This is simply a masterpiece, and probably the best film Francis Ford Coppola has made. And that is saying something, because he has made some doozies. It is probably the best performance Gene Hackman ever turned in, and that also is saying something. The opening sequence, set in Union Square in San Francisco, is pure genius, as Harry Caul tries to record a moving conversation between Cindy Williams and Frederick Forrest. (This tested the limits of spying technology of the ’70, would certainly be a lot easier today.) He gets scraps of it from each of the mikes he has deployed, but it is all plagued with static, dropouts, and background noise like a group of drummers. As he slowly enhances it, processes it, pieces it together, he gets alarmed at what they are discussing. It seems someone might be trying to kill them. This worries Harry, because a recording he made some years ago resulted in the torture and murder of a family of four. He claims it doesn’t bother him, he just makes the tape and gives it to the client, but it’s clear that it torments him. He is desperate to have it not happen again.
Harry is one of the most paranoid characters I ever seen, and he has good reason to be. He knows how easily someone can get into his life. Not that he has much of a life. He is too bottled up to talk about anything at all. He visits a prostitute (Terri Garr), but when she asks him about his life he closes up like a clam, and leaves her. He wears a gray plastic raincoat just about all the time, and only uses pay phones. His only refuge from the madness is playing his saxophone along with records.
The last scenes, when he knows he has been bugged, and sets out to find the mike, are stunning and terrifying. He literally tears his apartment apart, throws everything out. He never finds the mike. (There is lively debate online about where the mike might have been hidden.) The last shot is of him sitting in the wreckage, playing the sax, as the camera pans back and forth slowly, as if he were under surveillance.
The cast is amazing, consisting of several people who would go on to be big stars, like Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall. The cinematography is magnificent. The Union Square sequence was a nightmare to shoot, and the result is just stunning. We hear bits and pieces of the conversation over and over again, and try to figure it out along with Harry.
All the technology is quite outdated, and to me, that makes it even more frightening. This is what they could do in 1974. Can you imagine what they can do today, with drones, cameras small as a pinhead, HiDef CCTV coverage of every public street in cities? And that’s just the things we know about. I’m sure the NSA and other folks like that are stuff they never talk about. And hell, private citizens can walk into a shop and buy just about anything. It’s a scary world, and this is a scary, masterful film.