You’re a man who is defined by his job; it’s where your slight confidence and self-worth stems from. It has its roots in your identity, satisfying the nature of your being that is curiosity. But you exercise it at the expense of going against the values you hold dear—hence the accumulation of guilt in your psyche, the burden of which is too strong to get rid of. Is pursuing curiosity worth sacrificing your values?
That is the primary conflict of our protagonist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in Francis Coppola’s The Conversation. He works in the surveillance business and only cares about a “nice fat recording.” The opening sequence slowly indulges us in his craft. With the help of his crew, he tries to record the conversation of a pair who appear to be having an affair. The movie withholds the details of this successful mission and only gives us enough information to be engaged.
He lives alone in an apartment and finds solace in playing the saxophone. Being secretive about his life and work methods, he doesn’t like to be asked personal and professional questions. This leads to conflicts with his girlfriend, Amy (Teri Garr), and his assistant, Stan (John Cazale). When he visits Amy, we see how little she knows about him and her attempts to glean information are confronted by elusive behavior. To top it off, she reveals how paranoid he is. For instance, once she saw him lurking outside for an hour to see if she’s cheating or his predatory way of opening the door. “Where do you work Harry?” she asks. He responds, “Different places, different jobs. You see I’m kind of a musician.” Why does he say “musician”? He could have mentioned any other job, which makes me think it’s not merely a lie. It might tell us his dream was to be a musician and be identified as one. He is a Christian, and in a church scene we see him regretful of his past. Again, the film only gives us enough information to tickle our curiosity.
Harry goes to the corporation to deliver the tapes and pictures contained in a blue folder to the director. It turns out the director is not there, and Harry refuses to give it to his assistant, ending up with a threat that nudges his curiosity. So he tries to explore the findings to see if he can decipher what is it all about. He starts with the tape, listening to the conversation of the pair. He keeps playing and rewinding the tape, the camera keeps cutting to the conversation, recording device and a mid-close-up of Harry’s face. His facial expression is akin to mine as I am also trying to find a clue from this, apparently, ordinary conversation. Nothing seems to indicate to anything worthwhile until the record reaches an unrecognizable beat. This is where we get frustrated as it looks like a vital piece of the conversation. Finally, he manages to hear what they say by pulling off a trick. “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” The camera captures a close-up of Harry’s face to show the importance of this revelation. As we get closer to the revelation, shots are cut faster to convey the urgency. And finally, once it hits, we get a shot of Harry’s face that lingers for a few seconds, inducing the emotional state; impeccable performance and editing.
Harry is a pre-eminent figure in his field, and we see this emphasized in the surveillance convention scene, where everyone wants to interact with him. Among his admirers, there is an ambitious and insecure guy named Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) who pesters him in an attempt to prove his capability. Harry invites Stan, Moran and a crowd to his office located in a warehouse. Moran happens to know about Harry’s past and reveals how his genius in bugging a bug-proof boat led to a horrifying incident involving the death of a family. So now we know why he is tormented by his past. Harry tries to justify the whole story by saying he is not responsible for the repercussions of a mission. But the subtext says otherwise; looking shameful and gnawed, we could clearly see how he was running away from the daunting truth by distancing himself from Moran. Now Moran has the upper hand.
This perfectly composed and edited sequence continues as Stan responds to Moran’s longing to prove himself. Stan fills him in on Harry’s latest mission, asking him to figure out the method. Anxious and tenacious, Moran keeps throwing ideas only to be rejected by facts, until Harry, who was dismayed by the earlier revelation, interjects proudly to explain it all. Now he is at the helm and what is more satisfying than witnessing the defeat of an arrogant moron? Excellent! But not so fast, this brief moment of joy turns into a lasting humiliation when Moran plays a tape of an intimate conversation between Harry and a hooker in an earlier scene. Turns out the pen he gave to Harry in the convention had a recording device built in. Not so moron, right? This sequence is not only a manifestation of exposition done well—it answers our questions about the mission and Harry’s past through a few dramatized scenes—but also a classic example of how to create tension by power dynamics.
Embarrassed and chagrined, Harry couldn’t handle the pressure and made them leave. Now he is alone with the hooker, who was trying to seduce him all night, and it worked. Him laying on the bed is juxtaposed with the conversation playing in the background, which might imply Harry’s own past.
Harry wakes up to another predicament; the tapes are stolen by the hooker. He immediately calls the corporation and turns out they had orchestrated the robbery because they were afraid of him destroying the tapes. Having delivered the rest of the documents, he’s faced with another conflict: to let go or keep pursuing the story. He goes with the latter by locating the hotel and renting a room adjacent to room 773; where the supposed murder is going to happen.
He manages to find a spot in the room for eavesdropping. His equipment is in a blue suitcase, from which he picks up a driller and makes a hole. He listens to the conversation, and then the tape is played. As the tape keeps playing the camera zooms in on Harry, tension accumulates as guilt assails his mind. Murder is about to occur. Too weak to interfere, Harry is overwrought and does nothing but crawling into a blanket, trying to hide away from another devastating guilt. The dust has settled; he sneaks into the room to see what happened. Searching for traces of blood leads to nowhere. Scene stretches and curiosity lingers, finally, he opens up the toilet. Blood soars and overflows as loud terrifying music crescendos and blasts our ears, maximizing the effect of the scene. Throughout the movie, soundtracks—composed by David Shire—are mostly comprised of soft melodies with mysterious undertones that we get accustomed to. So the economic use of different tracks in specific scenes like this magnifies the effect.
Now we, just like Harry, are under the impression the director has caught the cheating pair and murdered them. So Harry, traumatized and angry, goes to the corporation to confront the director, but the guards stop him. Outside, he sees the wife alive in a blue car. This doesn’t align with our perception of the story. Then Harry reads in the newspaper that the director has been killed in a car accident. So it was the other way around, the pair plotting the murder of the director with his assistant on board. Surrounded by reporters, the pair and the assistant rush out of the corporation. Harry catches their attention, their eyes glitter with surprise and apprehension. Nothing is being spoken and the eyes tell us all we have to know.
The main plot is wrapped up. Harry is sitting there in peace playing his saxophone. Then the assistant calls to threaten him. Concerned about being bugged, he diligently embarks on a destructive journey to find the bug. He tears down his place but to no avail. While doing so, he—a guy who gets irritated by “Jesus Christ” being said in vain—is confronted with a dilemma. He can either break the Virgin Mary statue or remain faithful to his values. He goes with the former, showing that he still prefers to go against his principles and is only driven by curiosity. The film ends with Harry sitting in the ruins playing saxophone; his only peaceful moment.
Watching The Conversation reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s endearing Rear Window. Throughout both movies, I was in the mind of our protagonist beat by beat, scene by scene, scrutinizing every move to solve the current conflict and predict the next. The Conversation is not as well-known as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy or Apocalypse Now, but it rivals them in allure.