Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is an expert in his trade. We learn throughout the film how good he is and how well regarded he is by his peers. When he goes to the trade shows he doesn’t need to fall for the patter of the sales guys - he makes all his own equipment, perfectly tuned to his needs.
Like many of the great films of the 70’s, The Conversation requires a little patience. It’s a tad slow in the first half but it’s not for nothing. The slow pace helps to give us a sense of who Harry Caul is.
We learn that he’s a surveillance expert now working in New York after an assignment on the West Coast resulted in the death of three people. He likes to see himself as the ultimate professional and tells himself he’s not personally responsible - he was simply hired to do a job. Yet we can clearly see that he’s riddled with guilt, and determined not to get personally affected by any jobs in the future.
He sees himself as the consummate professional. His job is to record the conversations, not to wonder why his clients want the conversations to be recorded in the first place. The less he knows the better - he can’t feel responsible if he has no clue about the potential consequences.
He takes the same principles into this latest job. He’s paid to covertly record a conversation between two people in a public park, no easy job when you consider it’s lunch-time in Manhattan so the park is very busy and the subjects are constantly moving - suspicious that they may be being watched
After successfully making the recordings he needs to deliver a finished product to his client. The initial raw recordings are not much use; the conversation is distorted and comes in and out as the subjects are constantly moving. We see how Harry fine-tunes and mixes separate sources together, filtering out background interference so that the target conversation slowly but surely becomes audible.
This is where Harry’s problems begin. The more he listens to the tapes in a repeated effort to capture the full conversation, the more he becomes absorbed by the substance of the conversation taking place. He can’t help but become concerned when he realises the two people being recorded appear to be in grave danger.
Unfortunately, like many security guys, Harry doesn’t ‘eat his own dog food’. Later in the movie the tapes of the recordings are stolen because he fails to secure his workplace properly. He also allows himself to be tricked by a competitor when his private conversation is recorded using a ball-point pen - a gift from the competitor who is so desperate to go into business with him. These lapses from an otherwise diligent professional ends up putting himself in as much danger as he believes the subjects of his recordings are.
I loved the attention that The Conversation paid to Harry’s tradecraft. As a security professional myself it was wonderful to see that tools and methods that Harry uses. It’s also interesting to see how little has changed. The technology may have moved on but everything else seemed very familiar. For example the trade show that Harry attends seems just like any modern-day security conference, just without the Plasma screens; and with vendors trying to get the attendees on their mailing lists instead of email lists as they do today.
You can’t watch The Conversation now and not think of Enemy of the State , in which Gene Hackman plays a very similar role. I wonder if Gene Hackman chose the role in Enemy of the State because he loved playing Harry Caul, or the producers of Enemy of the State chose Gene Hackman because he was so great in The Conversation?
The Conversation came out two years after the Watergate scandal and the influence is clear to see; exploring the themes of paranoia, invasion of privacy and its consequences. The Conversation is not an action-paced thriller like Enemy of the State, it’s more mysterious and cerebral.
As the pieces come together, The Conversation culminates with a shocking twist - a twist which I’m glad I didn’t see coming. Even after the film had finished it took a couple of hours for me to fully appreciate all the intricacies of the plot.