Murder, scandals, and the frightening world of surveillance all intertwine to form Francis Ford Coppola's thriller, The Conversation. The viewer, engulfed in a restricted narration, explores the mystery Harry Caul, the protagonist, has caught himself in. A narration that begins objective with spurts of subjectivity is enhanced by the peculiar character traits of Harry. A plot that slowly unravels with surprising turns and leaves the viewer dangling at the end explores the dangers and horrors of surveillance.
Exploring the complex character of Harry Caul is key to understanding the movie. At the beginning we hear him say he doesn't care about what the subjects he's surveying are saying, just as long as he gets a fat recording. Arriving home from the job we find his door loaded with locks and upon entering an alarm goes off. On the floor is a birthday gift. Harry then calls the manager of the apartments and wants to know how the manager entered his home.
Instantly in the first ten minutes of the film we are shown how secretive Mr. Caul is. He even is surprised that someone knows it's his birthday. A birthday is something that almost every normal person wants shared and know. This fact emphasizes how he is a loner even more. His secrecy is even greater emphasized when he travels to see his girlfriend, Eve. When he arrives Harry mentions it's his birthday and she didn't even know. This fact triggers Eve's curiosity even more and she tries to find out more about him. Harry won't tell her where he works or where he even lives. He becomes upset with these questions and tells her to stop. Someone becoming nervous about these simplest of questions shows incredible insecurity, and paranoia. This side of him is strange as it completely contrasts and is hypocritical with his treatment of other people.
Harry dives into other peoples' lives, it's his instinct to survey. Upon entering Eve's apartment he stops at the top of the stairwell and listens. She then tells him that how he slowly and quietly puts the key into the door, then opens it quickly it seems as if he's trying to catch her doing something. Eve even tells Harry she feels like he listens to her phone conversations, which he becomes instantly defensive over. This gives the viewer the thought that he might even of have tapped her line. Besides his dealings with Eve, Harry acts the same at his job.
In fact Harry is a leading surveillance expert. When listing notables to a surveillance convention his name is the top of the list. Everyone at the convention even knows his name and wants Harry to give the approval on their product. It seems that Harry is scared of being out done and having his life surveyed. This fear keeps him on top of the surveillance world.
As we follow the plot line and try to learn more about why the conversation is important we also are on the search to understand Harry Caul. This is a sub meaning that runs right along with the movie. This blankness and secrecy of Harry continue the mysteriousness of the plot.
The last yet most important trait is Harry's conscience. At the beginning of the movie Harry tells his co-worker he doesn't care what the subjects are talking about, just as long as he gets a fat recording. This impersonal attitude proves to be false. The fact that he does have a conscience creates conflict of the movie and leads into the cause and effect aspect.
The narration being restrictive we see all that Harry sees. When listening to the conversation Harry recorded the viewers are keyed onto certain passages. One is when the two subjects are talking about the bum. The woman says how sorry she feels for the bum and the man replies, "He isn't hurting anyone." To which she responds "neither are we." Here we are given the notion that these two are lovers.
When Harry tries to turn his tapes into the director the assistant director attempts to take them. At this moment Harry begins to wonder what they are use for. He takes his tapes and leaves. But leaving the building Harry sees the two subjects he recorded. Here is where Harry's conscience and the fact that the narration is restrictive plays a large part. Harry returns to his workshop and clarifies one point of the conversation that was hidden. Here the man subject says "He would kill us if he got the chance." This is the important part of the movie. Harry's conscience kicks in and we learn that he had once done some work where his tapes had some people killed. The fact that the two subjects seem to be innocent lovers nags at Harry. His line where said he didn't care what was said on the tapes becomes null.
The simple cause is Harry made the recording. Interestingly enough the effect is that people might die, and another part of the effect is that Harry's conscience kicks and he wants to stop what he started. This is a very interesting idea and shows the complexity of Harry's character and how it ties into causality. He tries to trick himself into being impersonal, but his character won't let him.
Another important piece of the meaning is how the story and plot interact. The plot draws you along throughout the movie giving you bits and pieces of what the story is. Up through the murder scene and briefly after the viewers are to believe that the director's wife was cheating on him. That was the reason why the recordings were made. The viewer believes this to be the story, yet after the murder Harry tries to see the director but he isn't admitted. On the way out of the building Harry sees the girl however. At this moment a whole different chunk of the story is shown. This new chunk is that of a conspiracy.
The plot and narration does an excellent job of tricking the viewer. Through its restrictive view and a few objective scenes where Harry feels upset and you see the two subjects of the recording the viewer is almost positive it is a simple affair ending in murder. The temporal order of all the flashbacks had an important role in tricking the viewer. Through constant repetition of the flashbacks the viewer is keyed into their conversation, which makes them seem compassionate, innocent. The compassion they show the bum is implanted in your thoughts. This set the viewer up for even a greater surprise.
Now the story is expanded. It now includes how the assistant director and the wife used Harry to further their scheme. The ending comes abruptly after this leaving the viewer hanging. The story isn't resolved. The plot only showed you the middle chunk of the story. By leaving this line open it furthers the mystery. Adding to this mystery is the fact that Harry, the great bugger, is now under surveillance. Incredibly he can't even figure out how. Showing once again his incredible fear of being watched and listened to he rips his whole apartment apart in vein. Here another question is left. What is going to happen to Harry? Is he going to be able to out smart the assistant director? Will they kill him like the director? These questions add to the mysteriousness of the movie.
From the beginning with sounds that the viewer wonders what they are and could consider them non-diegetic, then realizes it is the recording of voice, to the end where the story is left in question the viewer never once has a complete understanding. The character of Harry Caul is a mystery in itself. Thoughout the movie his strange traits are revealed. Then through a restrictive narration you embark on this mystery man's journey, which is also strange and deceiving. The flashbacks you can't understand. And when you realize that there was a huge conspiracy, you still don't receive a complete conclusion. Though these forms of narrative the director and writers formed a mysterious and sinister vision of surveillance. A disturbing vision that the viewer is left to think and worry about.