Conversation Pieces

The other night I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 psychological thriller “The Conversation” for the first time, I realized, in at least fifteen years. In the intervening decade and a half it had always stayed in my mind as one of the most delicately effective, nearly pitch-perfect movies I’d ever seen; Coppola had just come off of making the first “Godfather” and would go on to direct its even more ambitious sequel right afterwards, so “The Conversation” fell right into that sweet spot in his career where he truly was, as his sister Talia Shire put it, “The best director in the world, period.” There’s not a beat in this movie that doesn’t seem perfectly timed, that’s executed with anything less than tremendous care and wisdom and, more than anything else, that’s emotionally accurate. It’s a bull’s eye of a film if there ever was one.

Talking Pictures

Still, a decade and a half later, I’d forgotten how visually stunning the film was, too. Cinematographer Bill Butler really delivered the goods in telling this story, and provides no shortage of breathtaking shots. Here are just two.

To me, they’re wonderfully composed if conventionally beautiful images. They play expertly if unsurprisingly with perspective, light and reflectivity. While they made me sit up and take notice, the kind of shots that really had me swooning were of the sort shown here, one of the first looks inside the home of protagonist Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman.

Not only is this subtle, restrained framing absolutely in line with Caul’s character as an emotionally withdrawn and unassuming bystander in life, it also happens to neatly and conveniently fit into my own preferences for very square, almost abstractly perpendicular composition; I could frame this image, hang it on my wall and stare at it for hours.

Here’s a similar shot, with Hackman meeting his client’s surrogate, a small but important role played by a young Harrison Ford, for the first time. The two figures are willfully ignoring one another as conflicted people so often do before an inevitable altercation, and Butler has framed them ingeniously in a stark but unspoken opposition that communicates loads about how their relationship will evolve.

Perhaps its unfair to give too much credit for the aesthetic home run that is “The Conversation” to Butler. After all, he was working not only with Coppola, but also with legendary production designer Dean Tavoularis. The latter no doubt was responsible for the gorgeous, intricate and yet still barren cave that is Caul’s workplace, hidden away in a half-abandoned warehouse loft in San Francisco.

Harry Caul chose a lonely and isolated life for himself, to be sure, but the movie makes no bones about the sense of odd comfort that he finds in his den. These scenes are gorgeous with the sensibility of work, of single-minded concentration, a real sense of purpose, and the sort of indescribable ease that craftsmen assume in proximity to their tools and workspace.

One of the most impressive feats that Butler pulls off is an evolution in how he captures these characters over the course of the movie that matches its dispiriting narrative arc. Early on, he offers this portrait of Caul alone in his apartment, unhappy but untroubled in a neatly composed profile of middle-aged ennui. Again, the framing is geometric, objective, dispassionate.

By the end of the film, Caul is more than just detached, he’s broken, and the camera is now skewed, disorderly, and at a more subjective, disoriented angle. Caul’s portrait is now no longer detached; it’s tragic, somewhat insane, even harrowing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as alone in the world as I do when watching this movie to its ending.

Re-reading this selective visual tour of the movie, I’m afraid I’m doing it a disservice: it’s not actually the emotional buzzkill that I make it out to be. Well, actually, it kind of is. Still, if you haven’t seen it, it’s not to be missed.


  1. Definitely among my all-time favorite films. I’ve seen it three or four times, and I’m eager to watch it with my kids. And how can you beat the combination of Cazale and Hackman?

  2. It’s a film that I love, and one that I can watch over and over, and these are gorgeous stills.

    What I keep returning to, though, is the soundtrack, which does more to establish tone and mood than in most films, despite its restraint. (Music by David Shire; sound editing by Howard Beals, I think.)

    The opening in Union Square is extraordinary – the tone comes from the flood of environmental noise and the missing audio information. It actually makes sense without the visuals. Images in this movie tend to make sense. It’s the soundtrack that adds uncertainty. The whole movie is marked by a layering of sound sources, incidental music, Foley sounds, and traffic noise and electronic fuzz.

    I’m actually reminded of the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a less ambitious film. Partly the music is also by David Shire. Also because the roar of subway trains and similar color handling.

  3. Fantastic film! You can always count on Gene Hackman for being part of a good flick. If you haven’t seen “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, I say check it out.

  4. Amazing rightup! Vinh & Ebert?

    Thanks for highlighting the cinematography. It’s usually how I rate my films by. I need to watch this among many other greats.

  5. A film about listening in, and you didn’t mention Walter Murch! Actually, I typically forget about some of the other greats you’ve mentioned while talking about how great Murch is. He did the editing and sound editing, two of the places where I feel the movie really excels.

  6. Fantastic movie. Interesting note: “caul” is a synonym for the amniotic sac — something you’ve probably heard about recently. Kind of a cool little reference with respect to the character, his workspace, and his apartment.

    IMDB says that the name “Caul” was originally a typo from “Call” but it seems so appropriate … you never know, I guess.

    Wikipedia link

  7. FFC was on a roll. This was a quieter film (literally) than what came before and after but definitely one of the best of his career.
    Did he win the oscar for screenplay on this one?

  8. Great post, Khoi. Coppola himself comments about choosing the “security camera” perspective in the last scene on the dvd commentary. I wonder what your thoughts are on Tony Scott’s un/authorized sequel and homage to the Harry Caul character in Enemy of the State?

    Also, @David Ramos: another reason to love this film is its Jazz soundtrack and score. I can hardly think of two non-jazz-themed films that use Jazz-based soundtracks.

  9. I like Coppola movies a lot. Especially Apocalypse Now!. I think this is the finest war movie in cinematographic history. The story is filled with philosophical questions and some answers about bad human condition. It was the first negative look widely spread across America, about America’s invasion in Vietnam. I must say that this movie changed my life – the darkness that sweeps from the screen is almost touching you with its sticky and cold fingers. That is something that I haven’t seen in a theater since years. This movie is just masterful.

  10. So I finally watched the movie after having seen the title sequence over at and now your article. I’m feeling completely stressed out. This film conveys paranoia and doubt in a way only few films have done, and it works very, very well. Cinematography, editing, sound, score and the sparse dialogue, everything adds up. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

  11. ctrl+f “Blowup”: no results.

    It’s a great film, but it’s hard not to think about it without acknowledging its debt to Antonioni.

  12. “It’s a great film, but it’s hard not to think about it without acknowledging its debt to Antonioni.”

    Great observation! i once watched “blowup” immediately followed by “the conversation”: one = the other. but one from a european perspective and the other a american experience. the two films have a different gestalt. but same theme

  13. I just happened to catch this film on TCM last evening and was surprised and happy to find your comments on it via Googleland. I loved the image of Harry Caul in the phone booth as well.

  14. The exquisite timing is a product of the editor Walter Murch, not the director IMO. Murch is the class of this unheralded field. Read _In the Blink of an Eye_ for insights into Murch’s methodology and insights.

  15. Agreed. This was tin-foil-hat material before the phrase even existed. The ultimate conspiracy theory movie. But you failed to give credit to Hackman who, I think, did one of the best performances of his career. It’s about three years since I’ve seen it, must dig it out from the library.

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