In many ways, The Conversation is Francis Ford Coppola's most personal and meditative film. In contrast to his other, more well-known films, such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, which are panoramic, even epic tales invoking grand themes, The Conversation zooms in on one man's paranoid existence in a career in the shadows. In an article praising the film in The Guardian, Catherine Shoard writes, "It has little of those movies’ [The Godfather series'] magnificent macho strut, nor the epic mania of Apocalypse Now, for which he won his second Palme d’Or, five years later. The canvas is micro, the edits are tight, the instinct to erase, not to sprawl." Indeed, The Conversation feels almost claustrophobic, as we spend the entire two hours of the film following the small conversation shared by Ann and Mark in Union Square. That one, seemingly insignificant conversation, however, has major consequences.
Coppola himself considered it a unique project for him. In conversation with director Brian De Palma in 1974, Coppola says of the film, "I have to say that this project began differently from other things I've done, because instead of starting to write it out of an emotional thing—the emotional identity of the people I knew—I started it as a sort of a puzzle, which I've never done before and which I don't think I'll ever do again." Coppola knew that this film was unique, as even the way he devised it was counter to his usual ways of working.
Coppola cited Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup as his chief influence in making The Conversation and sought to mix Antonioni's themes of perception and vision with the world of audio surveillance. While Coppola acknowledged that his film departed greatly from Antonioni's Blowup—an Italian movie about a fashion photographer accidentally catching a murder on film—he is quoted as stating to De Palma in that same interview, "I'm very open about its [Blowup's] relevance to The Conversation because I think the two films are actually very different. What's similar about them is obviously similar, and that's where it ends. But it was my admiration for the moods and the way those things happened in that film which made me say, 'I want to do something like that.'" Blowup was a tonal inspiration, but The Conversation crafts a cinematic and aesthetic world all its own, inventively utilizing photography, editing, and sound to tell the fragmented, suspenseful story of Harry Caul.
While the film received ambivalent responses from critics at the time of its release, Coppola's direction was well-respected, and the film has gone on to be celebrated by critics retrospectively. Ironically enough, while many critics latched on to the film's relevant parallels with the Watergate scandal, Coppola stated that any such parallels were completely coincidental.