Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is one of those films that, at first, appears to be deceptively simple. Slow, even. What emerges, however, is an incredibly nuanced portrait of a man, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), racked by guilt and conscience over the latest entry in his career as a professional surveillance man.
Coppola takes his time in revealing the character of a man who does not wish to be known, or for that matter, understood. Harry’s assignment is to tape record the conversation of a young man and woman, Paul (Michael Higgins) and Ann (Cindy Williams), who are apparently engaging in an affair. They circle a public park, trying very desperately to appear nonchalant, calm, natural. What Harry hears, however, is a startling indication of imminent danger: “He would kill us if he had the chance.” Harry is clearly shaken by this revelation, but maintains the utmost secrecy regarding his clients. He won’t even share details with his partner, beyond the technicalities of the surveillance setup. Harry comes to the realization that, ethically, he can’t hand over the tapes. The risk of murder is too real, and he is haunted by the deaths resulting from an operation he undertook some years before. He steels himself for a confrontation with his client (Ann’s husband), the mysterious “Director” (Robert Duvall), but ends up dealing with his henchman, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford in an early, uncharacteristically villainous role).