The Conversation

Harry Caul is a character in a film. He is a very ordinary man. He dresses conservatively, in a suit and tie of no noticeable colour, with shoes, we presume he wears shoes but we don’t notice them either. He wears glasses with thick, black frames, just like everyone else wears, so that no one will notice him. He wears a grey plastic raincoat almost everywhere. The coat both defines him and makes him invisible. Wearing that coat he is lost in the crowd, unnoticed by everyone. He is Mr. Indistinct, an anonymous blur, a translucent nobody. There is a scene near the beginning of the film where a mime is imitating the people gathered in a square for their lunch break. He is an amusing and perceptive mimic, aping people’s idiosyncrasies. When the mime stands next to Harry, all he can do is lift his hand and simulate holding a cup of coffee. There is nothing about Harry to notice. Any one of us could be mistaken for Harry Caul. There is a sense in which we are all Harry Caul. He is the amorphous us.

Harry Caul is a very private man. He doesn’t want you to know about him. He has a girlfriend. She does not know where he lives or what he does, or that it is his birthday. He guards these pieces of information and doesn’t like people knowing them without his permission. His girlfriend does not live with him. She has her own apartment, in a basement. Harry has to go down some steps to get to her door where he lets himself in with a key. Despite the things she does not know, she tells Harry that she looks forward to the sound of his key in her door, the pregnant pause before he pushes the door open, him being with her. He opens a bottle of wine and joins her on the bed. Harry is fully clothed. He has his shoes on and is still wearing the plastic raincoat. They kiss. Her hand smoothes down the side of his face. She asks him questions, but Harry does not want to answer questions, he wants to keep his secrets to himself and is a little annoyed that he has to tell her this. Whatever it is she wants from Harry, the sound of him entering her apartment is no longer enough, and after he has paid her rent she tells him that she will not be waiting for him anymore. Privacy, it seems, has a price.

Harry has three locks on his front door. He opens it and the alarm goes off, a screeching howl you would not impose on your worst enemy. A package is lying inside the door and Harry turns off the alarm then carefully places the package and his mail on a chair. He has carried the remains of his lunch home with him in a paper bag and he disposes of that first. Then he takes off his jacket and gets the phone out of a drawer. Harry has a phone but tells people he does not so that he doesn’t have to give them his number. That is private information, and Harry is careful with his privacy. He has his privacy under control.

He telephones his landlord, Mr. Van Lister, not to thank him for the birthday gift left inside his door, but to find out how his landlord knew it was his birthday, how he got inside his apartment, how he disabled the alarm. As he talks on the phone he is opening his mail and there is a card from his bank wishing him a happy 44th birthday. Harry asks his landlord if he knows how old he is and the landlord says 44, telling Harry that his landlord is perusing his mail. At the end of the call Harry tells his landlord that from now on his mail will be delivered to a post office box with a combination lock and a key. Privacy, it seems, is not what Harry thinks it is.

Harry’s apartment is a bland, soulless series of rooms with no character or personality. There are no pictures on the  plain walls, there are no pot plants or art. There are no books. There is almost nothing of Harry in there at all. In fact, he told his landlord that he wouldn’t mind if it went up in flames because there is nothing personal in there. There is, though, a small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Harry is a surveillance expert. He records other people’s conversations. He is very good at it. He is described in the brochure for an upcoming trade conference as being pre-eminent in the field. He has a reputation in New York, Chicago, and in San Francisco where the film is set as being brilliant, dedicated, a magician. Harry has an assignment to record the conversation of two young people, Mark and Ann, who meet in Union Square for their lunch break. They are moving around, walking in circles, watching the musicians, noticing a homeless old man asleep on a bench, constantly moving. They have had their conversations recorded before and are careful not to stand still. They know what it means to be bugged. They intersperse in their conversation things that do not matter, “pretend that I just told you a joke,” Ann says, and Mark laughs.

Harry has three men recording their conversation. Each of them picks up some part of it, snatches, glimpses, half-heard words and snippets of sentences. Later, Harry edits the three tapes together to make the parts into a coherent whole. It is slow work, requiring repeatedly revisiting sections of tape, blending them in, filtering out the bongo drums, the saxophone player and the other people in the square. It is boring, repetitive work that suits Harry perfectly. He concentrates on his work and countenances no interruptions. He is not listening to what they say, he pays attention only to the quality of the sound. He tells Stan his assistant, “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All  I want is a nice fat recording.” The words have no meaning to Harry, they are just sounds to be taped, recorded, edited and reassembled then sold to the Director, the man who hired him for the job. It’s just a job.

Everything, however, is not as simple as it seems. Harry cares about his privacy while invading the privacy of others,  and yet his own privacy is being invaded too. He is an expert in surveillance and yet other people with no special skills are noticing things about him. His bank have his date of birth and remember his birthday, his landlord has a key to his apartment and reads his mail. A woman he passed on the stairs wished him happy birthday. As much as Harry spies on others, there are others spying on him. And as much as he pretends not to care about the words, they haunt him.

There is a legend in Harry’s past. A union official and an accountant were believed to be meddling with a welfare fund, and Harry was hired to record their conversation. Just like the couple in the square, they knew they were being spied upon and took precautions. They never spoke about their plans unless they were alone together on a fishing boat, with no one else there, with no other boat inside the horizon. Harry got them. He recorded their words,  the words that do not matter, and he sold the tape to the man who hired him for the job. It was just a job. But the words on the tape became known and three people died. The accountant, his wife and their child. They were tied up and tortured, and when they said nothing they were killed. They died because of the words. Harry’s words. Harry  knows, intellectually, that it was not his fault. He didn’t kill them. But he feels responsible.

Harry left New York and came west to San Francisco, and now he is known on the west coast as being pre-eminent in his field, a magician. But the words haunt him. Harry wants it to be just a job but it isn’t. People died because of Harry’s words, and he doesn’t want that to happen again. In his apartment, when he is alone at night, with the curtains closed so that the world outside cannot touch him, Harry plays his saxophone to jazz records, and he remembers the words.

Harry tries to meet the Director, to hand in his tape, but the Director is out of town. The Director has an assistant, Martin. Martin is one of those people who will smile at you as he puts the arsenic in your tea. When you are with him you have to wear a cuirass to stop him from stabbing you in the back. In this film there is no tea, or arsenic. There are cookies, though, which Harry does not eat. Harry hands the money back to Martin and says he will deliver the tape in person. Martin tells him not to get involved, “These tapes are dangerous, you know what I mean?” he says. Harry takes back the tapes, the tapes with the words on them. Harry knows what dangerous means.

As he leaves, Harry sees, separately, the two people whose conversation he recorded. Mark is standing waiting for a lift. He sees Harry but does not recognise him. Harry gets in a different lift, goes down one floor and sees Ann. She gets in the lift with him. Harry is wearing his grey plastic raincoat and Ann doesn’t see him. He has her words under his arm, but he doesn’t know what they mean. All he has is Martin’s warning that the words are dangerous.

Worried now about what the words might mean, Harry continues to work on the tape. As he edits, more and more of the words fall into place, and the meaning of the words changes. It’s like a game of Tetris where he can go back several moves, rotate some pieces and try again. As they slot into place the meanings change, things that were once clear become foggy and confused and things previously unheard become known. But there is no context, and the words themselves have meanings only within the context. “Later in the week. Sunday maybe,” might be two people planning a surprise party, or it might not. Martin warned him not to get involved. But he is involved.

Harry might be able to press the buttons and rewind the tapes, he can plug in a new filter with his eyes closed, he can control the equipment in his life like a master conductor at the dais with his baton, but control over his life is unravelling. Stan tells him it is human nature to be curious about the words. “Listen,” he says, “I don’t know anything about human nature. I don’t know anything about curiosity. That’s not part of what I do.”  But after Stan leaves, Harry discovers again that the words are not just sounds on a tape. It is not just a job, and he does, after all, care about what they are saying. On the tape, Harry tunes out the bongo drums and Mark says, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

Harry goes to church and confesses his sins. He confesses taking newspapers from the racks without paying for them. He confesses to having impure thoughts. And then he confesses to having been involved in some work that he thinks will be used, “to hurt these two young people.” He said it happened before and he was not responsible then and he is not responsible this time. “For these and all my sins in my past life I am heartily sorry,” he says.

Harry goes to the surveillance convention where people are pleased to see him. They want to be photographed with him, to have him try out their camera clocks, to put the name of this man, pre-eminent in his field, in their brochures for automatic phone actuated recorders. Martin is at the convention, looking for Harry. Harry is annoyed that Martin knew he would be there. “It’s a convention of wire tappers,” he says. “It was a snap.” Harry says he will not give the tapes to anyone except the Director, and Martin tells Harry the Director wants him to deliver the tapes on Sunday, One O’clock. “The Director will be there. He will accept the tapes from you, in person.” Harry angrily says he will think about it and walks away.

Bernie is a surveillance man at the convention. Just like Harry, he was described in the convention brochure as being pre-eminent in his field. He is, as Stan tells us, “the guy who told Chrysler that Cadillac was getting rid of its fins. That was a while ago, but it was a big thing at the time.” He is one of those men who don’t understand the meaning of the word no so they wear pink polyester trousers on the golf course. Bernie calls everyone by their first name, as though he is your friend, even if you don’t want him to, and once he knows your name he assumes you like everything he likes, including him, even though you probably do not. Bernie knows Harry’s name. Harry thinks he knows who Bernie is.

By a device known only in films, Harry invites Bernie and four other people, including Mildred, Bernie’s assistant, back to Harry’s professional lair for a party. This is where he works. It is a wire cage inside a deserted warehouse, a secluded shelter within a hidden place. The real Harry wouldn’t let Bernie within three miles of this place but the film requires it so they end up there with a few acquaintances and some drinks. Harry talks to Mildred, or rather he lets her talk to him, and he listens, but he has nothing to say. He is an expert at getting other people’s words but he is unable to find his own. He asks her a rhetorical question about not asking him questions, and she answers him with a kiss. Bernie taped this, using a bug in a pen he gave to Harry as a gift. Bernie plays back the recording, demonstrating that he really is pre-eminent in his field. Only a moment ago Harry had shown him the telescopic directional microphone he built himself, pleased to receive their plaudits but now he is angry at being bugged and recorded and asks them to leave. Mildred stays behind with Harry. In the morning, Harry wakes up in the cage and Mildred has taken his tapes. The tapes with the dangerous words on them have been taken. The words will be known. It is happening again. Harry’s words are going to hurt someone.

In the night Harry had a dream in which Ann appeared behind a glass door. The glass had a chequerboard pattern on it so Harry couldn’t see her clearly but he knows it was Ann. There was anger. There was terror and fear. There was blood. The words are dangerous.

From his apartment, Harry telephones the Director but he is told the Director is not there, and they will get back to him. A few minutes later Harry’s phone rings. He hasn’t told anyone his number. His number is private, that is part of his private information and he doesn’t tell anyone his private information. He cautiously picks up the phone and it is Martin, the Director’s assistant. Harry’s world of privacy and control is unravelling. His girlfriend knows his birthday, Bernie knows how to find his office, his landlord has a key and reads his mail, and now the Director’s assistant has his telephone number. What was once private and personal and under control is now known. Harry no longer has control.

“We have the tapes Mr. Caul,” he says. “We prepare a full dossier on anyone who comes into contact with the Director,” Martin tells him, “you know that means we’ve been watching you.” Harry didn’t know, and now that he does know it worries him. Who else knows private things about him? Is any part of his life his own anymore? Martin suggests he come over and get paid for the tapes. “The Director’s here and he’s prepared to pay you in full.”

Harry meets the Director and collects his money. There are some pictures of Ann in the Director’s office and it appears she might be his wife. Harry asks the Director what he will do to her. The tape is playing in the office and as Harry asks his question Mark says, “He’ll kill us if he gets the chance.” The Director ignores the question and strokes his dog instead. Harry asks Martin what he will do with them, and as the lift door closes Martin says, “You’ll see.” Harry leaves, distraught that it is happening again and yet there doesn’t appear to be anything he can do about it.

On the tape, in the conversation, among the words, Mark mentioned a hotel. A meeting. “The Jack Tar Hotel, 3 O’clock, room 773.” Harry goes to the hotel, at the corner of Geary and Van Ness, down the street from the square where he taped the words. He asks for room 773 but it is occupied so he gets an adjoining room. He listens at the walls. He listens through an air conditioning duct. He stands on the balcony and tries to see in. He finds a weakness, in the bathroom, under the sink. He drills a hole through the wall and inserts a probe. He listens. He is wearing his grey plastic raincoat for protection.

He hears voices. An argument. The Director, Ann and Mark. Shouting. Harry can’t stand it. In his mind he sees the blood, he sees Ann and he feels responsible for what is happening. All the sounds are combining in his head, like the tape he repeatedly rewound and edited, the sounds are confusing and frightening him. He doesn’t know how to deal with this. He closes the curtains, turns on the TV and turns the volume up to drown out the noises in his head and he hides under the covers on the bed, hoping it will all just go away.

Later. Harry wakes up and turns off the TV. The hotel is quiet. He goes next door and he picks the lock and breaks into the room. Room 773. There is no blood. There is no body. The room is clean. It is spotlessly, hotel clean. Ready for another guest. As he stands in the bathroom trying to figure out what happened he imagines the toilet overflowing with bloody water. A flood of blood. The window on the balcony is the glass door behind which he saw Ann in his dream. He has to know.

He goes to the Director’s office but they won’t let him in. Security men bundle him down the stairs. He goes outside and sees Ann sitting in a car. The blood he saw only in a dream wasn’t hers. Harry is confused now and that just makes things worse. At the beginning, Harry had everything under control. His privacy was in a box only he knew how to open and his work was just a job in which the words didn’t matter. But gradually the box has been pried open and the contents spilled on the floor and his life and his work have intermingled, like a salad, all the ingredients are mixed up together and it is no longer possible to just have cherry tomatoes, you have to have the dressing and bits of herbs and croutons too. You can’t separate one part of your life and keep it pristine and untouched in a box because they are all connected and everything matters. The words matter, people matter. Despite what he told Stan he is after all curious and he is concerned about what happened in room 773 and he feels responsible for it. Whatever it was.

He reads a newspaper headline and he puts it all together. He knows what happened. He goes back to the Director’s office building and watches the press photographers scrambling for pictures. All three of the survivors see Harry standing there and they know that he knows how dangerous the words were. Nothing is private. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much money you have, no matter how clever or secretive you are, someone else will know what you know. Harry knows.

Harry is in his apartment playing his saxophone. The telephone rings. He picks it up. “We know that you know Mr. Caul. For your own sake don’t get involved any further. We’ll be listening to you,” then, on the phone, he hears a tape rewinding, followed by the sound of him playing his saxophone in his apartment.

Harry gets out his surveillance toys and scans his apartment to find the bug. He unscrews light switches, opens up his air conditioning unit, tears the curtains down and examines the pelmets. Harry is an expert, he knows where to put bugs. He takes down the light fittings and peers into the dark spaces they reveal. He takes his telephone to pieces and puts a meter across it, pitting his technical expertise against their wits. Reluctantly he tears apart the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He rips apart the door frames and tears up the floor covering. Eventually, as night starts to close in he has nowhere else to look. He cannot find it. Everything he had has been destroyed. His privacy is nothing but a dream. His life is not so much an open book as a gaping chasm into which anyone can stare at will and his neat and Spartan apartment, his zone of safety and peace has been destroyed from within. He plays his saxophone.

When Francis Ford Coppola made this film, in 1974, it was about the central character, Harry Caul, and his struggle to maintain some semblance of order in his life as it was torn apart around him. Harry is, like all of us, a mess of contradictions. He is a highly moral man in an immoral profession, an expert at surveillance but a loser at security, a grown man at his 44th birthday but emotionally a child, among the elite in his profession but unable to carry on a normal conversation with a woman. There are lots of other themes in here too, like the role that sound plays in the film, the interception, recording, and interpretation of sounds. At the beginning there is a simple piano melody played, representing the simplicity Harry sees in his life. As things gradually become more complex so does the piano theme so that by the time Harry is tearing his apartment to pieces to find the bug it has become a contrapuntal score with counter melody and discordant harmonies representing the utter chaos confronting him. The recording made in the square is played over and over, in snatches, with parts that were opaque becoming clearer as time goes on, with new meanings given to words we have heard before and this repetition and revision is used to demonstrate what Harry is thinking. By listening to the tape we can know what is on Harry’s mind so there are lots of shots where no dialogue is necessary, all we need is the tape to know what is going on so that in a very real sense the whole story of the film is told in that very brief conversation that Ann and Mark have in the square. And, of course, Harry plays the saxophone. Harry lives in an audio universe where sound is the sense that makes sense of everything else so he does something that makes a noise to stimulate his sense of sound.

The film is also about our desire for privacy. We all have secrets and even though they might not be life threatening or embarrassing we are all selective to some extent about who can know what about us. You might tell your next door neighbour you’re going on holiday so that she can feed your cat for you while you’re away, but you wouldn’t tell that guy at the supermarket unless you really had to. There is a balance there, that we all make, about what to tell and to whom and a debate to be had about the extent to which we have a right to expect our privacy to be respected by those to whom we entrust our secrets.

If, as I believe, it is a writer’s responsibility to ask questions, then that is what this film does in a way that a lot of other films do not, it asks the viewer those questions and requires them to formulate the answers. Which is why I thought of this film when I read the revelations of Edward Snowden this week. Mr. Snowden blew the cover off the NSA’s programs that have been spying on the public, recording their telephone call data, compiling massive databases of internet traffic, emails and hashtags on twitter. It occurred to me that we could watch that whole scenario play out just by watching Gene Hackman play Harry Caul in this film. If we, in our naive belief in personal privacy are the Harry Caul who appeared at the beginning of the film, and Martin and the Director are the state, running profiles on us and watching us, knowing where we are going to be and placing un-locateable bugs into our personal spaces, then is the result for us going to be the demolition of our personal lives as it was for Harry Caul? Wherever you stand on the privacy versus security continuum, the story of Harry Caul would appear to be required reading because it asks the questions you need to answer before you can have any meaningful participation in the public debate.

1. A caul is the translucent membrane that sometimes covers a baby’s head when it is born. It is a remnant of the amniotic sac and babies born with it are called caulbearers. In some mythologies, caulbearers are considered lucky and they have special powers: to have dreams that foresee some aspects of the future, and a protection from drowning. Since Harry’s surname is Caul, it is possible to see Harry’s translucent raincoat, that he wears at work or when surveilling others, as a caul that protects him and gives him special powers. In the film but not mentioned in my essay was a dream Harry has in which he tells Ann the story of a near death experience when he was young. He nearly drowned in his bath. As mentioned, he also has the dream that foresees some aspect of the future but Harry interprets it incorrectly, leading to his confusion.

It is also possible to interpret Harry’s raincoat as the amniotic sac itself, protecting the baby in the womb. Harry wears it as his armour to protect himself from the world and it would be interesting to know whether, in his back story, Harry wore the raincoat before the tragedy in New York where the three people died or if he started wearing the coat only after that event. Also, if the raincoat is the amniotic sac, that might be interpreted as a metaphorical marker to Harry’s emotional immaturity. He goes to confession and tells a priest, essentially a stranger, that his work endangered the lives of people, but he was unable to share a single detail, even trivial things like his birthday, with the woman he supposedly shared his life with. This inability to express or develop any intimacy with people is a very childlike response so it is possible that the amniotic sac raincoat signals Harry’s embryonic emotional state. Or his name could just be a coincidence.

2. Ann’s relationship to the Director is not as clear cut as my essay may have made it seem. More than one other essay on this film said she was his daughter, and she appears in the film to be of an age where that might be true. It is even theoretically possible for them to be brother and sister. The actors portraying them are 16 years apart in age, if that matters. However, what does matter, is that Harry thinks Ann is related to the Director in some way so that he can see the discovery of her liaison with Mark as endangering her. It is, ironically, not the truth itself but Harry’s perception of it that is important.

3. I watch a lot of films and I watch most of them a lot of times. There are very few films in my DVD collection that I have not watched at least a dozen times and some I have seen over thirty times and will still watch again. I also have a great many books I have read more than once. The idea that a book or film might be less enjoyable if I know the ending or that knowledge of the plot diminishes my pleasure in any way is as incomprehensible to me as the idea of cutting my foot off to make shoe purchases cheaper. Which means that I do not acknowledge the existence of any such thing as a plot spoiler.

selected cast:

  •     Gene Hackman as Harry Caul
  •     Teri Garr as Amy Fredericks, Harry’s girlfriend
  •     Cindy Williams as Ann, the woman in the square
  •     Frederic Forrest as Mark, the man in the square
  •     John Cazale as Stan, Harry’s assistant
  •     Harrison Ford as Martin Stett, the Director’s assistant
  •     Robert Duvall as the Director


1. Pitt Rivers Museum – the caul in mythology and literature

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3 Responses to The Conversation

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