The Conversation

The Conversation Study Guide

The Conversation is one of Francis Ford Coppola's lesser known films, but it is also considered one of his best. Released in 1974, during the middle of the Watergate scandal, its artful depiction of paranoia and fear in the face of improved surveillance techniques struck a chord with audiences. Influenced by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, Coppola sought to make a film that addressed both the issue of audio surveillance and the discrepancy between perception and reality. What resulted was an eerie and atmospheric American art film. While audiences at the time noted the film's parallels with the highly topical issue of the Watergate scandal, Coppola has said that the parallels are largely coincidental.

The film starred Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, an antisocial, paranoid, and hard-working surveillance expert who is haunted by the murder that his surveillance work caused years earlier. A devout Catholic, Harry seeks to have an ethical relation to his work in surveillance, in spite of now finding himself embroiled in a complicated corporate infidelity scandal with lives at stake yet again. While his companions urge him to just do his job and not get too personally involved, Harry cannot help but wrap himself up in the scandal, to tragic results.

The film was widely praised at the time of its release. Its domestic gross was over $4,000,000, it was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound), and it won the most prestigious award at Cannes, the Grand Prix. While it is still less well-known known than some of Coppola's other films, such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, it endures as one of his smartest and most artful films, an unusual meditation on the nature of fear, guilt, and perception.