What makes Harry Caul such an unusual, tragic protagonist?
Harry is tragic and idiosyncratic for many reasons. He is distinguished from his colleagues and competitors in the surveillance field not only because he is so good at his job, but also because he has sacrificed his personal life for the sake of being a good surveillance expert. He has virtually no private life, a stark apartment, and is unable to maintain personal relationships. This obsessive quality is seemingly what makes him such a good surveillance contractor, but it also takes on tragic proportions by the end of the film. Throughout, we learn that he feels cut off from other people, that he has remorse about not being able to express his love to Amy, and that he has extreme guilt about the ways his work has hurt people in the past. By the end of the film, his obsession with his work has only gotten him more convolutedly entwined in a corporate scandal, which ends up compromising his privacy. The fact that Harry's obsession with his job and his own privacy only leads to his privacy being compromised is itself ironic and tragic. Additionally, the fact that he is cut off from other people makes him tragically isolated from love and connection, unable to trust others or ask for help.
How are women characterized in the film?
There are three main women in the film: Ann, Amy, and Meredith. They are all distinct characters, and yet they all become projected representations of the same conundrum in Harry's life: his basic mistrust of confidence and disclosure. When we first meet Amy, she wants desperately to know more about Harry—what he does for work, what his secrets are, who he really is. These are understandable concerns for someone in a romantic relationship, and yet Harry is unable to provide her with answers. He grow increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of disclosing any personal information to her, and his reticence is what leads her to leave him. Later, Meredith also wants desperately for Harry to tell her things. Steeling away from the party, she tells him some of her biography, while asking him about his. Eventually, he reveals that he misses Amy, and that he wishes he had been able to express to her that he loved her. Meredith, a seductive femme fatale, is the only person that Harry feels comfortable confiding this to; however, they are captured in a recording by Bernie. Harry's trust is further compromised by this invasion of privacy. While we do not know much about Ann, her image becomes central to Harry's dream, as he chases her through the fog. His aim in chasing her is to tell her more about himself, about his childhood, and his past traumas. Yet again, the female figure becomes a confidant and a maternal stand-in, someone in whom Harry can confide. The sad truth, however, is that Harry is unable to confide in anyone, because of his broken trust and paranoia.
What do you make of the scene when Harry visits room 773?
There are different possible interpretations to account for this scene, and it is left open-ended by the filmmaker. In the moment that Harry enters the room, it is so clean and unmarred by murder that the viewer wonders if Harry imagined the whole thing. Nothing is out of place, and the bathroom is spotless. Thus, at first, Coppola is playing with the audience's idea of perception versus reality, and calls Harry's reliability into question. When he flushes the toilet and the room floods with blood, the image strikes the viewer as a figurative one; the toilet is not literally filling with blood, but to Harry's paranoid mind, violence is everywhere, even in the pipes.
Later, when we discover that there was in fact a murder in the room, that Mark and Ann murdered the director, we question whether Harry's perception of the pristine room was reliable. Was it actually that clean or is the photography reflecting Harry's repressive and post-traumatic reflection of a murder scene? Perhaps the shots of room 773 are completely imagined, and Harry never even went in the room. Yet another possibility is that the couple was able to perfectly cover up the murder before Harry awoke. In this case, Harry's perception of the clean room would be accurate.
In what ways is The Conversation different than Coppola's other films?
While The Conversation puts Coppola's many talents as a filmmaker on display, it is markedly different from many of his other, more popular films. Coppola is perhaps best known for The Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now. The Godfather takes on an epic subject matter, the Italian mafia, and is filled with an eclectic cast of characters. It is a strongly narrative movie, filled with plot points and family loyalty and vivid depictions of Italian culture. Apocalypse Now is an epic war movie, a film about the vagaries of the Vietnam War, with a huge cast and a strong political point of view. By contrast, The Conversation is more atmospheric and meditative than these two films. While there is a definite plot, it unfolds at a leisurely pace, and the action is in many ways secondary to the thematics of the film.
Coppola himself spoke of the difference between The Conversation and his other films by citing that it developed from a premise rather than an emotion. He says, in an interview with Brian De Palma, "I have to say that this project began differently from other things I've done, because instead of starting to write it out of an emotional thing—the emotional identity of the people I knew—I started it as sort of a puzzle."
What are the differences between Harry and Bernie?
Harry and Bernie are presented as foils for one another. Where Harry is meticulous and serious to the point of humorlessness, Bernie is a boisterous, sociable bon vivant. Where Harry is elegant and ethical, Bernie is sleazy and flamboyant. At the convention, Bernie resorts to cheesy sexual jokes and shtick to sell his product, but Harry is unimpressed. Additionally, Bernie wants to share their respective tricks of the trade, but Harry has no interest in collaboration or comparing notes, because he takes his job so seriously.