The Conversation (1974) and the art of betrayal

A stylish but old-fashioned blue telephone with a dial.

An analysis of Francis Ford Coppola’s cult psychological thriller The Conversation.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a freelance wiretapper: he bugs phones and eavesdrops on conversations for a living. He’s being paid to follow the wife of a man known only as The Director, but ends up obsessing over her instead.

After hearing the woman and her lover say they fear for their lives, Harry faces a moral quandary.

Does he hand over the recordings – even if it means the couple could be killed – or does he destroy the evidence? With everyone listening in and no one to trust, it’s no easy choice.

The Conversation (1974) is a cult psychological thriller that mixes old-fashioned noir with modern fears of technology. The cinematography, lighting and soundtrack are especially memorable, and – together with the sense of urban isolation – reminiscent of the mood of an Edward Hopper painting.

The film deals with questions of morality and self-deception, and remains surprisingly relevant to the ‘surveillance society’ we’ve inherited since the 1970s (see Phantom Parrot).

More than anything, however, this is a tense, clever story about a heist of sorts – but one in which it’s impossible to know the other players.

The big theme: who’s listening to whom?

“He’d kill us if he had the chance”

The conversation at the heart of the film takes place between Ann and Mark in a bustling city park. What they don’t know is that Harry’s surveillance team is recording their chat.

The couple go to great lengths to mask their conversation. Despite this, it’s clear they fear Ann’s husband – The Director – may try to kill them.

It takes all of Harry’s technical expertise to make these recordings usable. Doing so means having to listen to the the conversation over and over again … a repetition that either triggers or encourages his obsession and eventual psychosis.

Despite hearing being critical to his job, Harry is remarkably bad at listening. Girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr) says he doesn’t even listen to her when they talk on the phone.

She’s right. Throughout the film, Harry is constantly distracted. He can’t concentrate while talking to those around him, and constantly looks to the side (as though searching for someone else).

Not only this, but Harry doesn’t want others to hear him, either. His job has made him paranoid about being spied on – even as he does it to countless others. Privacy is so important to him that he’s evasive and closed to the world.

He resents any line of questioning, losing his cool each time someone tries it on him. Each instance is actually a forerunner to his final breakdown.

Convinced his home is bugged, the film ends with Harry methodically dismantling his life, apartment and even his religious beliefs.

Listening but mishearing

Hackman’s character in Enemy of the State (1998) is reminiscent of – and could almost be homage to – surveillance expert Harry Caul.

If listening is a main theme in The Conversation, the flip side is mishearing. This sets the film up quite nicely as a kind of tragedy.

One of Harry’s previous jobs led to the murder of three people; his guilt and denial about this have wrecked his mental state.

His terror about causing another death this drives his twin obsessions with the recording and The Director’s wife. At the same time, he goes to confession (he’s a devout Catholic) and tells his priest that none of this is his fault.

He’s trying to be clean, yet works in a ‘dirty’ industry – and either can’t or won’t accept it. In the end, though, it’s an impossible position.

It may be self-deception that later causes him to completely misinterpret what he hears on his recording. Rather than fearing for their lives, Ann and Mark are plotting to kill The Director. Harry overhears their heist plot but gets the wrong end of the stick.

In the end, Harry helps bring about the very thing he wanted to avoid: loss of innocent life.

Confession in The Conversation

Harry Caul can’t bear to be known. When girlfriend Amy asks about his personal life, he walks out on her. And when his friends spy on him for a joke, he throws them out.

Harry even confesses to another woman that he loves Amy but can’t bring himself to show it, ultimately leaving him alone in the world.

Despite this reticence, Harry Caul wants to confess. He does this literally when he visits his priest. Later, in a dream, he tries to reveal himself to Ann – spilling out details about his childhood illness and his private feelings.

The final confession – or revelation, if you like – comes when he destroys his apartment at the end of the film. This is a literal revealing of hidden things … and yet there’s nothing to see.

The thought of being spied on is so disturbing that he dismantles his home. The irony (or tragedy) is that there’s nothing for anyone to listen to. Harry never talks meaningfully to anyone and never reveals anything private. The only thing he seems to do freely is play the sax.

The double cross

There are so many double-crosses in The Conversation that it’s hard to keep up. Here are just some of the betrayals the film serves up:

  • There are the acts of surveillance that flow through the entire film.
  • Ann is literally betraying her husband, both through the supposed affair and his eventual murder.
  • At the wire-tappers convention, one salesman claims surveillance guy Bernie Moran ripped off his voice recording device.
  • Bernie Moran betrays Harry by secretly recording him confessing his feelings to Meredith.
  • And Meredith is a spy intent on stealing the recordings before Harry can destroy them.

The biggest betrayal is the one Harry inadvertently plays on himself.

Ann, Mark and Director’s assistant Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) commission Harry to record a very specific conversation. The recording is a trap to lure The Director to the hotel room at the appointed day and time. This is why Harry can’t be allowed to destroy the tapes. Without them, the murder plot falls apart.

Harry thinks he’s listening in on private conversations. But if anything, the conversations are staged, and Harry is the one being watched and manipulated.

The ambiguous ending

Harry struggles with guilt – so much so that it causes a breakdown. He has unsettling dreams, visions, and auditory hallucinations, and this ultimately makes his POV somewhat unreliable.

When he finally gets into the hotel room, it’s spotless. Whatever happened in there – if anything – has been cleaned up. The shower is clean (he runs his fingers around the plughole as if to check). The toilet even has a sanitary seal around the lid.

Then he has a vision of the toilet bowl overflowing with blood. Harry races to The Director’s office, and demands to speak to the man himself, but is too late: he’s dead.

Harry now has a flash of understanding, piecing together what really happened (or what might have happened) in room 773.

Given Harry doesn’t seem to know The Director is dead, this may be yet another hallucination – a way of reflecting Harry’s sense of guilt – rather than an actual memory.

One thing is for sure, however: whether he was in the room or not, Harry’s recordings play a crucial role in the murder. The tapes are as much the murder weapon as the knife is.

The road to ruin

“5,000 bucks for a day’s work. Not bad for a day’s work, is it, Mr Caul?”

An old superstition says that babies born with a caul have the gift of second sight (compare Danny Torrence in The Shining).

Hokum or not, Harry Caul doesn’t have second sight – he can’t even see things that are right in front of him.

Contrast this with the secret collective who are able to predict that Harry might try to destroy the tapes, and that he’ll eventually work out the truth about The Director. Both times, they’re able to take preemptive action.

In The Lives of Others, a police officer becomes obsessed with the couple he’s spying on. But while Gerd Wiesler in that film comes to a discover a truer version of reality (and humanity), Harry runs in the opposite direction.

This is what makes The Conversation a tragedy, and Harry a tragic character.

Harry is paid to listen, but can’t hear what he’s being told. He’s scared of revealing himself – refusing to answer questions or even admit to owning a phone – yet has very little to say about himself. And his employers, it turns out, already know his phone number.

When Harry finally does reveal himself (by dismantling his apartment), there’s no one there to witness it, and nothing to see: he’s a hollow man.

Harry is the best in surveillance but he can’t find the final bug. He tries to stop a murder, only to play a key role in the plot.

He’s a devout Catholic, but ends by breaking open a statue of the Virgin Mary … and it’s empty and hollow inside. Out of nowhere – or perhaps as a judgement for past sins – Harry Caul has been brought to the bottom.

The Conversation (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Film connections
  • The Godfather, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Coppola)
  • The Lives of Others (eavesdropping, surveillance)
  • Enemy of the State (Gene Hackman, surveillance)
  • The French Connection (Gene Hackman, 70s, crime)
  • The Departed (paranoia)

Picture credit: Hello I’m Nik