It starts with a technical tour-de-force by the filmmaker that also depicts the technical tour-de-force being performed by the film’s protagonist. Harry Caul (played with nuanced nerdiness by Gene Hackman), the best undercover surveillance expert on the West Coast, has taken on the seemingly impossible assignment of recording the conversation of a couple walking around San Francisco’s Union Square during a crowded lunch hour. Caul’s method of solving the problem unreels in the film’s first eight minutes; more importantly, though, this sequence demonstrates Coppola’s own expertise in recording Caul’s project, a logistics challenge requiring six cameras, four camera crews, and piles of sound equipment (goodbye budget, and goodbye also cinematographer Haskell Wexler) .
A long, excruciatingly slow crane shot, calling to mind similar bravura shots by Hitchcock, Welles, Altman, and, of course Antonioni, descends into the square, focusing finally on hangdog Caul in his perpetual plastic raincoat being trailed and imitated by an obnoxious mime. Cuts disclose an agent aiming what looks like a sniper rifle, the crosshairs finding the targeted couple. It’s a shotgun mike and with that and Caul’s other eavesdropping devices — a guy with a mike in a shopping bag and another long distance recorder in a hotel window — the surveillance team picks up random sonic squiggles, snatches of a band playing “The Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along” and non-sequitur bits of seemingly inane dialogue. These spill into a bewildering audio collage, a puzzle which Caul, and the audience, has to piece together.
And, presumably, Coppola also. At this point a lot of the script was up in the air and, like Caul, Coppola was faced with a bunch of tantalizing leads and disconnected directions that eluded final form. When Caul returns to his cavernous, Zoetrope-like factory-floor office and runs his recordings through a bank of reel-to-reels trying to orchestrate them into a coherent transcript, it probably echoes similar efforts by Coppola, or more likely “sound designer” Walter Murch, doing the same in the editing room with the movie. As Caul obsessively repeats bits of the conversation over and over again, together with flashbacks to the actual scene, the pieces cohere into a narrative, one drawing Caul, against his better judgment, more and more into an emotional involvement with his subject. For Caul is happy being a gun for hire. He doesn’t want to know what the conversation is about, or who the couple conducting it are, or what the motives are of the mysterious business men who are paying him well to get the work done. He wants his satisfaction to be limited to technical prowess, the finesse, ingenuity and panache with which he fulfills the task given him, however daunting.
Caul, then, is a threadbare version of Coppola himself. A brilliant cinematic technician, able to pull off the seemingly impossible task of taking on a trashy best seller, overwhelming egos ranging from Marlon Brando to Robert Evans, and the innumerable practical, moral and aesthetic decisions, challenges. obstacles and booby traps of a major studio production, and turning them into a box office gold mine and, incidentally, a revered work of art. The secret, apparently, is not to think too much about it, just apply oneself to the job at hand.