Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a professional surveillance expert, considered if not the best in the business, then damn near, such is his technical expertise. But his latest job has given him pause for thought; it seemed simple enough for a master such as him, so where others might have been foiled by his targets' insistence on walking around a busy public square in San Francisco, he has devised directional microphones which pick up every part of the conversation. Sure, it's distorted in places, but that's nothing Harry cannot solve himself, however, when it comes to handing over the tapes, he hesitates...
It's supposedly the favourite film of its director Francis Ford Coppola and its star Gene Hackman out of all the works they participated in, but The Conversation has never been universally liked. That could be because it walks in like a thriller and shuffles out like a muttering character study, disappointing those who wanted something like... well, something like Enemy of the State a few decades later, which played out like an action movie unofficial sequel to this. However, that effort had nothing on this one for the strength of its acting, and much of that was down to Hackman single-mindedly inhabiting Harry Caul.
For a film about sound it's a strangely quiet work, leaving you to adopt its surreptitious protagonist's line in wheedling out information about what you were watching from the basic essentials offered by Coppola's stylistic choices. For this reason many found it a confusing film, unsure of what they were supposed to be taking away from it and most egregious of all baffled at how a supposed expert like Caul could have the wool so cleverly pulled over his eyes. The answer to that is he isn't half as aware as he thinks he is, indeed scene after scene shows him up as rather sloppy, from the early sequence where he finds a birthday present left inside his apartment door to the twist ending.
Face it, Harry is a mess, and the more he loses himself in other people's lives the less he can cope with his own, with all the guilt and loneliness that accompanies it. Deeply religious, he cannot match his piety with the way he makes his living, particularly after we learn he was partly responsible for the deaths of an entire family, thanks to his spying being turned to evil purposes - bizarrely, not something he was expecting as far as we can tell. As his life falls down quietly around his ears, we can appreciate the superb sound design courtesy of Walter Murch, at least as important in the overall effect as Coppola's direction and Hackman's acting, and repeat viewings aptly reveal fresh insights into the story.
Just as Caul's obsessive replaying and honing of the tapes reveal more and more, the big one being that the young couple being spied on are about to be murdered, though he cannot work out quite why or where without more application to the task in hand. Coppola gets a little caught up in his story himself - that dream sequence looks like an outtake from one of his quickie scenes on The Terror - but with each passing minute there are fresh pleasures to be had, including an excellent cast in support to Hackman's methods which could have overwhelmed them. Allen Garfield as Caul's West Coast rival threatens to steal the movie, a sleazy and bumptious operator who wants to prove better than Harry; it's a superb performance, one of those from this decade which gathered a cult around him, and John Cazale as the assistant another instance of the surveillance business attracting real creeps. But if anything The Conversation was a star vehicle, though whether that star was the lead actor or the director was up for debate in one of the major paranoia movies of its era. Music by David Shire.