We see a public square in San Francisco shot from above, as the credits roll and jaunty jazz music plays. The camera slowly descends on the square and we hear a dog bark and then a female singer. The people, who were once just dots from afar, become more and more distinct as the camera descends. We then here distorted noises briefly and see a man dancing and doing mime work in the square and people milling around. The music ends abruptly and we hear applause. As the camera gets closer and closer to the mime character, he waves to people and avoids having to interact with two dogs. The camera gets closer and closer to him, as he walks up alongside a man drinking coffee and mimes drinking coffee beside him. He follows the man as the jazz plays again. Eventually, the mime peels off, but the camera stays with the coffee-drinking man.
Suddenly we see a neon sign that says “City Paris” and a man perched on the rooftop nearby looking at a couple through a surveillance device. The shot shifts to reveal the perspective through the surveillance lens. A man in a beret comes out from behind the bush. We see another man in a hat walk through the crowd as a busker plays a saxophone. Another man tells a girl he is walking with, “Well I wanna go over to my place and start, you know, getting it on,” and a woman behind them tells a companion, “Oh that’s terrible,” and he asks her if she ever took ballet. We hear everyone’s conversations as though we are standing beside them. The man who was drinking coffee earlier stands behind the couple discussing ballet. As the couple walks away, the jazz band on the street finishes their song. The woman in the couple begins singing to herself ("Wake up, wake up, you sleepy-head") and the man joins her. We see them continuing to walk as if from far away. The woman asks, “What about me?” to which the man responds, “You’ll see,” and it is clear that he has some kind of surprise planned for her. Their conversation becomes more and more distorted as they keep walking.
The man who was drinking the coffee sits on the bench, then gets up and starts walking. The couple from before approach a homeless man sleeping on a bench, which leads the woman to say, “That’s terrible.” “He’s not hurting anyone,” the man tells her, and she responds, “Neither are we.” As the couple continues to talk, we see the coffee-drinker walk across the street and tap on the rear window of a glass company repair van. The woman says, in voiceover, “Every time I see one of those old guys I always think the same thing…I always think that he was once somebody’s baby boy.” We then see the coffee-drinker gets into the back of the van, where another man wearing headphones sits. The woman from the couple can still be heard speaking, now presumably through the headphones in the truck. This is where the couple is being surveilled. The coffee-drinker, Harry Caul, asks the man in headphones, “How’s he doing up there?” We see the man perched beside the “City Paris” sign as the man in headphones tells Harry, “We’re getting better than 40%” The camera then pans to the “second position,” a window with a surveillance device sticking out of it, and we hear the beeping of distorted conversation caught through a microphone. When Harry asks how that second position is picking up sound, the man in headphones tells him it’s not doing as well, and we see the man from the couple as if from a camera, his voice completely distorted as he speaks to the woman.
Two girls approach the side of the surveillance van and fix their makeup in the reflection in the window. The man in headphones, whose name is Stan, is pleased by this and begins taking pictures of them. “Give me some tongue,” he says lasciviously, snapping photos. As he gets more and more into taking photos of them, Harry tells him to get back to listening to the recordings. Stan gets back to spying on the couple. The woman tells the man, “Look, do you see him? The man with the hearing aid like Charles?” In voiceover, we hear Stan tell Harry that the couple has spotted another man who has been charged with surveilling them. The woman tells her companion that she has noticed the man following them all day closely. We once again see the man up by the “City Paris” sign, as the man in the couple tells the woman that they have been spending too much time together. The couple stands beside a man drumming in the square and we see the man say something to the woman, but cannot make out what it is. As he whispers to her, she looks concerned.
We see the man with the ear piece whom the woman noticed tapping on the door of the van. Harry lets him in the back door of the van and he tells Harry and Stan that he got “burned.” The man tells them that he thinks he got some good pieces, maybe around 25%, as Harry opens a package filled with technological items. Stan turns back and asks the man, Paul, if he is going to the convention the next day. Paul says he is, and Harry says that he is as well—“maybe.” Paul laughs and says, “Little party like we did two years ago, huh?” which makes Stan burst out laughing. Harry hands Stan a device as Paul leaves. “He’s a nice guy for a cop,” says Stan (referring to Paul), chuckling to himself. We see the couple through a lens of a camera, centered by a target mark, as they walk out of the square. Stan asks who is interested in the couple, but Harry says he doesn’t know. When Stan asks him if it’s the Justice department, Harry tells him no. “I figure it must be the Infernal Revenue,” says Stan, “Their tapes always put me to sleep.” “Since when are you here to be entertained?” Harry asks him, handing him a set of headphones. “I don’t care what they’re talking about,” Harry continues, “All I want is a nice, fat recording.”
Foregrounded by other bodies, the man and the woman being surveilled kiss each other. We then see the woman walking briskly through the square as the man goes in the other direction carrying a paper bag. Melancholic, dissonant piano music plays, and we see the device in the second location of the window get pulled back inside the window. The truck is then shown pulling away, revealing Harry standing on the sidewalk at the end of his workday. He pulls off his jacket and walks away down the street.
As the piano music continues, Harry enters his apartment and walks up the stairs, making way for a woman with a dog. She greets him cheerily, before yelling up to him as he ascends the stairs, “Happy birthday!” He looks back and nods before continuing to climb the stairs. He pulls out a key and opens his door, which has three separate locks. When he enters the apartment, an alarm bell goes off, which he promptly turns off. As Harry puts his things down on a chair, we hear him wishing himself a happy birthday under his breath. He hangs up his coat, carries a telephone into the hallway of his apartment, and calls down to Miss Evangelista at the front desk. Harry sits down on the couch and, after Miss Evangelista seems to wish him a happy birthday, asks her how she managed to get the gift that was waiting for him into his apartment. “What about the alarm?” he asks, before telling her, “I thought I had the only key.” He takes off his pants as he tells Miss Evangelista, “I would be perfectly happy to have all my personal things burned up in a fire because I don’t have anything personal.” He then tells her that he would like to have the only copy of his keys.
As he interrogates Miss Evangelista as to how she knows his birthday—he doesn’t remember telling her—he opens a card from a bank, which seems to have already been opened and which reveals that he is turning 44 years old. When he asks Miss Evangelista to guess how old he is, she correctly guesses, and Harry tells her that he will begin having mail sent to a post office box with a combination and no keys, before saying goodbye and hanging up the phone. We then see Harry playing the saxophone along with a jazz record, sitting in a chair alone in his apartment. He is a good saxophonist and jams along with the record, listening to the applause of the recorded audience.
The scene abruptly shifts to show Harry walking across some railroad tracks in his trademark rain jacket, as the melancholy piano soundtrack plays. We then see Harry in an elevator going up. Eventually the elevator stops, and Harry lifts the door and gets out on a large open warehouse floorpan. Walking to the back of the room, Harry greets his co-workers. From a couch, Stan tells Harry that he is mentioned in a newspaper article about “the convention.” Stan tells Harry that he’s “one of the notables that’s going tomorrow night.” Stan reads him the article aloud, as Harry opens up a folder and looks at black-and-white photos of the couple that they were following the previous day. Stan then reads a part of the article that states that “William P. Moran of Detroit, MI” will also be in attendance, which prompts Harry to ask, “Since when did William P. Moran of Detroit, Michigan become pre-eminent in the field?” Stan assures him that William P. Moran is very big in Detroit and asks Harry if he wants coffee, as Harry hangs up a picture of the couple on the wall. Stan tells Harry that Moran told Chrysler “that Cadillac was getting rid of its fins.” Harry seems to be barely listening, and turns on a tape player, and we hear Stan’s recorded voice announcing which tape they are listening to. Harry takes off his jacket and plays the tapes from the previous day, all recorded from different positions.
We hear the couple from the previous day speaking and we see them once again, walking and discussing buying gifts for someone for a holiday. Their voices once again get distorted, and we are transported back to Harry’s office, where he struggles to understand what they are saying. He stops the tape and rewinds, trying to listen once again. We suddenly see Paul, the cop, walking with a shopping bag and pushing his earpiece to his ear, trying to make out what the couple is saying. We then see the couple, as the man says to the woman, “Does it bother you—walking around in circles?” and they pass Harry who is sitting on a park bench. The perspective shifts back to the office, where Harry listens to the tape, the part in which the couple looks sympathetically on the sleeping homeless man. Harry rewinds the tape yet again and listens to the woman say, “Every time I see one of those old guys, I always think the same thing…I always think that he was once somebody’s baby boy.” Harry listens to this part of the conversation, looking at the photo of the couple that he hung up and watching the tapes roll. “…And now, there he is, half-dead on a park bench, and where are his mother or his father, or all his uncles now?” we hear the woman say on the tape, and Harry looks up at the speaker that is playing the conversation. The piano score begins to play again and the camera zooms out to show the corner of the warehouse from afar.
The scene shifts and we see Harry getting off a bus and making a call in a phone booth. The scene is shot from outside the phone booth, and the camera zooms in slowly towards Harry, who calls the office of his superiors seeking to make an appointment. A man taps on the outside of the phone booth, waiting to use it. “I have the material and I’m calling for an appointment,” Harry says into the phone. The man on the other end tells Harry that the director has gone home for the day, but that Harry can call back in the morning. When he asks Harry for his telephone number, Harry insists that he is at a payphone and doesn’t have a home telephone. The camera zooms in as we hear the man on the other end go to make an appointment and the man outside the payphone once again taps on the door. The man on the other end tells Harry that he has an appointment for 2:30 the following afternoon, and Harry asks if there will be “payment in full,” to which the man responds, “whatever was arranged.” Harry hangs up and sighs deeply.
The bus arrives an apartment. It is now evening and the piano score plays as Harry enters the building through an ornate front garden. In the lobby, Harry stops at the stairs for a moment, then walks down and opens the door to an apartment on the ground floor. We hear a woman’s voice greet him, and he responds “Hello Amy,” before locking the door behind him. “I didn’t think you were coming,” Amy says, and we see Amy, smiling in bed. “I brought some wine someone bought me as a birthday present,” Harry tells her and Amy laughingly tells him that she didn’t even know it was his birthday. He asks if she wants some wine, and she tells him she does. He opens the bottle as Amy asks him how hold he is. He lies and tells her that he is 42, before pouring wine into two glasses. “Does something special happen to us on your birthday?” Amy asks, but Harry can’t imagine what she means. He hands her her wine, and she asks if he’s going to tell her more about himself, if he will tell her any secrets. Harry sits on the bed with her and they drink wine, as he tells her, “I don’t have any secrets.” Amy doesn’t buy it, however, and remains determined to unearth something. She tells him that sometimes she sees him at the building at times when he has not told her he is coming, and that she knows he lingers in the hallway sometimes. “You think you’re going to catch me at something,” Amy laughs. She then discusses the particular way that Harry opens doors, and how his uniqueness betrays him. It turns out that Harry Caul is not so anonymous as he thinks. She brings a box of cookies over to the bed and begins to munch on some, as Harry puts his arm around her. “Sometimes I even think you’re listening to me when I’m talking on the telephone,” she then says, which gets Harry’s guard up. “I just feel it,” she continues, and Harry gets up abruptly.
Amy sings a little song, “Wake up, wake up you sleepy-head,” which makes Harry even more suspicious. “Why are you singing that?” he asks, to which she responds, “It’s pretty.” Harry seems upset, and comes back and sits on the bed. “It’s just that someone else was singing that today.” Amy is suspicious that it was a girl that Harry is seeing, but he assures her that it wasn’t in a romantic context. “I’m jealous,” says Amy, but Harry insists that it isn’t like that, before kissing Amy and laying her down gently onto the pillow. In between kisses, Amy asks Harry where he works, but he ambiguously tells her that he works different jobs and that he’s “kind of a musician.” He shuts off the light and Amy continues to ask him about himself: where he lives, why she can’t call. “I don’t have a telephone,” he tells her. When she continues to question him, he asks her why she wants to know. “Because it’s your birthday,” she says. “I don’t want people asking me a lot of questions,” he tells her. He then gets up and puts the money for Amy’s rent in a cupboard in the kitchen. As much as he refuses to tell Amy details about his personal life, Harry still wants to support her financially and take care of her. Amy watches him as he goes to leave. “You never used to ask a lot of questions,” he says to her as he opens the door, and Amy tells him that even though she was excited that he came over, she doesn’t think she is going to wait for him anymore. Harry leaves.
From the start, the way that The Conversation is shot shows that it is primarily about surveillance, as we the viewer are privy to private conversations and up-close perspectives. While many movies seek to orient the viewer in a framed narrative—meet the protagonist and watch the exposition—The Conversation immediately puts the viewer at a remove. We hear conversations as though they are nearby, but the camera is not in the middle of the action. It peers over shoulders in the foreground, which gives the impression of watching from a distance. Director Francis Ford Coppola expertly shows the way that surveillance sets a viewer down in the midst of a situation completely out of their reach, unbeknownst to the people being surveilled. Immediately, one is hearing bits of conversation that the speakers think are private as they go about their lives. The person surveilling is, in a way, out of step with time itself, watching but not participating, catching bits but never engaged. Similarly, the viewer feels somewhat out of step with the proceedings in the opening scene, as we struggle to frame our experience in a straightforward expository structure. Instead, we see blurry, almost indistinguishable faces, hear small fragments of conversation, and seek to piece together our setting as though standing in the middle of a crowded terminal.
Surveillance is shown as an off-puttingly objectifying and alienating process. Surveillance invades privacy and distorts voices through advanced, computerized microphones. The perspective of the camera in the film and the use of sound to show the alienated position of the voyeur sets the tone of the movie. The view through the lens of a surveillance camera suggests the aiming of a gun and makes the people we watch into targets. When we see the couple walking away from the square, after they have noticed Paul, we see them framed by a target mark. Are they being shot by a camera or a sniper? The film is invested in showing the alienating and violent effects of modern society, technology, and invasion of privacy. In these opening sequences of the film, the viewer feels strangely cut off from the action, as crowds rush by and actions are disjointed from the dialogue that we hear. The beginning of the film and its depiction of the sensory disjunctures of surveillance sets an alienating tone. Who is this couple discussing the homeless man on the bench? Who is the man with the coffee? Why is there a mime? While films usually seek to orient the viewer in relation to setting and space, The Conversation starts by setting the viewer immediately down in a somewhat confusing public space, and seeks to disorient.
Surveillance is not simply a method of research, but also an extension of an invasive form of voyeurism. This is most clearly shown when the two girls approach the side of the van and fix their makeup in the mirrored glass as the man in headphones snaps photos of them lecherously. Unsurprisingly, surveillance is a tool not only for extracting information, but also for spying on people who have not given their consent. Additionally, in the beginning of the film, one of the conversations we hear taking place between two pedestrians is a man expressing his desire to go home and “get it on” to a woman he is walking with. From the start, the film suggests that if one digs deep enough, and looks into people’s personal lives, one will find not only information, but sexual secrets. The world of sex and the erotic is tightly linked to surveillance, even if surveillance itself, the task of going over tapes and keeping a tight lid on things, is not a particularly sexy one. Indeed, the erotic dimensions of surveillance also extend to Harry’s personal romantic life. Amy, his lover, tells him that she knows that he sometimes just comes to her apartment and looks at her door sometimes. The act of spying and surveilling is, for the men whose job it is to do so, an erotic activity in and of itself. Surveilling is not only a way of gleaning secrets, but also of getting off.
Fascinatingly enough, not only do the people being surveilled have secrets, but the man doing the surveilling, Harry Caul, seems to have secrets of his own. Harry keeps a tight handle on his own personal affairs and is depicted as having few personal relationships. He has three separate locks on his apartment, an alarm which rings as soon as he enters, uses a payphone in lieu of a personal telephone, and is unnerved by the presence of a package that he didn’t bring in in his apartment, which he promptly addresses with the woman at the front desk. His own personal air of mystery underlies his expertise as someone in the surveillance business, but it also belies a deep paranoia. In a field of work that requires him to be virtually invisible in the world around him, Harry takes these demands seriously in his own personal life, and maintains a tight handle on his own privacy. This tight handle only encourages the people in his life to take more of an interest in him, as evidenced by the fact that the woman at the front desk takes the liberty of opening his birthday mail and putting it in his apartment, which makes him very uncomfortable. Similarly, Amy, his lover, is determined to discover his secrets, even though he insists that he has none.
In addition to his extreme privacy and paranoia, Harry is also markedly lonely, alienated by the sensitive nature of his job. His only hobby outside of work appears to be playing the saxophone along with the jazz records in his apartment. He solos skillfully, sitting alone in a chair next to a record player. When he finishes soloing, we hear the applause and cheers of the audience on the record, but they are applauding for the recorded musicians, not him. The disconnect between his solitude and the warmth of the recorded audience highlights Harry’s loneliness and disconnect from an appreciative audience. He is cut off from the world, and his entire existence is defined by his having disengaged from the public eye. The movie contrasts the public life of a performer and the completely solitary life of a lonely surveillance expert. The viewer is at once mystified by Harry’s seclusion and paranoia, and sympathetic with his loneliness. This is further reflected in the soundtrack; when Harry plays the saxophone, it is a rousing and jubilant jazz song, and then when he walks alone during the day, the music is a gloomy and dissonant piano elegy. David Shire’s score is evocative and helps to underscore Harry’s lonely plight.