The Conversation (1974)
March 28, 2020 7:52 AM - Subscribe

Surveillance expert Harry Caul is hired by a mysterious client's brusque aide to tail a young couple. Tracking the pair through San Francisco's Union Square, Caul and his associate Stan manage to record a cryptic conversation between them. Tormented by memories of a previous case that ended badly, Caul becomes obsessed with the resulting tape, trying to determine if the couple are in danger.

I love thousands of films. This may be my all time favorite.

Listening to The Conversation

Old-School Paranoia

From Senses of Cinema

A very good bonus: Jon Lefkovitz's The Cinema of Walter Murch
posted by growabrain (21 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
One of my favorite movies; should be watched in a double bill with Antonioni's "Blow up".
posted by acrasis at 8:06 AM on March 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

If you're a Murch fan or even just a Conversation fan, check out Michael Ondaatje's the Conversations.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:32 AM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I like the scenes where they make public parts of the Embarcadero Center shopping area look like a fancy office.

More seriously, I really like the party scene, that felt like the center of movie. It's so agonizing watching Hackman's Harry Caul give into the weakness, he just steps right into being a chump. He does all that work to set up boundaries then just opens them up, it's like a low key pattern of abuse.

Listening to The Conversation

This is interesting article. The conclusion is above my pay grade but I agree that calling Caul a paranoiac who goes crazy is going a bit too far. He does seem pretty undone at the end, but "descent into madness" can be a cheap shorthand for struggling too hard and losing. To me the film is (depressingly) the perils, or even futility, of trying to give a fuck and make moral decisions based on imperfect information and an imperfect self, the reality of how that actually plays out.
posted by fleacircus at 9:05 AM on March 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

I agree that calling Caul a paranoiac who goes crazy is going a bit too far.

Caul got caught in the classic loop thinking, "I'm not finding a microphone, so it must be hidden REALLY well..."
posted by mikelieman at 9:13 AM on March 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

I linked to the article above 'Listening to The Conversation' before reading it, and now that I did, I regret it. I don't know who writes opaque text like this, but it reads like some obfuscating academic bullshit. Moving on.
posted by growabrain at 1:06 PM on March 28, 2020

You can also stream it for free at

One reason why I like this movie a lot is because of how it brings together so many people. If FFC and the people who collaborated with him in the early seventies were to all disappear, so much cinematic history would be lost.
posted by Fukiyama at 2:53 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is such a good movie, one of my favorites.

Also the moody piano score [YT] by David Shire is phenomenal, it suits Harry perfectly.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 7:07 PM on March 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Oh, one of my absolute favorite movies. It's just good.

Enemy of the State used a pic of Gene Hackman from the movie in Gene Hackman's ID as a hat tip (if you are unfamiliar with either movie they aren't at all vaguely similar).

The word 'paranoid' is used to describe the protagonist, but he certainly isn't; his caution is justified, his fears are real - paranoia is by definition irrational.

There are few movies I find worthwhile to rewatch; this is one of them.

Haven't read all the links so I'm sorry if this is covered already; it's my understanding that Francis Ford Coppola demanded that this movie was made before he would agree to make Godfather II. I'm so very glad he did.

'Caul got caught in the classic loop thinking, "I'm not finding a microphone, so it must be hidden REALLY well..."' - Well, he had a tape played back to him that indicated he was being bugged, so there was a recording device *somewhere*.
posted by el io at 9:01 PM on March 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Simply a brilliant film and Hackman at the top of his game here.

The cinematography is miles ahead of it's time, it really doesn't feel like a film that's pushing fifty years old. The reaction shot of Caul as a shadow on the wall remains one of my favorites.

If it's on Amazon, I'm gonna have to organize a simulwatch with my Pop and some friends.

Can't say enough about this film, it's almost comical how much it applies to daily life in 2020.
posted by Sphinx at 2:00 PM on March 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Both this and The Godfather II, also directed by Francis Ford Coppola, were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar for the year 1974. I don't think any other director before or since, has matched that.
posted by hwestiii at 3:36 PM on March 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well, he had a tape played back to him that indicated he was being bugged, so there was a recording device *somewhere*.

That's what gets me. Caul is already quite shaken when he realizes that he's been punked at the party. He's faced with the prospect that he's no longer at the top of his game, a game so integral to his identity. And he was had on two fronts, both technology and misdirection. By a real sleazeball who respects Caul's craft and reputation. This adds to the moral quandary he faces in the profession at which he excels so well. To find he's been surveilled without having a clue is all it takes for him to react like a madman. Where does he go from there? Is he done? Does he dive even deeper into the craft that increasingly rubs against his sense of morality? What kind of bottomless pit does this lead to?
posted by 2N2222 at 7:39 PM on March 29, 2020

The word 'paranoid' is used to describe the protagonist, but he certainly isn't; his caution is justified, his fears are real - paranoia is by definition irrational.

This comes up in quite a few, um, conversations about the movie, the article growabrain didn't much care for discusses it in the context of some of the big name reviews from the time of the movie's release, and I think there's some ambiguity about the notion of paranoia that the movie plays with which makes the use of the term reasonable and almost necessary.

Harry Caul is a man who takes extensive precautions from the outset of the movie, it isn't just the ending that suggests a worry over being surveilled, but his entire life style. This has a sort of double irony of sorts to it for Harry is both so closed off from normal human contact or sharing of self that it makes worry over surveillance seem excessive for his lack of connections but given surveillance is his business, the concern has a foundation in his own work. He is, in essence, the person he worries about, which makes him as close the the "villain" of the piece as the hero in a larger context. He surveilles others and knows this is how the world works.

That he is played by others to ends he wouldn't choose of his own volition, not just in the events we see, but from events prior shows not only that Harry is fallible, that his moral code can't be fit to the work he does, but that the larger world does make use of this kind of surveillance in ways that don't match whatever sense Harry has of the proper use of his work and that limitation can be wielded against. As this is Harry's world, and seems to be representative of the larger society to some uncertain degree given the lack of information about who and why certain individuals are placed under surveillance, Harry isn't just worried about a known threat but the possibility that anyone could be a threat, which pushes reasonable concern to a level of paranoia for it being virtually a universal condition of Harry's world.

Whether that makes Harry himself paranoid almost is beside the point because its a society that almost demands a sense of paranoia once one is aware of it, which makes the movie a "paranoid conspiracy" film, where the origination of the threat can't be uncovered for being so tied to the social order itself. Harry only gives in to this understanding when he plays his saxophone making himself "heard" in a way that tries to escape the constant state of self-imposed confinement from the world where paranoia is necessary.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:15 PM on March 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

There may be some of the streetlight effect, too. If he can't find the bug in his apartment where can he find it, what can he do about it. I do like how the last shot is a pan back and forth over Caul's apartment like a security camera.
posted by fleacircus at 11:47 PM on March 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Gene Hackman plays basically the same character (with exactly the same raincoat) in Enemy of the State.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:18 AM on March 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

If he can't find the bug in his apartment where can he find it, what can he do about it.

Yeah, there's definitely a strong sense of forelorn acquiescence to something beyond his ken at the end, at least for me.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:29 AM on March 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Piano theme
posted by growabrain at 4:03 AM on March 30, 2020

(Here's a 2016 Coppola conversation with Adam Savage about his Godfather book, 1 hour 14 min.)
posted by growabrain at 6:31 AM on March 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Back in the very dark ages of being a teen movie fan with one of those "best movies" books and a neighborhood video rental place with gaps in its collection, I was sometimes at the mercy of what I could record on cable. So when this movie showed up on the schedule at an inconvenient time, I set the VCR and sat down to watch when I next had the chance. I was riveted. I watched all the way up to what must have been very close to the end, and then the recording ended. I assumed I must have missed like ten or fifteen minutes.

Months later I had another chance, so I recorded it with an extra half hour of padding, sat down and watched the whole thing (I figured it had been good enough the first time), got to the end, and learned I'd only missed about 30 seconds. The ending is SO GOOD and SO PERFECT and I was SO ANGRY that what I'd missed wasn't, you know, a conclusion, but that killer of a collapse. (BTW I had stopped watching the Sopranos before its infamous "ending" but I feel this experience would have prepared me well.)
posted by fedward at 9:52 AM on April 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

The change in intonation on the recording of "he'd kill us if he had the chance" is such a cheat, but I'm willing to forgive it for the movie's ending. This is a really solid thriller.
posted by johnofjack at 10:13 AM on December 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

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