This was written as a response to The Conversation for History of Cinema class.
Harry Caul is a reserved man who puts just as much effort into maintaining secrecy in his own life as he does listening in on the secrets of others. Listening to private conversations is part of Caul’s job, but it brings him a lot of anxiety. The severity of some of the situations can take an emotional toll, especially on a man who would fall to pieces if the same boundaries were crossed in his own life.
The Conversation begins with an establishing shot of a crowded plaza. There are some robotic sounds and then the camera focuses in on a mime that is moving throughout the plaza and he moves towards a man standing on his own. At this point, we meet Harry Caul, a man who is lingering around the plaza with a few other men in an effort to record the conversation being had between two individuals. Because the two under surveillance are constantly moving in a bustling place, they are being recorded multiple ways. Caul spends a good deal of time afterwards trying to piece the different recordings together into one cohesive conversation.
Once he succeeds and realizes the serious nature of what was said, he tries to block it out, but the recordings plague his thoughts. From what he gathers from the conversation, two people are concerned that a man is going to kill them. He comes to this conclusion when he hears “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” but he doesn’t vocalize his concerns to anyone. This idea is never confirmed because the only information he has is from that one conversation. We assume based on what we hear, just as he does. We only find out at the end of the movie that they said “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” hinting at the fact that they are going to kill him before he kills them.
We learn throughout the movie that Harry Caul has found himself in trouble because of his work before. Lives have been lost because of his work and he feels guilty because of it. He goes to confession because the situation he finds himself in is taking a toll on him emotionally. He is constantly thinking about their conversation. When a former colleague bugs him at a convention, he becomes extremely upset. He begins to see the hypocrisy in his behavior.
Harry Caul is a very private man. He has multiple locks on his door but when he finds out that his landlady has a key in case of a fire, he argues that he wouldn’t care if a fire destroyed everything he owned because the only thing of importance to him is his key. He also is in a relationship with a woman who doesn’t know what he does for a living or how old he is. It is ironic how adamant he is about maintaining his privacy when he trespasses on the privacy of others all too frequently. He begins to recognize that throughout the movie. At the end of the movie when he receives a call that leads him to believe his apartment has been bugged, he tears it apart piece by piece as the camera scans his apartment like a surveillance camera. Eerie music plays during this scene to emphasize the state of paranoia that he has fallen into.
Harry Caul’s job puts him in situations that he would not handle so well should he be on the other side of them. After falling into paranoia at the end is unlikely he would ever return to bugging people again. Not only would that require he have no empathy whatsoever, but it would also require that he recover from the breakdown he suffers while tearing apart his home.