Surveillance and Guilt: Coppola’s “The Conversation”

In All, Movies by Kyu



“You want me to pick that lock for you, Harry?”

53 minutes and 41 seconds into Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation comes a scene which encapsulates everything about the movie. That doesn’t make it special; every scene in The Conversation does that (although this is a particularly long, key scene that takes up a full 24 minutes of the film). To me this is the pinnacle of artistic construction: each element of the movie contributes to and resonates with every other element, the whole of it working in harmony. In a film like The Conversation, which has no overt narration or explanations, this means that the totality of the film is like a fractal whose superstructure exists only in the viewer’s mind, pieced together there by the experience of watching the film the way bread rises from yeast. I don’t simply mean narratively; all filmmaking techniques, from direction to acting to music to cinematography to staging (and so on) are aligned in purpose to express ideas the film rarely or never says out loud. It requires the audience to pay attention and put things together for themselves.

This is the same process that the film documents, as professional eavesdropper Harry Caul pieces together disparate audio sources and other information into a coherent understanding of the titular event, an understanding which requires him to determine what, if any, moral obligation he has here. Is he merely an observer (or craftsman), putting together a product and releasing it to his client regardless of its contents? Or is he obligated to become an active participant in the story he’s been watching?

Much of the film up to this point has framed this consideration in terms of Harry’s… You can’t quite call them principles. They’re more like precepts – rules for himself that he has set down in stone for his own reasons. He focuses on work to the exclusion of almost all else – an early scene’s reveal that he has a girlfriend only makes sense once we realize that he rigidly controls the boundaries of the relationship and limits her knowledge of him. He considers himself a neutral party between client and subject, facilitating this voyeuristic intrusion into someone else’s life but passing the tapes and the responsibility on to the person who hired him. He aspires to a buttoned-down professionalism.

I say “aspires” because Harry is fanatical about his privacy but terrible at maintaining it – one of the film’s key ironies. His landlord has a key to his apartment he didn’t know about; Harrison Ford’s character, the Director’s assistant, is able to have him followed easily; and then there’s this scene. He reacts to these things with fear, paranoia, but most of all outrage at his own impotence. We come to understand that Harry understands perfectly his moral obligation here; balanced against that is not apathy but the fear that involving himself will lose him his privacy – the one thing he values above everything else. “I would be perfectly happy to have all my personal things burned up in a fire, because I don’t have anything personal. Nothing of value. Nothing personal–except my keys, you see.” Up until this scene, that fear leads him to deny both his moral obligations and the facts of the situation that demand them.

Back to 53:41. Harry returns to his office after hanging out with his fellow surveillance experts, including a man bent on being his rival, Moran. They invade his space visually:


And also aurally, as party music replaces what had been silence (or Harry’s recordings). The music comes on as Harry is walking away from the group in order to protect a set of plans relating to the conversation recording; throughout the scene he will do this again and again, moving away literally or symbolically in order to protect his secrets from the people he’s invited in. Watch as the camera tracks with him – but not exactly – as Harry gets a little too far ahead. The camera is practically a character in this film – observing, watching, following. Like a man taking surveillance, it rarely anticipates Harry, but always seems a step behind.

Moran begins an endless patter of insults, compliments, and statements focused on Harry, measuring himself against the man. Moran seems to strike a chord here with a crack about Harry being “Lonely and Anonymous” – look at how the mise en scene, the cinematography, and the performance create a perfect, understated moment which you can take as symbolism if you like.


Moran gives Harry a drink. Harry seems uncomfortable in the two-shots, with Moran visually too close – an effect enforced by the negative space on the left side of the frame.


As Moran prods Harry (and puts himself on a level with him, calling Harry the best on the West Coast and himself the best on the East Coast), Harry remains quiet, saying as little as possible. In fact, he keeps turning away from Moran, as if trying to mingle with somebody else now, please. Moran stays focused on him, asking Harry about a job Harry did once. (Harry: “How’d you know about that?” Moran: “Everybody in the biz knew about that.” More invasion of his private secrets.) Harry tries to shrug off the question, welcoming the interruption of the girl. They start to dance, but Moran won’t let him be:


Watch how these shots demonstrate the way the film asks you to piece together information. First we see Harry and the girl, dancing a little, while Moran talks about his own childhood in foreground. In the background, you might not notice Harry’s former assistant, Stan, and another surveillance guy making a call.


The camera tracks with Moran as he crosses around a wall to the makeshift bar, talking about his father. Harry is off-frame to the left.


Moran looks up and addresses Harry by name; the film cuts to a new shot. Off-frame, Harry has separated from the girl and is listening to a phone, looking over at the two guys on the other phone.


The girl and then Moran re-enter the frame and start listening to Harry’s phones. Moran glances back and forth between Harry’s smile and the guys at the other end of the room, putting it together.


The other guys laugh, realizing Harry’s little game with his equipment. It’s a simple thing, this series of shots. I only really want to point out how subtle the connections from shot to shot and from idea to idea are here compared to what many more obvious movies would have done with it. Another movie might have given us the shot of Harry separating from the girl, or even a two shot showing Moran’s position relative to Harry. They would have given us a closer shot of just the guys on the phone in the background to make sure we saw them. Then they would have driven home the eavesdropping by giving us the audio from the overheard conversation over the phone. Instead it’s something we construct, something we have to actively think about. This works to give us a critical distance from it, as opposed to that more obvious set of shots and audio cues which would have caused us to think less and feel more. Critical distance is, as the name implies, vital to any character study.

Harry follows the girl completely off-frame after this incident, the catcalls of the other surveillance experts following him (“You’re obsolete, Harry”). There’s a beat of empty shot before it cuts to the pair of them, a moment which continues to play up the theme of camera-as-observer and also signals that we’re entering a new phase of the scene with a slightly different tone.



This is reinforced by the production design and lighting; take a look:


Wide open spaces contrast with the cluttered (and currently crowded) workspace. The lighting here is darker with the brightest lights on the edges of the frame. Harry will stay away from them if he can. The position of the actors here (Harry walking away with his back to the girl, the girl following) is what this part of the scene is about. Note going forward how often Harry hides from us/the camera as he continues to not answer the girl’s questions about him. And look also at the colors here: Harry’s dark suit almost blends him into the space, while the girl’s shiny jewelry, blonde hair, and striking green dress cause her to stand out significantly, marking her as an interloper.

He continues to walk away, widening the distance between them as she tells him her life story, the words echoing in the cavernous space. The dance music is quieter here, the acoustics making it sound hollow.


She asks Harry where he lives, and he fidgets silently for a minute. When prompted for an answer, he asks her a question instead, uncomfortable with revealing even that one innocuous fact about himself. Look at how the angle, the lighting, and the production design gives us a skewed sense of perspective and makes him seem small, almost boyish.


She closes the distance between them. (You can actually see a continuity error here: she just starts to enter the frame in the previous shot, but this shot begins with her stationary against the pole.) Harry does his best to hide from us behind his pole.


After she finishes talking about her past, there’s a long awkward silence; she wants him to tell her about himself, but he’s not going to do that. He even looks away to the right at one point, as if wishing he could run off. He finally lamely makes a toast to her. She accuses him of not liking her, not wanting to talk to her. “I didn’t say that,” says Harry, who has said it every way except out loud. She walks away from him and then turns back; her thought process here will make sense later (after this scene).

She closes with him again, asking if he would talk to her and be friends with her, speaking quietly now. Very subtly, the soft dance music cuts out here in anticipation of the next music cue. Harry tries to resist the intimacy of the close two-shot:


(Look at this shot and remember it; there’s a clue here that will be important later in this scene, and I’ll bring it up again then.)

Right as Harry decides to talk to her, the movie’s main theme kicks back in. It’s a piano piece, played at various tempos throughout the film – a simple run of notes that repeats in a loop. I think it evokes a sense of tension mixed with sadness, an emotion which might be described as the fear that something inevitable will come to pass. The repetition, within each use and throughout the film, describes Harry’s paranoia and obsessiveness, just as the use and reuse and reuse and recontextualization of the recorded conversation does.

Harry tries to talk to her about the woman he visited earlier in the film, whose dissatisfaction with her treatment is still bothering him. The camera matches his wavering level of trust, swooping into a more intimate close-up two-shot (“If you were a girl who…”) and then out again as he falls silent:

(in: )


(out: )


And then does the exact same movement again, twice more, as Harry continues to engage with her. Once more, repetition conveys the run of Harry’s thoughts, which pass again and again over the same material, analyzing, trying to come up with a solution. Note here how Hackman “throws away” the line, “Even though he may have loved you.” His performance of this fundamentally lonely individual is one of the most effective and heart-wrenching I’ve ever seen, and it’s choices like this that make it sing.

She gives him an answer, and Harry finally gives out a little something of himself, acknowledging that he may have mistreated the earlier girl by not sharing himself with her. They have a moment of real intimacy, one which is interrupted by a loud sound…


…revealed to be a motor-scooter by the next shot. Sound is nothing but trouble in this movie.


But before we cut, Harry and the girl share a smile. They’ve made a connection.


As the shot continues, this space, too, has been invaded, but Harry seems more at ease with it, smiling and listening to the others talk to him.


But is he? As the group chase each other around in circles, Harry retreats to the foreground and then exits the frame camera left.


When we cut back to him, he’s retreated all the way to his workbench… only to be cornered by Moran again. Note Stan’s shirt hanging on the pole with his name on it – it’s almost a three-shot framing between the shirt, Harry, and Moran.


We see why in a moment, when we cut to a medium of Stan entering frame and leaning against the pole where his shirt is hanging. When we go back to the wide, he’s joined the group but in support of Harry. The next part of the scene will play out between the three of them.


Moran brags to Harry about bugging a Presidential candidate who then lost; Stan brings up one of Harry’s jobs. Annoyed, Moran brings up the union job again, the one he can’t figure out. Harry seems uncomfortable with this – maybe just because Moran again seems to know too much about his business. (“Yeah, you didn’t know I knew that, did you, Harry?”)


Moran actually chases Harry here, as Harry again tries to leave the conversation to protect his secrets.


When Harry stops to make a drink, he puts a translucent barrier between him and Moran (and the observant camera).


Moran continues telling the story of the union job and reveals that as a result of the surveillance, three people were murdered. This is why Harry is so uncomfortable – as we learn later, he suffers from tremendous guilt about this episode, and it acts as the major precursor to his conflicted feelings about his current job. Can he stand back and let people die again? We can see his pre-occupation with this in the dialogue. Moran continues to ask how Harry accomplished the job, but Harry wants the opposite of recognition for his role in the events: “Had nothing to do with me. I mean, I just turned in the tapes.” 

As Moran describes in graphic detail the horrific state of the murder victims Harry was probably indirectly responsible for, Harry leaves very quickly, the camera tracking with him. The audio follows him, too; he can’t escape that. Again, Coppola uses the fenced cage to show Harry as trapped, this time by guilt.


In fact, he can’t even escape Moran – he’s walked in a big circle and is now even with Moran again (who may have moved while off-screen, to be fair). Moran asks again how he accomplished the surveillance, and again Harry responds to the accusation in his heart: “What they do with the tapes is their own business.”


As the men press him, Harry looks up in shock, hearing the beginnings of the recorded conversation from his current job. Stan stands at Harry’s workspace, almost accusingly, having turned it on to show the others Harry’s skill. This is partly Stan’s way of getting back at Harry for firing him (revealing Harry’s secrets) and partly Stan’s way of pointing out that he was Harry’s friend (standing up to Moran for him).


Angry, Harry is all action, exiting the cage, throwing the trash can away, and striding purposefully toward the audio tapes, which are foregrounded in the shot, just as they loom large in his thoughts.


He turns them off and just stands there breathing, thoughts racing.


Stan and Moran discuss Harry’s latest assignment. Moran boasts that he can figure out any method, bug any conversation. These endless discussions of logistics and reputations are, I think, an effort to contrast these people with Harry. Unlike him, they have no moral concerns here, the complexities of the job reduced to literal black and white:

27 28

This is Harry looking through the surveillance photographs as Stan describes the subjects off-screen. It’s another set of visual/aural pieces that describe the opening scene of the film, one in a series that the movie uses to go back and back over the same ground again, searching for a solution to the actual and moral puzzle.

Moran essays a few options for the job, all of which Stan rejects for various reasons. Moran says it would take at least four recordings, and Harry finally takes the bait, jumping out from behind a set of shelves. “I did it in three,” he says proudly.


Harry comes right up to Moran and the guys, letting them in on his secret methods, smiling, pleased with himself.


He’s talking animatedly about the equipment when one of the women breaks in:

“What did they do? […] The boy and the girl, what did they do?”

Harry moves back to his cage. Look at the lighting putting bars on his face as he mumbles that he doesn’t know.


Moran propositions Harry, wanting to be partners (or, more likely, just using that as an excuse to get at Harry’s secret designs). Harry responds with an off-color joke about homosexuals. Feeling good about himself, Harry rejoins the group, cutting in for a dance with the girl in the green dress. Moran asks him again to be partners. Harry: “I don’t need anybody.”


Moran brings out a tape machine and starts to play it, and we hear Harry’s intimate dialogue from before, when he thought he was alone with the girl in the green dress in those swooping close-ups.


The girl is surprised (“was she in on it?” we wonder. Later we’ll see that she wasn’t). Harry looks down at the bug Moran planted on him at the conference:


Remember that shot I mentioned earlier? When Harry is talking to the girl, the lighting and staging make sure that we can see the pen in his breast pocket:


Harry is furious – here is his worst nightmare, his intimate secrets revealed to everyone.


Moran calls it a joke, but everyone leaves, feeling the awkwardness. The girl stays, however, looking at Harry sympathetically.


I can’t show it in a screenshot, but the way Coppola shows the other guys leaving is beautiful – we hear them calling goodnight to Harry, but all we see is the shadows of the elevator gate pulled into place and then moving away.

Harry returns to his tapes, and again we hear the conversation.


The girl tries to get him to turn them off. He rewinds, listens again, fast forwards, listens again. He doesn’t even look at her.


He struggles to understand what the conversation means and what his feelings are about it. The girl gives him some straight talk: “It’s a job, Harry. You’re not supposed to feel anything about it, you’re just supposed to do it.” Words that will take on a new meaning later.

She begins to kiss him as the tape runs on. Yet again we get a juxtaposition between the dialogue of the recording and the imagery on display. Each repetition invites us to interpret the lines in terms of the new context.

“Oh, look, that’s terrible.”
“He’s not hurting anyone.”


“I always think, he was once somebody’s baby boy. […] I do, I think, he was once somebody’s baby boy, and he had a mother and a father who loved him, and now, there he is, half-dead on a park bench.”


The girl continues to shut off lights and prepare Harry for bed – giving him a pillow, taking his glasses. It’s very maternal.


The tapes continue to run:


The girl gets undressed and gets into bed with Harry. On the tape as she strokes his face: “I love you.”


As she kisses him, Harry says out loud what he’s known for a while now: if he hands over the tapes, the young couple will be killed. He decides to destroy the tapes. “I can’t let it happen again.” The effect of this encounter with Moran and the others has been to show Harry the difference between him and them, and forced him to re-confront his moral responsibilities. Listening to the tape again now, he has come to a decision… one he won’t get to fulfill.

The whisperings between the girl and Harry blend with the recording and become difficult to separate. She wants him to forget his worries. As Harry tells her he’s afraid he’ll still be able to hear the couple after they’re killed, she focuses her attentions on his ear, shutting out the tapes with her kisses…


With a final click, the recording comes to an end:



I am indebted to Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of this film, which is not only a really wonderful overview of the film, but is also where I first heard of this excellent, excellent movie.