Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert working in San Francisco. He’s renowned as the best in the business. He has one employee, Stan (John Cazale). Whenever he needs more for a job he hires freelancers. Harry is a very private person. To the point of obsession. He lives alone and has three locks on his door. His girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr) knows nothing about him. She doesn’t even know where he lives. He uses payphones to conduct business and his business is under lock and key in a corner of a warehouse. Harry is not taking any chances.
His current assignment is to record a conversation between Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams) in an open courtyard at lunch time. In the courtyard are mimes, bands, food vendors and lots of people talking. Ann and Mark continuously walk as they talk. To cover the area Harry has Stan in a nearby van recording. Stationed around the court yard are three other men with different kinds of microphones.
Back at his office Harry synchronizes the three recordings to splice together the entire conversation. What he hears is disturbing. Years ago Harry use to work in New York. A conversation he recorded resulted in the murder of three people. What he hears on this conversation is that Ann and Mark appear to be lovers. Ann is married. They also believe they are being watched. They are. Based on his past experience Harry is under the suspicion that these two people could be in danger. From the words they are saying Harry begins to believe that they themselves are worried that they are going to be killed if they are caught.
When Harry brings the tape to the client he is not in. His assistant Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) demands the tape. Harry refuses to give it to anyone other than his client. He is basically threatened by Stett. Harry is beginning to think that something downright sinister is going on. Knowing that he’s been in this situation in the past and being a paranoid kind of guy Harry begins to feel he is in the middle of a repeat of what happened in New York. This is something that he can’t handle.
“The Conversation” was released in 1974 and was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It is an American mystery thriller. Coppola had written the outline in 1966, but couldn't get financing until The Godfather 1972 became a success.
You don’t hear too much about this film. Coppola made it in the seventies. This is also the decade that he made “Patton” 1970 “The Godfather” 1972, “The Great Gatsby” 1974, “The Godfather Part II 1974 and “Apocalypse Now” 1979 so it’s no wonder that this one slipped through the cracks for a lot of people.
Gene Hackman learned to play the saxophone especially for the film.
Gene Hackman's character was to have been named Harry Call, but a typing error changed it to Harry Caul. The new spelling pleased Coppola since the word caul refers to a minor birth defect. Coppola felt it related to the character.
An en caul birth is when the baby comes out still inside an intact amniotic sac or caul. An en caul birth is also called a “veiled birth.” It happens in less than 1 in 80,000 births. The caul is harmless and is immediately removed by the physician when the baby is delivered.
“The Conversation” is an intriguing film but it may seem a little slow at times. OK, it’s downright boring at times. I attribute some of that to the character Hackman plays. He’s got a fascinating job but he’s a boring as dry toast. He’s your basic schlub. He’s also not that good at his job. He does get results but that is basically because he’s anal about his work.
As for the rest of his life, that's not interesting either. Others have pointed out some situations that prove Caul is not only dull as dishwater but is inept at his own life. He has three locks on his apartment door yet his supervisor not only manages to open it he also reads his mail. His phone is unlisted but Martin Stett knows it and knows where he lives. There are several other situations that show that Caul is so preoccupied with spying on others that he is unaware when they are spying back. Caul is paranoid, and he should be.