Bleak and mysterious, Francis Ford Coppola's taut masterpiece about responsibility, privacy, alienation, and paranoia is part Hitchcockian thriller, part grim character study. Hackman plays Harry Caul, a guarded wreck of a human being whose profession as the world's greatest surveillance expert has detached him from everyday reality. Though a topnotch voyeur, amorally earning his living by bugging other people's conversations and selling the tapes to clients, Caul keeps his own life fiercely private. He has no friends, just associates in the wiretapping business, all of whom he distrusts; his love life consists of apathetic sex with what could be any woman; his apartment contains three locks but few possessions. His indifference to life extends to his attitude about his job: though he's a wiretapping genius, he accepts no responsibility for what harm his work might produce--it's merely work... until now.
While on his latest assignment, Caul breaks his own code and becomes immersed in the latest conversation he's taped. While piecing together fragments of a lunchtime conversation (Coppola dazzles us with his repeated fetish for technology here), something stirs Caul and he begins projecting his own misery onto the discussion. He finally discerns that some evil plot may occur because of his work and is forced into the moral dilemma of whether to turn in the tapes.
Ultimately, Coppola's cynical, complex script doesn't just condemn Caul for his foolish discovery of his own conscience; it shatters him into a million pieces, during an unforgettable final image. Allusions to Watergate are impossible to ignore, and the movie is still one of the most devastating, important films in '70s American cinema. --Dave McCoy