Nobody ever said that Francis Ford Coppola made ugly movies, and The Conversation is gorgeously lit, shot, and edited throughout. I found it rather a spellbinder largely because of its calculated good looks but also because of Gene Hackman's performance of a surveillance engineer, Harry Caul, with a streak of Catholic guilt that gets a jolt when he thinks his latest job might just lead to a murder. The acting of John Cazale as Harry's right hand man and Allen Garfield as his professional would-be peer is also exceptional, and between them and Hackman, the movie grabs and holds interest, even without any really chewy woman's role in it. Music and sound effects are pretty fine, too; thank you, again, soundtrack whiz Walter Murch, and you, too, composer David Shire. A couple of bad decisions about what to show greatly weaken, however, the surprise ending; the up-in-the-air finale might have been more disturbing if the plot secret were left not as seemingly certainly ascertained. Kudos, as well, to Dean Tavoularis's striking production design (just what was Harry's "shop" supposed to have been?). All that said, the incredible melodramatic plot engine prevents most of anything humanly or philosophically interesting in the material from really registering. One of the greatest fault of post-'60s American movies is a constantly burgeoning improbability, making most of them seem so much contrived piffle. Unfortunately, The Conversation has quite the aroma of contrivance about it. --Ray Olson

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