The Conversation

The Conversation Summary and Analysis of Part 3: Bernie Betrays Harry's Trust


Harry goes over to the booth where Stan is working, and asks, “Since when are you working for Moran, Stanley?” Stan tells him he took the job the previous day, which prompts Harry to apologize for the “stupid argument” they had at work. However, Stan assures him he just wanted to take a new job. Worried, Harry tells Stan not to tell Moran about any of his projects, but Stan assures him, “There’s not much you ever let me in on, Harry. Maybe that’s the problem.” Harry continues to try to convince Stan to come back to working for him, insisting that he will share some of the information with him. When he asks Stan to think about his offer, Stan remains silent, which prompts Harry to come clean; “Some guy’s following me…it has something to do with the assignment last week,” he tells Stan. Hearing this, Stan agrees to come back to work for him, and the two men shake hands. Before he leaves, Harry calls the Moran device “junk” and walks away.

At another booth, we see a diorama of a city square, as the camera pans up to show Harry using a public phone nearby. The phone rings several times, before a recorded message says, “I’m sorry, but you have reached a disconnected number.” Confused, Harry hangs up, inserts coins, and dials again. This time he gets through to an operator, and asks for Amy Fredericks’ number. After a moment, the operator is back and tells him that there is no listing for that name. Harry thanks her, and hangs up. The camera pans to reveal the director’s assistant, Martin, sitting on a red couch nearby, looking at Harry. The two men stare at one another, and Harry walks out of the room, before soon running back in to confront Martin. “What are you doing here?” he asks Martin. Martin assures Harry that he is only a messenger and offers him a drink, but Harry is unconvinced. Flustered, Harry insists to Martin that he will only give the tapes to the director, before asking Martin what his message is. Martin tells him, “We want you to deliver the tapes on Sunday, one o'clock. The director will be there.” Harry tells him to tell the director that he will think about it, before storming out of the room. Martin follows him out of the room slowly.

Abruptly, we see a car pull up to the curb, and Harry’s friend Paul gets out, calling Harry, Bernie and his associates over. Bernie puts on his tie and jacket for a party and they all get in. With everyone crowded into the car, Paul drives them to a party at Harry’s office. The car they are driving behind drives recklessly, and Paul follows it, swerving around corners and worrying some of the women in the car, but a man assures them, “Don’t worry, Paul’s the best tailsman in the country.” While he drives, Paul calls someone to look up information about the car based on its license plate, keeping close on its tracks. Eventually, Paul pulls up alongside the car and yells out their information to them, before calling the driver a “shithead” and speeding away.

At the warehouse where Harry works, Harry unlocks the door to his office, and the group goes in to have a party. Bernie announces that “the bar is now open,” and Harry walks over to organize and clean up his tapes and notes as someone puts on an old jazz record. Harry goes into a gated area of the office that says “No Admittance,” where he puts his notes from the tapes. Meanwhile, Bernie tells some of his companions about a Dear Abby article he read called “Lonely and Anonymous.” Harry emerges from the gated area as Bernie jokes that he thinks the letter was from Harry. Harry closes the gate, and Bernie hands him a drink. Bernie then toasts to Harry, “the best, bar none!” Harry quips, “the best what?” and Bernie indignantly clarifies, “The best bugger on the West Coast!” Millard, one of their companions, asks, “Who’s the best bugger on the East Coast?” Bernie says, “Me,” and raises another toast, this time to himself. Bernie then turns to Harry and comments on how unusual it is that the two men never bumped into each other when they were working as surveillance experts in New York. “I didn’t know you came from New York, Harry,” Stan says. Bernie goes on to extol Harry’s expertise, saying that he never could figure out the case of “the welfare fund, back in ’68.” Harry is surprised to hear that Bernie even knows about that case, and Bernie assures him that everyone in the business knows about it, before asking him how he did it.

The men are interrupted by Meredith, who comes over and initiates a dance with Harry, before accidentally hitting her head on a hanging device, clearly intoxicated. Bernie sits nearby, trying to keep a lid on his jealousy, as Meredith and Harry begin to dance. Meredith tells him that she used to like to bang her head as a child, because it was comforting. Bernie interrupts her and tells Harry, seriously, “I tapped my first phone when I was 12 years old,” before going on to tell them that his father was very proud of him for being so good at tapping phones. Harry then wanders over to a phone nearby and listens in on Stan, who is on another phone in the office. Stan eventually realizes he is being spied on, and laughs loudly.

Meredith takes Harry’s hand and leads him away from the party, telling him that she wants to hear all about him. The men joke for Harry to “watch out,” as he walks into the open area of the warehouse with Meredith. She asks him where he’s from, and he tells her, “New York.” Meredith tells Harry that she’s from New York too, and details her upward professional trajectory, from receptionist, to secretary, to gal Friday, to wife of the boss. Harry walks away from her, and she follows him, dancing around the poles in the warehouse. Harry asks Meredith if she is still married, to which she responds, “Oh, I don’t know…Probably!” Somehow, she tells him, she has ended up in San Francisco, unemployed. Harry is silent, and smiles at Meredith, before raising a toast to her. Meredith is offended by Harry’s stoic demeanor, upset that he doesn’t seem to want to talk to her. After the couple stares silently at one another for a moment, Meredith walks away, dejected. She abruptly comes back and says, “I wish that you’d feel that you could talk to me and that we could be friends, I mean, aside from all of this junk.” She puts her hand on his neck, as the moody piano score plays, and Harry begins to tell her the story of his relationship with Amy, “If you were a girl who’d waited for someone…Well, you never really knew when he was going to come see you, you just lived in a room alone, and you knew nothing about him…” After he goes on to speculate more about the ways he must have hurt Amy, he finally asks Meredith to tell him, “Would you go back to him?” “How would I know that he loved me?” Meredith asks. Harry assents, “You’d have no way of knowing,” and the couple is interrupted by the sound of a sliding gate. Stan drives around the warehouse on his motorcycle, circling Meredith and Harry, who dance in each other’s arms. Meredith runs around, chasing the motorcycle and eventually getting on the back of it.

The motorcycle trails the third man, as Harry goes back into his office. Harry is interrupted by Bernie, who tells him that 12 years ago he recorded every telephone call of a presidential nominee from a major political party—he doesn’t want to say which party. As Bernie makes suggestions that he helped to elect the current president because of his wire-tapping, Stan walks up and listens. Stan then tells Harry to tell Bernie “about the time you put the bug in the parakeet.” Stan laughs about the time that Harry put a microphone in a parakeet, and Bernie asks about a specific case that Harry worked on when he was working for the attorney general’s office, and “how he did it.” Harry is surprised to learn that Bernie knows about the case—this is the case that he expressed regret about in confession—and walks away to continue organizing the office. In the case, Bernie tells the group, the president of a local chapter of the Teamster's Union had set up a fake welfare fund, which only two people had seemed to know about—the president and his accountant. Bernie goes on to say that the president and his accountant only talked about the case on private fishing trips on a “bug-proof” boat. Somehow, Harry was able to record their conversations anyway, a feat which still mystifies Bernie.

Bernie then tells the group that the case caused a scandal, because three people were murdered as a result. “It had nothing to do with me, I just turned in the tapes,” Harry says casually, but Bernie says, “The president thought the accountant had talked,” and tells the group that the accountant and his wife and kid were found naked, tied up with rope, shaved, and beheaded, as a result of the case. Harry shakes his head, and walks away. Bernie asks Harry again, “How did you do it?” but Harry responds, “What they do with the tapes is their own business.” Bernie says that that case was the first time he ever heard of Harry, and that after the news of the case broke, Harry left New York. When Bernie asks yet again how he did it, the others ask Harry to fess up.

Before Harry can say anything, Stan begins to play the tapes of Ann and Mark’s conversation, and we hear the jazz band that was playing in the square that day. Harry is livid, throwing a box and telling Stan to turn off the tapes. “They ought to hear this Harry, it’s the best thing you’ve ever done,” says Stan, but Harry rushes over and switches off the tape. Bernie asks Stan about the tapes, and Stan tells him that it’s the case that Harry has been working on that week—“It’ll make history,” he says. Bernie takes this as a challenge, and suggests that there isn’t any conversation he couldn’t record, and that he could figure out any of Harry’s schemes. Stan then takes Bernie over to a blackboard, with a diagram of Union Square, and begins to explain the scenario of their spying from the other day. As Harry looks at the photos of Ann and Mark, Stan describes the couple, and their circling of the square the other day. When Stan asks Bernie how he would capture the conversation of a couple who is constantly moving through a busy square, Bernie tells him, “First of all, one system won’t do it,” but this point seems fairly obvious to one companion, who chuckles at his suggestion.

Anxiously, Bernie suggests that the best way to capture their conversation would be to pre-rig the couples’ clothes. When Stan assures him that there was no way to do that, Bernie suggests that they got someone to bump into the couple and plant a pin mike on them. “They’ve been bugged before, it’s too risky,” Stan says. Bernie guesses some more, but cannot seem to figure it out. When one of their companions asks if it was commissioned by the federal government, Stan assures him that they were hired by a private operation. “It would take at least four passes,” suggests Bernie, but Harry assures him that he “did it in three…with three-stage directional microphones, with MOSFET amplifier of my own design.” He then acknowledges that Paul helped him get recordings as well and puts his arm around Paul. Harry then pulls Meredith over and puts his arm around her as he brags about his impressive feat of surveillance. As he begins to detail the process more, someone asks, “What did they do?” referring to Ann and Mark. Harry admits that he doesn’t know, before going into the gated area of the office and pulling out a device, teasingly. As he puts the device back—there’s no way he would let Bernie in on his secrets—Bernie discusses the fact that he always thought the two men should be partners. Bernie tells Harry that he just needs to take a look at Harry’s devices, and then they could manufacture the implements and sell them to the government for a fortune.

Harry interrupts him to tell a bad homophobic joke—“Did you hear about the fag wire-tapper? He could only tap the Princess phone.” Paul laughs at his joke, and Harry goes over to dance with Meredith. Bernie keeps trying to make a deal with Harry, hoping to go into business with him. Harry smiles at Meredith as they dance, and rejects Bernie’s offer—“I don’t need anyone.” Irritated, Bernie begins to play a tape on a small machine. It is the conversation Harry had with Meredith. Meredith can’t believe that they got recorded, as someone says, “the bugger got bugged, eh?” Harry looks down slowly at the pen that Bernie put in his breast pocket earlier, clearly the microphone that Bernie used to capture his conversation. We hear Harry discussing his love life with Meredith on the tape, and the men laugh warmly at the innocent joke. It is clear, however, that Harry doesn’t find it very innocent, as he looks menacingly down at the pen, eventually ordering everyone to leave the office. “It’s just a joke for Christ’s sake!” Bernie protests. Stan warns Bernie not to take Christ’s name in vain, but Bernie is sarcastic and tries to keep the party going.

When Bernie tries to give the recording device that he used to surveil him to Harry as a gift, Harry breaks the pen dramatically, as everyone files out of the office. Paul asks Meredith if she wants to go, but she tells Paul she’s going to stay with Harry. Paul leaves carrying two liquor bottles, as Stan grabs his bag and tells Harry he’ll see him on Monday. Bernie calls to Harry, apologizing for his joke. Harry looks over to the wall of the warehouse, and sees the elevator going down. He is alone in the office with Meredith.


Coppola continues to use creatively arranged shots to build the suspense and make us question the nature of reality in this portion of the film. At one point, the camera is tightly zoomed in on a diorama of a city square, and for a second it seems like perhaps it is an actual bird’s eye view of a city scene. Soon, however, the camera drifts and we can tell that it is simply a diorama. The shot shows the ways that reality is distorted in the film, and reminds us of the big-picture perspectives afforded to those who work in surveillance. For people who listen in on the daily operations of the city, something as large as a city square can seem small. The role of the surveillance expert is almost god-like, in that it allows the expert to look down from a great height and listen in on the private interactions between unknowing citizens. Thus, the surveillance expert is an omniscient presence in the world—he has the ability to see and hear everything. The ambiguity of the shot of the diorama brings this perspectival privilege to mind. The shot also hearkens back to the opening shots, a bird’s eye view of Union Square in San Francisco, where the incriminating tapes were recorded.

In addition to revealing some of the thematic elements of the film, the photography also builds suspense. Soon after the shot of the diorama, as Harry hangs up the phone, he looks over to find Martin sitting on a couch nearby. Martin is an antagonistic presence in the film, and his sudden appearance is disheartening and suspenseful. He appears on a red couch, cross-legged and with his forehead resting in his hand, a chillingly casual pose for someone who represents danger for Harry. Behind Martin, the wall is almost entirely made up of large mirrors, and we see Harry’s reflection, bewildered and concerned, standing next to the small diorama of the city square. For the first time in the movie, Harry, who has previously been so careful and discerning, is caught off guard. Adding to the suspense is the calmness of the tone in this moment; Martin remains still, and the two men simply stare at one another, silently. In the world of the film, danger is constantly bubbling beneath the surface, imperceptible and secret, and the way that this film is shot—its use of mirror, composition, and pose—add to the disconcertingly discreet quality of danger.

Harry’s loneliness remains a thematic centerpiece of the film; it is what allows him to become so invested in the tapes, but also what alienates him from the world around him. At the party in his office, Bernie jokes that Harry wrote into Dear Abby with a letter called “Lonely and Anonymous.” Harry is admired by his competitors and associates, but also made fun of for keeping such a low profile. Harry seems ill-at-ease in a party setting, unable to enjoy light-hearted fun, taking everything too seriously, a limp foil for Bernie Moran’s sleazy hedonism. When Bernie raises a toast to Harry, Harry cannot accept the compliments, asking Bernie to clarify what he is toasting him for. Indeed, Bernie and Harry are perfect foils for one another. Where Harry is dry and straightforward, Bernie is loud-mouthed and performative. The character of Bernie is the perfect character to further illuminate all of Harry’s tight-lipped idiosyncrasies. Harry’s loneliness also comes up in contrast to Meredith’s gregariousness, and she is even offended by Harry’s stoicism—she interprets his silence in their conversation as a rejection of her.

Harry’s detached relationship to romance, sex, and women has been a major vector of his loneliness and antisocial tendencies in the past, but in this section of the film, he allows himself to be taken in by a woman, confiding in Meredith about his feelings for Amy, and eventually inviting Meredith to stay the night with him. His interaction with Meredith in the warehouse, and her performance of upset at his initial reticence, mirrors Amy’s rejection of him earlier. Just as Amy was put off by Harry’s refusal to reveal personal information, Meredith pouts when Harry doesn’t tell her about his life. In The Conversation, women seek to provide a respite for Harry, to give him a space to process the difficulties of his life, but they also want some intimate knowledge in return. Harry, who has hitherto felt unable to confide in anyone but his priest, longs to be able to tell the women in his life about how he is feeling, yet he feels he cannot trust them. In this part of the film, when he is feeling more vulnerable, Meredith’s seduction has an effect on him, convincing him to confide in her.

Indeed, if Harry was distrustful of the world before the night of the party, he has all the more reason to feel paranoid and isolated after the party in his office. There, he realizes that Bernie knows about the infamous case he worked on that led to the murder of three people, Stan misguidedly reveals the existence of the tapes from Union Square, and Bernie reveals that he taped Harry’s intimate conversation with Meredith about Amy. Having had perhaps the most emotionally intimate conversation he had in a long time captured on tape by his main professional nemesis infuriates Harry, and he immediately throws everyone out of the office, enraged at having been so baldly betrayed. Additionally, Stan has revealed the existence of the tapes, which makes Harry all the more vulnerable to betrayal. The office party further proves to Harry just how untrustworthy other people really are. It also exemplifies the main irony of Harry’s life: he makes his living delving into the personal interactions and affairs of strangers, but he feels irrevocably betrayed when he is himself surveilled. Harry makes a living out of violating people’s privacy, but he cannot handle being violated himself.