The conversation (1974)

 “The Conversation” comes from another time and place than today’s thrillers, which are so often simple-minded. This movie is a sadly observant character study, about a man who has removed himself from life, thinks he can observe it dispassionately at an electronic remove, and finds that all of his barriers are worthless.

His colleagues in the surveillance industry think Harry Caul is such a genius that we realize with a little shock how bad he is at his job. Here is a man who is paid to eavesdrop on a conversation in a public place. He succeeds, but then allows the tapes to be stolen. His triple-locked apartment is so insecure that the landlord is able to enter it and leave a birthday present. His mail is opened and read. He thinks his phone is unlisted, but both the landlord and a client have it. At a trade show, he allows his chief competitor to fool him with a mike hidden in a freebie ballpoint. His mistress tells him: “Once I saw you up by the staircase, hiding and watching for a whole hour.”

If he’s not responsible, why is he sorry? Harry, played by Gene Hackman in one of the key performances of a great career, tries to distance himself from his work. But even Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), the hooker he brings home from a convention, can see how worried he is. “Forget it, Harry. It’s only a trick--a job. You’re not supposed to think anything about it. Just supposed to do it.” She’s talking for herself as well. When he wakes, it’s to discover that she has taken her own advice and stolen the tapes.

From his troubled childhood, Harry has grown up into a lonely man. He lives alone, has no entertainment except playing his saxophone with jazz records (again trying to make a recording more complete). No woman has any influence over him, that’s for sure, or he wouldn’t be seen in that crappy plastic raincoat, the kind that folds up into a travel pouch. His Catholicism is rooted not in faith and hope, but in shame. Searching his apartment for a hidden bug, he rips everything apart, but hesitates at a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Coppola, who wrote and directed, considers this film his most personal project. He was working two years after the Watergate break-in, amid the ruins of the Vietnam effort, telling the story of a man who places too much reliance on high technology and has nightmares about his personal responsibility. Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work.

Harry has been hired by the director of a large corporation (Robert Duvall), although at first he deals only with the man’s assistant (Harrison Ford). It becomes clear that Ann, the young woman, is the director’s wife, and Mark, the young man, is her lover. But what will happen next? “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” says Mark. Will he? Harry plays the tapes back and forth, juggling a bank of three tape recorders, in a scene.

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