Sometimes the quieter characters are the more interesting ones. Franics Ford Coppola’s The Conversation lets us into the tightly-controlled, paranoid world of Harry Caul (played by one of my favourite actors, Gene Hackman), a lone-wolf surveillance expert renowned for his ability to tape the untapeable. As the film starts we see him working on just such an operation, using a variety of microphones to capture a conversation between a young couple as they wander round a busy city square at lunchtime; then, back in his office (the wire-caged end of an otherwise empty floor), he gets down to what you just know is his favourite part: hidden away from the world, fine-tuning the mix of his audio sources into a single, listenable record of this mysterious, fragmented conversation. Harry Caul is a craftsman.
He’s also a deeply vulnerable man. All the control, all the paranoia — a consequence, perhaps, of knowing how much can be listened to, recorded, gleaned — makes the vulnerability that much more plain. Caul wears a finicky but oh-so-practical transparent mac over his work clothes, which could be the symbol of the namesake birth-caul he seems to be keeping himself wrapped in, a barrier against the world. He claims to have no phone in his apartment, but we know he has, we see him using it. He regularly visits a woman (Terri Garr) who doesn’t know what he does for a living, or where he lives, but still knows more about him than Harry would like. The way he enters her apartment, for instance: “You have a certain way of opening the door. You know, first the key goes in all quiet, and then the door comes open real fast, like you think you’ll catch me at something.” Whatever secrets Harry thinks he has, the truth about his vulnerability and fear of opening up is obvious to everyone.
As much as the first half of The Conversation is a plunge for us into Harry’s strange world, in the second half, he plunges deeper still into vulnerability and paranoia. When he goes to deliver the minutely polished tape of that lunchtime conversation, he’s told he can’t hand it over in person. So, he gives back the money and leaves with the tape. This, oddly, makes the character in my eyes — he may be strange, he may be reserved and secretive, but he has an ethic, not just to his craft, but to his word.
The key scene where everything goes wrong comes soon after. There’s a surveillance industry conference and he and a few fellow professionals go back to Caul’s office with some drinks and a couple of good-time girls. Harry does a quick scan to make sure all the sensitive materials are hidden, locked away in a cage-within-the-cage of his already cage-like office. His fellow experts try to get him to open up about his past triumphs, to no avail. We learn that Harry once taped an impossible-to-tape conversation that got some people killed. They joke, but Harry doesn’t like it. He takes one of the women off into the empty space of his office and finally opens up to someone — only to find his colleagues listening in, playing a trick. But this is nothing compared to the trick the woman’s playing on him.
The thing with this sort of story is first to make, then break, a character. A difficult-to-like person like Harry has first to be made in our eyes — we have to find him interesting (he’s certainly that, with his highly controlled ways) but also worth liking (and I think this is where his work ethic, and his keeping to his word despite having to turn down money, wins us over to this otherwise cold fish — that’s if his secret saxophone playing hasn’t already). But then, just when we’re starting to get comfortable in his distinctly uncomfortable world, the breaking starts. That precious, worked-over-a-hundred-times tape is taken off him, and he’s desperate to know it’s not going to be used to harm the young couple, not like last time, not again. He uses his surveillance skills to try to find out, but he’s close to breaking point. The need to know won’t help a jot if the deed’s already done. But, it turns out, Harry’s being tricked again. All that carefulness, control and paranoia only makes him that much more vulnerable. He’s not just been tricked, he’s being played.
At the end, a single phone call — to that phone he claims he doesn’t have — is enough to tip him over the edge. They’ve bugged the world-proof enclosure of his apartment. And Harry, being the surveillance expert he is, can think of a thousand places they might have planted a bug, and a thousand types of bug they might have planted. He proceeds to tear his little sanctum apart, till he’s left with nothing, a ruin — the end result of all his attempts to control the uncontrollable. Even though, we know, from watching him, that the few secrets he has aren’t worth anyone’s while trying to discover. They’re the simple human secrets and vulnerabilities we all have, only Harry has them all the more because he pretends he doesn’t.