The Conversation

The Conversation Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Tapes (Motif)

The tapes are a central object throughout the film, and serve as a visual as well as a plot motif at various points. Harry's business is surveillance, and he records all of Ann and Mark's conversation in Union Square on tapes. When he delivers the tapes to the director's office, Martin Stett, the director's assistant, seeks to take them from him, but Harry has been given strict orders to deliver them directly to the director. Realizing that the tapes are incriminating and dangerous, Harry becomes obsessed with them, wondering if he should destroy them and worrying about their being in safe hands. He listens to them over and over again, and their contents become recurring, fragmented audio motifs throughout the film. They even surface in Harry's dream, as he sees Ann running with them in an envelope.

Jazz (Motif)

Jazz features prominently from the start. In Union Square, where Ann and Mark go for their first walk, we hear a jazz band playing, and jazz turns up on the fateful tapes. Harry is himself a jazz aficionado. His only hobby is playing the saxophone along with jazz records in his apartment. Jazz is a discordant, improvisatory, and sprawling musical style, representing for Harry a kind of freedom and self-direction that he doesn't have in his personal life. In contrast to his monastic and ultra-private lifestyle, jazz allows Harry a way to experiment within the confines of his home, to break out of his usually more constricted psychic landscape. When Amy asks Harry what he does for a living, he lies and tells her he is a musician, suggesting that perhaps he wishes he could leave the world of surveillance and become a full-time musician. Additionally, David Shire's score itself is jazz-influenced. While it is cinematic and eerie, in contrast to the bustling soundscapes of traditional jazz, Shire's dissonant chords on the piano remind the viewer of jazz compositions, and transport the viewer into the unpredictable and suspenseful world of the film.

Phones (Symbol)

For Harry, phones are a symbol for the control he has over his own life and privacy. As a surveillance worker, Harry knows that telephones are particularly vulnerable to infiltration and the invasion of privacy; a large part of his job is listening in on other people's phone calls. Thus, as a result, he is particularly careful about his own phone usage. He keeps a phone in his apartment, but it is stored away in a drawer and no one knows the number (or so he thinks). When he goes to call the director's office, he uses a payphone, because he is so distrustful of the world. Later, in a suspenseful moment, Martin Stett calls Harry on his home phone, which greatly disturbs and surprises Harry. While he thought he was safe from surveillance, the phone ringing in his apartment represents a breach in privacy, and becomes the way that Harry realizes that he is being watched and listened to. While the ring of a telephone is innocuous and straightforward, for Harry, it becomes deeply symbolic of his own vulnerability to surveillance.

Dioramas (Motif)

Dioramas feature in two significant shots in the movie. At the convention, the camera keeps a tight close-up on a diorama of a square, giving the impression of showing an actual city square, before panning out to reveal that it is just a diorama in the room. This shot reminds the viewer of the first shot of the film: a bird's eye view of Union Square. Like the first bird's eye shot of Union Square, the shot of the diorama makes the viewer feel large and all-seeing; to see such imposing architecture from far away gives an impression of power and influence. It is in the room with the diorama that Martin Stett confronts Harry about handing over the tapes. Then later, there is an extensive diorama in the director's office. In this context, the diorama represents the power and influence that the director has; he oversees a giant corporation, and to him, the world seems as small as a diorama.

Virgin Mary Statuette (Symbol)

At the end, Harry rips up his apartment searching for a bug planted by Martin Stett. Having learned that he is being listened to and watched, Harry wants to find the culprit microphone, but can find none. While he has no qualms with ripping the wallpaper off the walls and pulling up the floorboards, when confronted with the statuette of the Virgin Mary, he hesitates. Here, the Virgin Mary statuette represents Howard's faith as well as his relationship to women. We know that Harry is a devout Catholic, which is what might give him pause before breaking the statue, but we also know that he desperately seeks a female confidant in his life. He is disappointed by Amy's rejection, tries to confide in Meredith but she betrays him, and pursues Ann in a foggy dream, desperately trying to confess his life story to her. The Virgin Mary represents an idealized and trustworthy feminine symbolic figure, which makes the statuette all the more difficult for Harry to break. Ultimately, however, he breaks the statuette, which symbolizes how isolated and alone he feels given his professional plight.