In Francis Coppola’s The Conversation, a suspicious, obsessive security surveillance professional Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) has a guilty conscience when he imagines that his most recent client will do grave harm to the man and woman he’s been hired to investigate. The feeling of paranoia is illogical and nonsensical, only if the person experiencing it is delusional in their misunderstanding of any given situation. It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you, which is the case for Harry Caul and his subjects.
The opening sequence begins with an overhead ‘god shot’ gently zooming in on a mime artist performing theatrical facial gestures and emotional mimicry with body language for Harry, standing in the middle of Union Square on Post Street in San Francisco. Harry expresses his unease by stepping away from the mime, to which our attention is that taken to an audio recorder, stationed on top of a billboard capturing sounds of a couple using a device reminiscent of a sniper rifle. Harry enters a decoy van with mirrored windows parked parallel across the street. His coworker, Stan (John Cazale), focuses on the recordings inside the mobile mixing studio they’ve built, as they conduct surveillance on a man in a business suit and a woman, who engage in vague discourse that can easily be misconstrued. All of this is happening at the iconic hotel and shopping plaza, on the corner of Stockton and Geary in the city by the bay.
Harry Caul is the best surveillance bugger in the country. His profession has inevitably resulted in anxious behavior as we watch him enter his downtown apartment building, switching keys to open his door of three locks. He plays the trumpet inside of his apartment, as it soothes him and creates a relaxing vibe amid all the tension and angst we know is coming. Harry heads over to an abandoned downtown warehouse, taking an elevator up to what appears to be a secret office filled with audio equipment and a vast storage of files. Harry sits down at his station and replays the audio recordings of the man and woman in union square, attempting to decipher its meaning while finalizing the product he’s about to deliver to his client. In this scene, and throughout the entire picture, the sound is synced over the imagery of the couple walking in Union Square in real time. As we jump into the skin of Harry as the protagonist, we attempt to decipher the mystery hidden between the lines of dialogue between the couple in Union Square.
Harry steps over to One Embarcadero Center near the Piers and the Bay Bridge of the southeast corner of San Francisco to deliver the recordings. At the receptionist desk, he asks for ‘The Director’, who’s out of the office. Instead, the director’s associate, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), welcomes Harry into their office on one of the top floors of this high-rise building. Harry refuses to pass on the package to Martin, who in return, threatens Harry for the dangerous consequences if he doesn’t make the business exchange. As Harry apprehensively walks down the hall awaiting the elevator down, he crosses paths with the man in the business suit, Mark (Frederic Forrest), entering the elevator with other associates. As Harry exits the building, the wheels of his mind run repetitive circles as he attempts to put pieces together. He’s beginning to suspect that he’s in possession of something that could result in danger.
Harry takes the recording back to the office and begins deciphering the hidden clues that can be interpreted out of context. As he replays the audio, we hear it over the soundtrack, juxtaposed with the real time footage of Mark and the woman from that day in Union Square. This is all edited masterfully by Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) and Richard Chew (Star Wars Episode IV) linking a phenomenal combination of sound and picture editing with sound recording, mixing and montage. Harry repeatedly listens to the tapes, attempting to crop up traces of misconduct that he can prevent. He picks up that Mark will be meeting with the woman at hotel room 773 on Sunday. “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Mark says in the audio. Harry attempts to translate the context of his words. The brilliance behind the interpretation of this line of dialogue and its multiple meanings is mind-boggling in terms of how it pertains to the film’s climax.
There is a magnificently composed shot by the film’s cinematographer, Bill Butler (Rocky IV), inside the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco on Union Square located at Powell Street, where Harry and Martin sit on a red sofa with a large mirror lined on the wall behind them that reflects different angles of their facial profiles when they confront one another about the tapes. The production design by Dean Tavoularis (The Godfather) of the warehouse office is tremendously directed by Francis Coppola there is a fence separating blocks in the warehouse floor with various ceiling lights hanging down, mixing a very odd industrial effect with security and relaxation. After gathering at a security surveillance convention, Harry returns to the warehouse with a crew of friends and colleagues for an after party of drinks and mingling. Stan wears a purple suit, Harry wears a dark blazer over a white woven, under a skinny black tie and timeless designer eye frames. Throughout the film, there are multiple shot of the interior of a building on the top floor of one embarcadero center near the piers by the Bay Bridge showing the San Francisco skyscrapers in the background. Francis Coppola created a mesmerizing world by shooting on location.
When Harry finally visits The Director’s office to deliver the photographs he ordered, he enters hearing Martin and The Director (Robert Duvall) listen to the audio. As Harry begins to count his money on the table, his audio recording of the woman in Union Square plays on the speakers inside the office. Harry notices a framed photograph of the woman hanging on the wall of the office, realizing that its Ann (Cindy Williams) The Director’s wife. The Director orders for Harry to count his money outside and just as he places the photographs on the table before The Director, we hear the soundbite one more time, in a slightly different context, “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Harry grows more and more concerned for the health and well-being of the woman. The unraveling of the story within the mystery of the film’s plot result in a magnificent unraveling of shocking twists combining elements of drama with thrills. Francis Coppola’s The Conversation won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974 and was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, along with Francis Coppola’s The Godfather Part II in the same category. Next to Peter Yates’ Bullitt and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Francis Coppola’s The Conversation paints San Francisco in a distinctive light unalike any other film shot in the city by the bay.