better and better as it carries on. Along with the cinematography and music he makes the audience feel how remote and controlled our society is. Coppola did not just show it he gave you the actual feeling of it. Coppola deserves much of the credit for this.

The writing was very good too. Once again Coppola uses his writing to keep the audience very much engaged into the movie. The writing in this movie ranks up their with his other screenplays such as The Godfather series, Apocalypse Now and Patton.

The acting was a bit of surprise to me. It was better than I expected. This film convinced me that Gene Hackman is prime talent. He is not just a man who plays the man always involved in a shouting match but in fact he is a versatile actor who has really limited himself rather than his abilities limiting him. He was perfect for this movie. The supporting cast was great as well. Robert Duvall who always gives the best cameos was good in here too. Harrison Ford who I wish actually had some more screen time was very convincing as a manipulative high ranking executive.

The ending in this movie to me is one of the best ever. It shows how or fears can consume us and alter our live. It displays how if our fears consume us we lose the feeling of life itself. That is at least my take of it. This is Coppola's hidden masterpiece that should be seen by all. It will definitely make you think.
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A Great Performance... (possible plot spoilers... you decide)
majik43-125 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I watched this film because of all the recommendations people had made about it and also because of Francis Ford Coppola and Gene Hackman. The thing that marks this film out from other thrillers is the level of realism in it. 'Harry Caul', Gene Hackman's character, makes for a complex hero. He's emotionally disciplined and brilliant at what he does. He's a man who eavesdrops on others for a living yet values his own privacy to a self-stifling fault. He also lives with regrets. As the film progresses the plot almost takes a backseat to the closely guarded world of Harry, who is impressively brought to life by Gene Hackman. It's perhaps the kind of role we rarely see him in and yet he gives one of his best ever celluloid performances and an understated one at that. The film also makes great use of sound as a tension-creating device. We, the viewer are invited to eavesdrop with Harry and his assistant 'Stan' (played wonderfully by John Cazale - The Godfather, The Deer Hunter), and participate in the films central theme. This device is effective in gaining sympathy as when Harry is eventually faced with a dilemma, his problem is one the viewers can identify with. Yet he isn't the gung-ho grit-bearer that we wish him to be. He crumbles when faced the truth he reluctantly seeks and he takes money from the very people that he suspects of a possible murder. All these traits make him a frustrating man to side with. A lot of credit has to be given to Francis Ford Coppola for the film's suitably subtle pace. This isn't a car-chase type of movie so don't expect 'The French Connection'. But if you want a plausible plot and a challenging, vulnerable performance by Gene Hackman then see this. One of the best thrillers I've ever seen.
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A Movie About Poor Communications Skills
gbheron22 January 2000
The Conversation is a stark look into the modern art of surveillance and its affect on one of its practitioners. Harry Caul (Hackman) is at the top of his business, but he's disturbed. Highly paranoiac, he is troubled by bad things that happened to some innocent people as a result of a prior surveillance job. Now he's afraid it's happening again....

The Conversation could not be more antithetical of the current movie making style. Stark, claustrophobic, unsexy, slow-paced, and with almost no soundtrack, it slowly builds to its dramatic noirish denouement.

A real treat, and as an added attraction the actors include a young Cindy Williams, Terri Garr, John Cazale, and Harrison Ford. Worth the rental unless anything outside of the MTV mould causes agitation.
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