Harry Caul is a professional snooper, a state of the art surveillance man proud of his wizardry with all kinds of electronic gadgetry. The movie dates after Watergate in which wire tapping was a major issue. It starts with Caul at work recording the conversation of a couple as they move around in a crowded public place, an amazing but credible feat. The eves dropping is being being paid for-a hefty amount-by the woman's husband, a powerful non-person, referred to somewhat disparagingly as the Director. The possibility of the operation culminating in murder hangs throughout the film, and the suspense, laced with humor, builds up smoothly till a bloody culmination.
This is a low key superbly crafted suspense drama. The inner workings of this seedy, esoteric profession with the rivalries of it's small fraternity of experts, is skillfully and comically presented. The variety and sophistication of the gadgetry is displayed in an exhibition, like a display of the latest in burglary tools. The line beyond which spying on people becomes illegal is never clear. Obviously, if you have the money, it is possible to listen on to anything anybody whispers anywhere.
Saul, played by Gene Hackman, comes out as a poor dear, a helpless, confused, amusing prodigy. He just happens to be in the profession, and proud to be the best man in it. Talk of technology taking over. He is neurotic, if not paranoid, and can scarcely trust his own shadow. He is troubled by conscience, no great asset in his line. And finally he demonstrates courage, knowing lives are at stake.
The opening sequence is memorable. The quiet camera glides down from eagle height on a bustling and colorful American street scene. We are soon immersed in the crowd and picking the threads of the ingenious plot, as the clandestine couple and the hapless surveillance man move around in their assigned roles. The equipment is parked in different places, the center being inside a van parked on the side. It is a superb opening which plunges us directly into the heart of the film..