I really loved this film. It was such a perfect slow burn, building up to the tense scenes with so much care. I love that sort of style, so this just worked so well for me. There was so much time to get involved in the plot and get to know the characters that when the action picked up a little, it was so exciting and tense! I could tell that some parts of it were inspired by Blow Up (and later I'm sure helped to contribute to the inspiration behind Blow Out). Loving both of those movies, I pretty much melted instantly for this film.
If you haven't seen this movie yet, and you think you want to, I personally think you should just stop reading and check it out. For me to write about it, I will probably have to spoil some things, which is never fun, especially in tense thrillers like this one. It's streaming on Netflix and Amazon, so check it out!
The film focuses on Harry Caul, a surveillance expert. He apparently is great at what he does. He gets a job to monitor a normal looking couple, and the whole conversation must be recorded (so he can't use lip-readers). The couple circles through Union Square, and Harry manages to get the whole chat on tape. When he is at some sort of surveillance convention, everyone is astounded by this feat. Harry, however, is becoming troubled. He doesn't understand what the conversation the couple had was about, but he can't get it out of his head. There are parts that sound sinister. Sometimes the woman sounds afraid. He keeps listening to is, obsessed, worried. He wants to destroy them, not give them to the man who commissioned the job. A woman from the convention seduces him and steals the tapes of the conversation in the morning. Harry finds out it was so they could be given to the man who ordered them. As he starts on hone in on the meaning of the tapes, he tries to prevent any sort of tragedy from happening. It appears that he failed to stop what he thought would happen, although in the end, so much of what happens to him is unclear - is he imagining things, or are they really happening to him? I actually like the ambiguity more than an actual answer.
Ebert brings up some interesting points about Harry in his essay. He writes, "His colleagues in the surveillance industry think Harry Caul is such a genius that we realize with a little shock how bad he is at his job. Here is a man who is paid to eavesdrop on a conversation in a public place. He succeeds, but then allows the tapes to be stolen. His triple-locked apartment is so insecure that the landlord is able to enter it and leave a birthday present. His mail is opened and read. He thinks his phone is unlisted, but both the landlord and a client have it. At a trade show, he allows his chief competitor to fool him with a mike hidden in a freebie ballpoint. His mistress tells him: "Once I saw you up by the staircase, hiding and watching for a whole hour" (Great Movies II, 113).
I think that it's interesting to think about, all of this. The fact that Harry is perceived as being talented but all signs that we see show us that he isn't lead me to think there is some unreliable...stuff...going on. Clearly, Harry discovered something sinister was up. But how insane does he get at the end? Did the toilet in the hotel really overflow with blood? Did the man in the conversation say "He'd kill us" or "He'd kill us"? Ebert thinks the blood was real and the way that Harry envisions the crime to just be speculation. I for sure agree that that when we see "footage" of the crime intercut with the conversation, we're just seeing what Harry is thinking. The blood is something else, though. I know it logically could have happened, since towels and junk were shoved in the toilet as well. It just seemed more...guilty? Is that the right word? Something about the blood coming back up reminded me of how he must feel guilt over the fact that he sat in the next room over, thinking that a murder was taking place, and hid under the sheets. He didn't commit the crime, but he has guilt. Maybe when we see the blood, we're seeing Harry's guilt for the crime. I can see both of these sides so clearly that I can't make up my mind right now which one I feel more strongly about! I need some more time, I think, to process the film a little bit.
Overall, I can't believe how great this movie is, and how few people have seen it! It really, really deserves a watch, especially if you like slow burn sort of movies, or Hitchcock type of thrillers. I loved the characters, and I loved the plot. I was going to say how much I recommend people check it out but I hope that the only people who read this far into my post have seen the film! So, carry on, then, I guess. :)
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Conversation
Buy or rent it on Amazon