Francis Ford Coppola is usually mentioned in the same breath as his epics The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), and this belies the fact he has worked in a wide variety of styles. Even so, the director reportedly feels 1974’s The Conversation, a small-scale European-style thriller, is his most personal movie.

Starring Gene Hackman as private surveillance expert Harry Caul, the film succeeds as a clever mystery movie and a tragic character study. Released at the height of the Watergate scandal (although Coppola says he had finished the script long before), and shortly before President Richard Nixon resigned, The Conversation draws on the paranoia and distrust that characterised the zeitgeist of America in the 1970s.

When Harry is paid by a corporate boss to record the conversations of his wife and her lover, he becomes worried that violence may occur as a result of his tapes. Although Harry feels he’s not responsible for what happens after he’s handed over the tapes, a horrific event in his past leads him to involve himself in the situation. Suddenly, the watcher becomes the watched.

Coppola puts the film’s sound design at the forefront of the creative process. Much of the action is conveyed via a multitude of intriguing tape recordings that have been skillfully manipulated by sound editor Walter Murch to form a sonic accompaniment to the visuals. Coppola uses similar sounding material to express the confusion and frustration Harry experiences, and even makes him an amateur saxophonist, to keep the viewers’ focus on sound.

In the early 70s, Hackman was best known for his wild, frantic portrayal of detective Popeye Doyle in 1971’s The French Connection. So it was a shock for audiences to see him playing a fragile, nervous, awkward man who was incapable of committing himself to any kind of action. Hackman’s rendition of a paranoid man who finds it impossible to engage in life – he keeps such a distance from the woman he loves, she doesn’t realise he loves her – ranks as his most deeply wrought performance.

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Like many young American filmmakers of the era, Coppola was a fan of European art-house films. He’s said that Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up , which features David Hemmings as a photographer trying to solve a mystery he discovers in one of his photographs, was the inspiration for the film. Coppola’s achievement with The Conversation is to combine the lucid, detached feel of a European film with the tight, effective script that characterises an American thriller.

The Conversation will be screened on November 27 at The Grand Cinema, in West Kowloon, as part of the Cine Fan programme.