review for The Conversation on AllMovie

The Conversation (1974)
by Mark Deming review

Though it was commercially lost in the shuffle between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, The Conversation ranks among the finest films of Francis Ford Coppola's career. Drawn on a more intimate canvas than the Godfather epics or Apocalypse Now, it's a compelling and expertly constructed chamber piece about the nature of privacy and the troubling gray area between facts and truth; it was also remarkably prescient, coming out just as the Watergate scandal was making surveillance a major issue in the American consciousness. Gene Hackman delivers a typically expert performance as Harry Caul, who makes his living finding out what others are doing. As a consequence, Caul has become an obsessively private man haunted by guilt and incapable of trusting anyone, and Hackman and Coppola mold him into an indelible character whose moral and professional sides are at constant war. Coppola also used his soundtrack with uncommon intelligence; in a decade in which the attention paid to film sound would increase by leaps and bounds, The Conversation was a breakthrough in using its soundtrack not just to convey dialogue and music but to deepen the story, as well as providing the ultimate screen example of the adage, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." The Conversation is a subtle film that best reveals its details through repeat viewings, though even on a first viewing it's a brilliant cautionary tale whose message has become all the more potent with the passage of time and the further rise of technology.