Filmsite Movie Review
The Conversation (1974)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Day Three (Friday):

In the afternoon, Harry walks into the cold, gray concrete reception lobby of the anonymous, corporate offices of the Director for his two-thirty appointment - he protectively clutches his blue vinyl pouch. His grayish rain slicker rustles as he is led by the Director's conniving assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) through the upper levels of the sterile, high-rise building to the office of the top executive. When given $15,000 cash in an envelope in exchange for the tapes in the pouch, Harry insists that he deliver the tapes "personally" to the Director. Since the Director is allegedly out of the country, Harry is unwilling to part with them. He is allowed to leave by Martin, but warned to remain objective, detached and uninvolved:

Now look, don't get involved in this, Mr. Caul. Those tapes are dangerous. You heard 'em. You know what I mean. Someone may get hurt. Mr. Caul, be careful.

On his way out of the building, Harry comes face-to-face with both of the subjects of his tapes - he glances at Mark while boarding an elevator, and shares part of the elevator ride with Ann.

Not heeding his own credo - to never question and just keep his eyes and mouth shut, Harry returns to his workshop for more intense scrutinization of the tape. The warning that the tapes are "dangerous" has tweaked his curiosity and created uncertainty in his mind. Obsessively, he plays the tape over again to 'voyeuristically' hear what is really 'private' in the lives of his victims - Ann and Mark. And as he listens and further interprets, he reveals evidence of what he conjectures is a sinister plot regarding the 'personal problems' of his clients:

Ann: Do you think we can do this? (The Mime is in the background, imitating them, but they don't notice.)
Mark: I'm tired of drinking anyhow...I'm tired of mostly everything.
Ann: Tired of me?
Mark: Tired of you, but not today.

Stanley's incessant, annoying statements about their "stupid conversation" on the tape ("What the hell are they talkin' about, for Chrissake?!") angers Harry, and he pushes hard on the Stop button on the playback recorder:

Harry: Well, I'm gettin' fed up.
Stan: About what?
Harry: About your asking me questions all day long.
Stan: Jesus!
Harry: Don't say that.
Stan: Well, for Chrissakes!
Harry: Stan, don't say that again, please. Don't use that word in vain. It bothers me.
Stan: What's the matter, Harry?
Harry: Your work's getting sloppy.

Returning to his work, Harry achieves more clarity about the conversation and what is to transpire, while criticizing Stan for his inattentive technical work and curiosity about the humans involved ("We'd have a much better track here if you'd paid more attention to the recording and less attention to what they were talking about"):

Mark: Later in the week, Sunday maybe.
Ann: Sunday definitely...
Mark: Jack Tar Hotel. 3 o'clock. Room 773.

Stan believes it's natural to have some "curiosity" about the subjects in their work, but Harry asserts otherwise - he has sacrificed everything to being cold, calculating and methodical:

Stan: Harry, if you filled me in a little bit, once in a while, did you ever think of that?
Harry: It has nothing to do with me and even less to do with you.
Stan: It's curiosity. Did you ever hear of that? It's just god-damned human nature.
Harry: Listen, if there's one sure-fire rule that I have learned in this business is that I don't know anything about human nature. I don't know anything about curiosity. That's not part of what I do. This is my business...

But as Harry delves deeper and deeper into the recording, spinning and rewinding the final inaudible fragments of conversation, he finally deciphers the most devastating and crucial line of dialogue below the sound of the bongo drums. The construction of meaning from the tracks of tape has been painstaking and precise. For the first time, however, Harry also perceives a narrative of emotional 'truth' and unquestioningly accepts its reality. He assumes that the couple are deeply in love, but worry about being the target of Ann's powerful magnate husband. He also believes that the lovers' next rendezvous for their affair will be at the hotel room on Sunday afternoon. He becomes concerned about how to prevent a tragedy he assumes is destined and forecast for "these two young people" - he suspects that they will be murdered in a supposed case of marital infidelity:

Ann: I love you.
Mark: We're spending too much time together here.
Ann: No, let's stay just a little longer.
Mark: He'd kill us if he got the chance.

In the darkened confessional booth of a Catholic cathedral, a guilt-ridden Harry struggles to speak to the priest through the wooden grating to find some solace, after realizing that the consequences of his work may be immoral. He confesses to lesser unethical behavior: stealing newspapers from racks and having impure thoughts. He is also perplexed by his complicity in a tragic incident from his past [a triple murder, further revealed later], and concerned that history not repeat itself:

Bless me Father for I have sinned. Three months since my last confession. I - these are my sins. Took the Lord's name in vain on several occasions. On a number of occasions, I've taken newspapers from the racks without paying for them. I've - deliberately taken pleasure in impure thoughts. I've been involved in some work that I think, I think will be used to hurt these two young people. It's happened to me before. People were hurt because of my work and I'm afraid it could happen again and I'm - I was in no way responsible. I'm not responsible. For these and all my sins of my past life, I am heartily sorry.

Day Four (Saturday):

Harry attends a convention of surveillance experts and security technicians held in the St. Francis Hotel - his name badge identifies him as an ACTIVE MEMBER at the annual gathering of wiretappers, high-tech security companies, and representatives of his profession. Aisles of exhibit booths advertise the latest security, enforcement, communication and detection devices. One enthusiastic marketer hawks the latest LT 500 model: "This is the One That Does It All!" Another mechanism buzzes an alarm when a door has "been violated." A clock hides a secret, "magazine-loaded," Super 8 mm camera, and the Spectre Security Products Company's "Eavesdropper" machine is a wall sound detector. The dozing representative in the booth is startled awake: "That's your automatic recorder actuator. It undetectably starts a recorder when the phone is lifted, and shifts it off when the receiver is put back. It's real nice, you know. It's not your old-fashioned voice actuator, you know, always starting a recorder when nobody was talking or shutting it off in the middle of an important conversation."

Harry is a well-known, legendary figure among the exhibitors. When offered a complimentary Eavesdropper "free of charge just to test it, you know, say in return for that we can print in our flyer that you use it," he politely declines the offer - feeling slightly superior in knowledge and skill:

I build all my own equipment. Thank you.

While examining one of the video security cameras at a booth, he scans the convention area and notices Martin Stett wandering through the exhibits. Harry also attends a Securatron Systems illustrated slide show in an auditorium, learning about another device "that may be affixed to the subject's automobile...and will transmit a pulsating tone signal...which is highly detectable under most conditions...The TA-30 may be installed and concealed under the dash in a matter of seconds." A nattily-dressed Paul, one of his operatives, greets Harry and shortly introduces him to William T. "Bernie" Moran (Allen Garfield), a "competitor" at a booth for MORAN & ASSOCIATES, a company that specializes in phone interceptors: "Bernie just moved in from Detroit. He's the fella that let Chrysler know that Cadillac was discontinuing its fins."

The slimy entrepreneur has hired a flashy-dressed, leggy blonde female model Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae) with knee-high white boots to demonstrate his products. On a velvet pillow, she holds up the newest "electronic marvel" (The Moran S-15 Harmonica Tap) and displays a kewpie-doll smile for the all-male crowd:

Once installed, it can be phoned from any telephone in the world, Singapore, Karachi, even Moscow...You just dial the target's phone number, pause before the last digit, blow the harmonica tone into the phone, press the last digit. The phone will not ring in the target's house. Instead, the receiver will be turned into an actual room microphone thus enabling surveillance to take place. And now, by way of an actual demonstration, we've installed one of these units in my very own home. I will now dial that number. I pause before the last digit...(he blows the harmonica tone)...I dial the last digit. You will note the phone does not ring.

Male voice: Can we get away?
Woman's voice: I don't know. Maybe I can.
Male voice: Where's your husband?
Woman's voice: He's out, at a convention.
Male voice: When will he be back?
Woman's voice: (with a passionate, breathy voice) Not until late.

April Fool. Just a little joke, folks. It shows you the possibilities of the Moran S-15.

Moran stuffs a "free pen" into the vest pocket of Harry's coat. Stanley has defected to Moran's company the day before - he wears the company's trademark maroon-colored blazer with the Moran emblem - due to their "stupid argument." Harry is duly concerned about losing his private trade secrets: "I don't want you telling him about any of my things. It's not ethical." Stan reassures him that he didn't learn much anyway ("There isn't all that much you ever let me in on, Harry") and asserts that Harry always kept everything to himself - in both his private and public life:

You won't show me anything. You keep it all to yourself. You know damn well you will.

At a pay phone in a corner of the exhibit area, Harry phones Amy, but seems disturbed when he reaches a disconnected number and can't find any other listing for her. After he hangs up, he glances over and sees Martin smiling at him from the lounge area - he confronts the assistant for tracking him, but Martin pleads that he is only a "messenger":

We want you to deliver the tapes on Sunday, one o'clock. The Director will be there. He'll accept the tapes from you, in person.

The group of conventioneers (Bernie, Paul, Meredith, Stanley, Harry, Lurleen (Phoebe Alexander), Millard) stuff themselves into Paul's car, and careen around city streets following a yellow Mustang filled with hot-rodders - on his car phone, Paul calls in a rolling 1028 (license plate ID) on the car's plates: 560 BAL. They arrive at the warehouse with grocery bags full of beer for a late-night party. To protect his territory, Harry moves into to his workbench area with a wire cage to conceal some of the items left lying around. Bernie jokes about a "Dear Abby" letter that might have been sent from Harry, signed "Lonely and Anonymous," but then toasts a tribute to his West Coast competitor:

Bernie: Let me tell you somethin' about Harry Caul...I know you heard this a thousand times, Harry, but let me say it again. Here's to Harry - the best bar none. I'll drink to that. (He raises his glass)
Harry: The best what?
Bernie: The best bugger on the West Coast.

Bernie is aware of Harry's background in New York and his work on "the welfare fund back in '68." Meredith leads Harry over to a deserted, empty area of the warehouse, asking him questions as he walks away from her. He is tongue-tied and exists in his own solitary world, but momentarily, he dares to relate to her. He shares his personal feelings about losing Amy - she wouldn't wait for him because he didn't show her his love:

Meredith: I want to hear all about you. Where are you from?
Harry: New York.
Meredith: I used to live in New York. At first, I worked as a receptionist and then I got promoted to secretary and then I was promoted to gal-Friday and special assistant to the Boss. Then I married him. (flirtatiously) Do you live far from here? Harry?
Harry: Are you still married?
Meredith: Oh, I don't know. Probably. Why then, maybe I am. The last thing I heard, he was trying to scrape up enough money to buy another hardware store. And I ended up out here in San Francisco - unemployed - which is the entire story of my life up until tonight. (Harry nervously averts his gaze) You don't like me very much, do you? You don't want to talk to me or anything.
Harry: I didn't say that.
Meredith: Something is on your mind. I wish you'd tell me. I do, I wish that, I wish that you'd feel that you could talk to me and, and that we could be friends, I mean, aside from all of this junk.
Harry: (after a long pause) If you were a girl who waited for someone...
Meredith: You can trust me.
Harry: ...and you never really knew when he was gonna come to see you. You just lived in a room alone and you knew nothing about him. And if you loved him and were patient with him, and even though he didn't dare ever tell you anything about himself personally, even though he may have loved you, would you..would you, would you go back to him?
Meredith: How would I know - how would I know that he loved me?
Harry: You'd have no way of knowing.

Over drinks, Moran and Stan both brag about daring, wiretapping exploits - Moran's recordings of a Presidential nominee's telephone calls twelve years earlier, a bug that Harry placed in a parakeet, and Harry's strategic taping to reveal a teamster's phony welfare fund - "Nobody knows how you did it, though, Harry. It caused a helluva scandal, too." Harry remains modestly silent, except to expound his philosophy of apathetic detachment - even though three innocent people (an assistant and his family) "were murdered" as a result of his expertise:

It had nothin' to do with me, I mean, I just turned in the tapes...What they do with the tapes is their own business.

Although Stan begins playing the master tape of their Union Square job ("It's the best thing you've ever done...It'll make history"), Harry clicks it off. Moran boasts of his abilities as a surveillance expert: "There is no moment between human beings that I cannot record and there is no method that I cannot figure out. I could figure out any of Harry's schemes, right?" But the braggart is stumped when told of the assignment commissioned by a "private party" that Harry performed in Union Square - the setup is illustrated by Stan on a small blackboard:

This is a quad in the center of the city. These are steps coming in here, benches all around. Now it's twelve noon, which means that it's lunchtime for all the people that work in these offices around here. OK, the people are walking, talking, having lunch and it's crowded...Two people are constantly moving in circles in and out of the crowd. We don't know whether they'll sit down or what. They're convinced that they can't be recorded because they're in a crowd and constantly moving. They're the target. Now the assignment is to get everything they say. How would you do it?

Harry divulges that his tracking technique used only three passes, with three-stage directional microphones and "another 20 percent conventionally by just tailing them." Stanley adds: "It was a work of art." Harry becomes animated and enthusiastic about the subject:

Harry: You should have seen it, though. These new microphones are just incredible. They really - I couldn't really believe it myself. We were over two hundred yards away and it was absolutely readable. I broke in a couple newreel cameramen and, you should have been there, Bernie, it was really...
Lurleen: What did they do?
Harry: Well, they took the cross-hairs of the telescope and they lined it up on the mouths of the...
Lurleen: No, the boy and the girl, what did they do?
Harry: (puzzled) Oh, I don't know. But it was really beautiful. Really something to see.

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