The Conversation
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFrancis Ford Coppola
Written byFrancis Ford Coppola
Produced byFrancis Ford Coppola
CinematographyBill Butler
Edited by
Music byDavid Shire
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • April 7, 1974 (1974-04-07)
Running time
113 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.6 million
Box office$4.4 million

The Conversation is a 1974 American neo-noir[1] mystery thriller film written, produced, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, and Robert Duvall. Hackman portrays a surveillance expert who faces a moral dilemma when his recordings reveal a potential murder.

The Conversation premiered at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or, the festival's highest prize, and was released theatrically on April 7, 1974, by Paramount Pictures to critical acclaim but box office disappointment, grossing $4.4 million on a $1.6 million budget. The film received three nominations at the 47th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound.

In 1995, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[2]


Harry Caul, a surveillance expert in San Francisco, specializes in wiretapping services. He and his team are hired by a client, who identifies himself as "the Director", to eavesdrop on a couple walking through Union Square. Despite the background noise, Caul filters and merges the tapes to create a clear recording with ambiguous meaning. Caul is intensely private, obsessively guarding his own secrecy, haunted by guilt from a past job that resulted in three deaths.

Despite Caul's insistence that he is not responsible for how his clients use the surveillance, he is troubled by guilt and his Catholic faith. When he discovers a potentially dangerous phrase in the recording, "He'd kill us if he got the chance," Caul becomes increasingly paranoid. His attempt to deliver the recording is thwarted, and he believes he is being followed and tricked.

The tape is stolen by a prostitute Caul hired, Meredith, and he receives a call from Martin Stett, the Director's assistant, informing him that the Director couldn't wait any longer. Caul learns that the woman in the recording is the Director's wife, involved in an affair. Caul, suspecting murder, books a hotel room next to the one mentioned in the recording and overhears a heated argument. Convinced he witnessed a murder, Caul breaks into the room, but initially finds no evidence, until he casually flushes the toilet and finds it clogged and overflowing with blood.

Attempting to confront the Director, Caul discovers the wife is alive and unharmed, as is her lover. A newspaper headline reveals an executive's supposed death in a car accident, leading Caul to realize that the couple actually murdered the Director. He missed the emphasis on "us" in the recording, not only signifying the couple's fear of being killed by the Director if he discovered the affair, but also their own plan to murder him first.

Stett warns Caul not to investigate, playing a recording of Caul's saxophone to prove they are listening. Caul frantically searches for bugs in his apartment, destroying nearly everything except his saxophone. In the end, Caul is left alone amid the wreckage, playing his saxophone, the only intact part of his life.



Principal photography began November 27, 1972, and finished in late February 1973. Coppola has cited Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966) as a key influence on his conceptualization of the film's themes, such as surveillance versus participation, and perception versus reality. "Francis had seen [it] a year or two before, and had the idea to fuse the concept of Blowup with the world of audio surveillance."[4]

On the DVD commentary, Coppola says he was shocked to learn that the film used the same surveillance and wire-tapping equipment that members of the Nixon Administration used to spy on political opponents prior to the Watergate scandal. Coppola has said this reason is why the film gained part of the recognition it has received, but it is entirely coincidental. Not only was the script for The Conversation completed in the mid-1960s (before the Nixon Administration came to power), but the spying equipment used in the film was discovered through research and the use of technical advisers, and not, as many believed, by revelatory newspaper stories about the Watergate break-in. Coppola also noted that filming of The Conversation had been completed several months before the most revelatory Watergate stories broke in the press. Because the film was released to theaters just a few months before Richard Nixon resigned as president, Coppola felt that audiences interpreted the film to be a reaction to both the Watergate scandal and its fall-out.

The original cinematographer of The Conversation was Haskell Wexler. Severe creative and personal differences with Coppola led to Wexler's firing shortly after production began, and Coppola replaced him with Bill Butler. Wexler's footage on The Conversation was completely reshot except for the technically complex surveillance scene in Union Square.[5] This movie was the first of two Oscar-nominated films where Wexler would be fired and replaced by Butler, the second being One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), where Wexler had similar problems with Miloš Forman.[6]

Walter Murch served as the supervising editor and sound designer. Murch had more or less a free hand during the editing process because Coppola was working on The Godfather Part II at the time.[7] Coppola noted in the DVD commentary that Hackman had a very difficult time adapting to the Harry Caul character because he was so much unlike himself. Coppola says that Hackman was at the time an outgoing and approachable person who preferred casual clothes, whereas Caul was meant to be a socially awkward loner who wore a rain coat and out-of-style glasses. Coppola said that Hackman's efforts to tap into the character made the actor moody and irritable on set, but otherwise Coppola got along well with his leading man. Coppola also notes on the commentary that Hackman considers this one of his favorite performances.

The Conversation features a piano score composed and performed by David Shire. The score was created before the film was shot.[8] On some cues, Shire used musique concrète techniques, taking the taped sounds of the piano and distorting them in different ways to create alternative tonalities to round out the score. The score was released on CD by Intrada Records in 2001.[9]


The character of Harry Caul was inspired by surveillance technology expert Martin Kaiser, who also served as a technical consultant on the film.[10][11] According to Kaiser, the final scene of the film—in which Caul is convinced he is being eavesdropped in his apartment, cannot find the listening device, and consoles himself by playing his saxophone—was inspired by the passive covert listening devices created by Léon Theremin, such as the Great Seal bug. "He couldn't find out where [the bug] was because it was the instrument itself."[12]

Coppola also based Caul on the protagonist of Herman Hesse's 1927 novel Steppenwolf, Harry Haller, a "total cipher" who lives alone in a boarding house. Coppola also made Caul religious, originally intending the character to have a confession scene; Coppola has said that the practice of confession is "one of the earliest forms of the invasion of privacy—earliest forms of surveillance."[13]


Box office

The film had a $1,600,000 budget and grossed $4,420,000 in the U.S.

Critical response

The film has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 68 reviews, with an average rating of 8.80/10. The site's critics consensus reads "This tense, paranoid thriller presents Francis Ford Coppola at his finest—and makes some remarkably advanced arguments about technology's role in society that still resonate today."[14] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 87 out of 100 based on 17 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[15]

Roger Ebert's contemporary review gave The Conversation four out of four stars and described Hackman's portrayal of Caul as "one of the most affecting and tragic characters in the movies".[16] In 2001, Ebert added The Conversation to his "Great Movies" list, describing Hackman's performance as a "career peak" and writing that the film "comes from another time and place than today's thrillers, which are so often simple-minded".[17]

In 1995, The Conversation was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[18] Gene Hackman has named the film his favorite of all those he has made. His performance in the lead role was listed as the 37th greatest in history by Premiere magazine in 2006.[19] In 2012, the Motion Picture Editors Guild listed the film as the eleventh-best edited film of all time based on a survey of its membership.[20]

The film ranked 33rd on the BBC's 2015 list of "100 Greatest American Films", voted by film critics from around the world.[21] In 2016, The Hollywood Reporter ranked the film 8th among 69 counted winners of the Palme d'Or to date, concluding "Made in a flash between the first two Godfather movies, Coppola’s existential spy thriller has since become a pinnacle of the genre."[22]


The Conversation won the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, the highest honor at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.[23] The film was also nominated for three Academy Awards for 1974,[24] but lost to Coppola's own The Godfather Part II. It won the National Board of Review Award for Best Film.[25]

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
Academy Awards April 8, 1975 Best Picture Francis Ford Coppola Nominated [24][26][27]
Best Original Screenplay Nominated
Best Sound Walter Murch and Art Rochester Nominated
British Academy Film Awards 1975 Best Direction Francis Ford Coppola Nominated [28]
Best Actor Gene Hackman Nominated
Best Screenplay Francis Ford Coppola Nominated
Best Editing Walter Murch, Richard Chew Won
Best Soundtrack Art Rochester, Nat Boxer, Mike Ejve, Walter Murch Won
Cannes Film Festival May 9–24, 1974 Grand Prix du Festival International du Film Francis Ford Coppola Won [23]
Directors Guild of America 1974 Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated [29]
Golden Globes January 25, 1975 Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [30]
Best Director – Motion Picture Francis Ford Coppola Nominated
Best Screenplay Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Gene Hackman Nominated
National Board of Review December 25, 1974 Best Film Won [31]
Best Director Francis Ford Coppola Won
Best Actor Gene Hackman Won
Top Ten Films Won
National Society of Film Critics January 5, 1975 Best Director Francis Ford Coppola Won [32]

In other media

According to film critic Kim Newman, the 1998 film Enemy of the State, which also stars Gene Hackman as co-protagonist, could be construed as a "continuation of The Conversation". Hackman's character Edward Lyle in Enemy of the State closely resembles Caul: he dons the same translucent raincoat, and his workshop is nearly identical to Caul's. Also, the photograph used for Lyle in his NSA file is actually a photograph of Caul. Enemy of the State also includes a scene which is very similar to The Conversation's opening surveillance scene in San Francisco's Union Square.[33]

A television pilot starring Kyle MacLachlan as Harry Caul was produced for NBC. It was not picked up for a full series.[34]

See also


  1. ^ "'The Conversation': Francis Ford Coppola's Paranoia-Ridden Tale of Surveillance, Guilt and Isolation • Cinephilia & Beyond". October 2, 2019. Retrieved March 5, 2024.
  2. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved June 6, 2020.
  3. ^ Hilditch, Nick (February 27, 2002). "The Conversation (1974)". BBC. Retrieved June 12, 2017.
  4. ^ Ondaatje 2002, p. 152.
  5. ^ Stafford, Jeff. "The Conversation (1974)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved June 11, 2017.
  6. ^ Townsend, Sylvia (December 19, 2014). "Haskell Wexler and the Making of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'". Retrieved March 2, 2015.
  7. ^ Ondaatje 2002, p. 157.
  8. ^ "discussion of soundtrack". Archived from the original on January 15, 2002. Retrieved May 22, 2017.
  9. ^ Intrada Special Collection Volume 2
  10. ^ "Martin Kaiser". IMDb. Retrieved May 22, 2017.
  11. ^ Kaiser, Martin; Stokes, Bob. "Odyssey of an Eavesdropper". Retrieved September 2, 2017.
  12. ^ "The Last HOPE: TSCM – A Brief Primer on Electronic Surveillance and 'Bug' Detection (Complete)". GBPPR2. September 22, 2011. Archived from the original on November 18, 2021. Retrieved May 22, 2017 – via YouTube.
  13. ^ Suton, Koraljka (October 2, 2019). "'The Conversation': Francis Ford Coppola's Paranoia-Ridden Tale of Surveillance, Guilt and Isolation". Cinephilia & Beyond. Archived from the original on December 30, 2019. Retrieved June 11, 2022.
  14. ^ "The Conversation (1974)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved December 8, 2022.
  15. ^ "The Conversation Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved December 8, 2022.
  16. ^ Ebert, Roger (1974). "The Conversation". January 1, 1974. Retrieved June 2, 2023.
  17. ^ Ebert, Roger (2001). "The Conversation". February 4, 2001. Retrieved June 2, 2023.
  18. ^ Liebenson, Donald (January 4, 1996). "Cinematic Legends Take Their Place in National Film Registry". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved April 24, 2020.
  19. ^ "100 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time". Archived from the original on October 11, 2007. Retrieved June 11, 2022.
  20. ^ "The 75 Best Edited Films". Cinemontage – Journal of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. May 1, 2012. Retrieved April 13, 2019.
  21. ^ "100 Greatest American Films". BBC. July 20, 2015. Archived from the original on September 16, 2016. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  22. ^ THR Staff (May 10, 2016). "Cannes: All the Palme d'Or Winners, Ranked". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 20, 2016.
  23. ^ a b "Festival de Cannes: The Conversation". Retrieved April 26, 2009.
  24. ^ a b "The 47th Academy Awards (1975) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved October 2, 2011.
  25. ^ Berliner 2010, p. 61.
  26. ^ Robert Towne Wins Original Screenplay: 1975 Oscars
  27. ^ Earthquake Wins Best Sound: 1975 Oscars
  28. ^ "Film in 1975". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved June 11, 2017.
  29. ^ "DGA Awards History". Directors Guild of America. Retrieved June 11, 2017.
  30. ^ "Conversation, The". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Retrieved June 11, 2017.
  31. ^ "1974 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved June 11, 2017.
  32. ^ "Past Awards". National Society of Film Critics. December 19, 2009. Retrieved June 11, 2017.
  33. ^ Pramaggiore & Wallis 2005, p. 283.
  34. ^ Schneider, Michael (August 6, 2008). "AMC, Krantz talking 'Conversation'". Variety. Archived from the original on November 23, 2015.