The Conversation

Released:  1974

Cast:  Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Sound (Walter Murch, Art Rochester)

SUMMARY:  Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert in San Francisco; as the film opens, he and several associates work together to record the conversation of a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk around Union Square.  Harry does not pay much attention to the actual dialogue of the conversation, as this is not his concern:  he focuses only on getting the best recording possible for his client.  At the end of the day, Harry returns home to his sparse apartment to find that his landlady has somehow gotten inside and left him a birthday card.  Rather than be pleased, Harry is concerned, and immediately calls his landlady to find out how she got inside.  It becomes evident that Harry is somewhat paranoid:  he has multiple locks on his apartment door, does not give out his home phone number to anybody (he actually claims to not have a telephone), and uses payphones for business calls.  His office occupies an entire floor of a warehouse, but everything is kept inside a small metal cage that only takes up one corner of the floor.  The next day, Harry edits the tapes and combines them into one cohesive conversation, editing for sound clarity as he goes.  He then calls for an appointment to hand over the tapes, and gets one, but is told that the boss is out of town.  At the appointment, Harry deals with the secretary/assistant (Harrison Ford), whose behavior makes Harry suspicious.  Harry tests him by snatching back the tape, and the man desperately tries to keep it for himself.  Harry declares that he will wait until the boss returns, then takes the tape back to his office and really begins listening to it.

As he listens to the tape and clarifies it even further, Harry starts to believe that one or both of the people is in danger of being murdered, possibly as the result of an affair they’re having.  Though he does not normally get involved in his cases, this one is different:  once before, Harry had done some surveillance work that helped bust a secret corporation.  The people in the corporation thought that someone inside had betrayed them, and three people were killed as a result.  This incident has haunted Harry, even causing him to move from New York to San Francisco; he is determined not to let the same kind of thing happen again.  He begins a subtle investigation of his own, but the client’s secretary is becoming increasingly anxious about getting the tape.  Harry begins to suspect that somebody is following him.  After a surveillance convention, Harry and a few friends return to his office for a party, and Harry ends up spending the night there with a woman.  When he wakes up, the woman is gone — and so is the tape.  When Harry gets home, he is called several times on his personal phone, which nobody has the number to.  In one of the calls, the secretary informs him that they have the tape, and that he can come by the office to get paid.  When Harry goes to the office, he learns that the boss has returned, and is listening to the tape.  In the boss’s office are numerous photos of the boss and the woman in the tape, and the boss’s angry behavior leads Harry to demand what he intends to do to them.  When he doesn’t get an answer, Harry visits the rendezvous point mentioned on the tape, a specific hotel room.  He gets the room next door and tries to listen in, but is unable to tell what is happening.  He eventually breaks in to the other room, and finds a bloody rag clogging the toilet.  Harry tries to return to the client’s office, but is thrown out.  Outside, he is stunned to see the woman from the tape in a car; when he follows her, he learns that somebody has been murdered — the boss.  When he returns home, Harry is again called on his private phone.  The secretary tells him that they know what he has figured out (the crime and the perpetrators), and that he should be careful, as they are listening.  The secretary then plays a recording of what Harry has just been doing.  After hanging up, Harry goes on the hunt for the bug in his apartment.  He is unable to find it in the obvious places, so he begins peeling off wallpaper and tearing up floorboards.  Eventually, he wrecks his entire apartment without finding the bug.

MY TAKE:  The first time I saw this movie, I thought it was colossally boring.  My opinion improved somewhat this time, but it’s definitely a psychological thriller, rather than an action thriller.  There’s very little action at all, and no fighting or chasing.  All of the intrigue comes in the form of dialogue and strange coincidences, like when Harry sees both of the people from the tape in the boss’s office building, or when he sees the woman in all the boss’s photos.  I found it interesting that even though Harry doesn’t really talk about his suspicions, the audience is able to figure things out:  he thinks that the boss is going to have one or both of the couple killed.  If I were as paranoid as Harry, I would probably steer clear of surveillance altogether, as it would only encourage that paranoia, but I would definitely not get personally involved in the cases or recordings.  My poor brain would probably start seeing suspicious things in the most mundane conversations.  In this case, Harry turns out to be partially right:  he does learn about an imminent murder.  However, he gets the victim wrong, which is the big twist:  it’s the boss who is killed, not the couple from the tape.  They actually did the killing, apparently with the help of the secretary.  This is made even more shocking by the people involved:  Harrison Ford plays the secretary, and Cindy Williams (Shirley of Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days fame) plays the woman on the tape.  I don’t think anybody thinks of either of them as a murderer or criminal.  I’m not positive, but it may be the only time Harrison Ford has played the villain (or at least a very suspicious character).  Of course, these people don’t like Harry poking his nose in their business, so they come after him.  I wasn’t really sure how Harry, in all his paranoia, continued to live in his apartment after the first few phone calls, and after the tape was stolen:  at that point, I would have moved into a whole new, neutral location.  It seems really out of character.  For whatever reason, he stays, and ends up with a bug in his apartment, which he literally tears apart trying to find the bug.  He’s supposed to be an expert, so wherever that bug was hidden, it was clever.  Personally, I’m betting on the phone device that was shown at the surveillance convention, the one that Harry called junk.  Just for the irony.  Harry doesn’t find the bug, and is apparently able to call it quits, because he ends up playing his saxophone in the wreckage (by the way, that reed was horrible).  All I could think was that there was no way he was getting his deposit back.

RATING:  Intriguing.


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