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Monday August 3rd 2020

The Conversation | 1974

The Conversation film location: 16th Street, Design District, San Francisco
The Conversation film location: Harry Caul's workshop: 16th Street, Design District, San Francisco

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was made entirely around San Francisco, the city in which his American Zoetrope company is based (in the Sentinel Building, 916 Kearny Street in the North Beach neighbourhood).

Like Brian De Palma’s flashier Blow Out, it’s an audio reworking of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 mystery Blowup, as surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) falls apart when he makes the mistake of becoming too personally invested in a job.

The Conversation film location: Union Square, San Francisco
The Conversation film location: Harry Caul and his team record the lovers: Union Square, San Francisco

The fateful conversation of the title, between furtive lovers Ann and Mark (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) is clandestinely recorded as they walk among the crowd in San Francisco’s Union Square.

The Conversation film location: Union Square, San Francisco
The Conversation film location: site of the mike on the roof and of Harry Caul's van: Union Square, San Francisco

A powerful directional microphone eavesdrops from the roof of the old City of Paris department store, with its “Since 1850” billboard, which stood at the junction of Geary and Stockton Streets at the southeastern corner of the Square, where the Neiman Marcus store now stands.

Caul’s van full of recording equipment is parked nearby on Geary Street in front of the Louis Vuitton store, 233 Geary Street.

A third microphone is positioned in a window of the long-gone building which stood on Post Street at Powell Street on the Square’s northern side.

When work finishes, Harry lives alone in his modest apartment.

The Conversation film location: Laguna Street, Hayes Valley, San Francisco
The Conversation film location: Harry's apartment building': Laguna Street, Hayes Valley, San Francisco | Photograph: Google Maps

The exterior is never shown but, according to the brilliant reelsf.com site, it’s 700 Laguna Street, a block of near-identical homes between Birch and Grove Streets in Hayes Valley, southwest of the city centre.

His character actually owns the building, which makes sense for one so security conscious, but this detail was lost in the editing.

The Conversation film location: Rhode Island Street, Design District, San Francisco
The Conversation film location: the 'entrance' to Harry's workshop: Rhode Island Street, Design District, San Francisco

His expansive workshop was 1616 16th Street on the corner of Kansas Street, south of the city in the ex-industrial Design District. It’s the rear of the building that's seen in the film, where a now-gone railway track once cut diagonally through the block, from 16th and Rhode Island Street to 15th and Kansas Street. The distinctive windows on 16th Street and Kansas, though, are instantly recognisable.

In a familiar pattern, the premises has been spruced up and houses several design businesses in what is an increasingly trendy arts district.

The fiercely private Caul visits his sort-of girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr) to celebrate his 44th birthday (or 42nd, as he tells her), but her insistence on knowing more about him brings their relationship to an abrupt end.

The Conversation film location: Casa Madrona Apartments, Frederick Street, San Francisco
The Conversation film location: Harry visits Amy at her basement apartment: Casa Madrona Apartments, Frederick Street, San Francisco | Photograph: Google Maps

Her basement apartment, with wrought iron gates and a courtyard fountain, is in the stylish Casa Madrona Apartments, 110-116 Frederick Street, just west of Buena Vista Park in Ashbury Heights – which makes her a near-neighbour of Dr Hank Pym from Marvel’s Ant-Man.

Harry tries to deliver the recording directly to to the man, known only as the director (Robert Duvall), who commissioned it. The director's smart high-rise office is in One Embarcadero Center, a complex of six buildings in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District and still brand new (built in 1971) when the film was made.

The complex also includes the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the astonishing atrium and glass-fronted elevators of which you’ve probably seen in The Towering Inferno or Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety.

When he refuses to hand over the tapes to the director’s assistant (Harrison Ford), Harry is given an ominous warning.

Haunted by a former job that he believes resulted in several deaths, Harry is worried that a similar tragedy may be about to unfold. He continues to work on the tapes to discover what is hidden in the apparently innocuous talk which makes it so important.

As he finesses the sound, he picks up the mention of an assignation at the Jack Tar Hotel.

When I first started working on the Movie Locations books back in the early 90s, and without the benefit of the internet, I assumed that the oddly-named Jack Tar was fictitious, but it wasn’t.

The Jack Tar was a famous / notorious landmark built in 1960 as the ultimate state-of-the-art modern hotel. Its pop arty Mondrianesque exterior didn’t chime with the city’s aesthetic and, despite its innovations, found no love among the locals.

In 1982, it was toned down and renamed the Cathedral Hill Hotel but finally closed its doors in 2009, to be demolished in 2013. It stood at 1101 Van Ness Avenue at Geary Street, on the eastern edge of the Western Addition. The site is now occupied by the brand spanking new Sutter Health center.

The Conversation film location: St Patrick Church, Mission Street, South of Market, San Francisco
The Conversation film location: Harry goes to confession: St Patrick Church, Mission Street, South of Market, San Francisco | Photograph: Wikimedia / Mike Behnken

Troubled by his guilt, the devoutly Catholic Harry goes to confession at St Patrick Church, 756 Mission Street, between 3rd and 4th streets, across the street from Yerba Buena Gardens, in the South of Market district

The Conversation film location: St Francis Hotel, Powell Street, San Francisco
The Conversation film location: the surveillance trade show: St Francis Hotel, Powell Street, San Francisco

The surveillance community convention, where Harry is introduced to his flashy rival Moran (Allen Garfield), is held in the famous St Francis Hotel, OK, the Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square, on Powell Street overlooking the western side of Union Square – yes, the Square in which the film opened.

Although the St Francis opened in 1904, it suffered no structural damage in the 1906 ‘quake, though it was gutted in the subsequent fire.

The fire damage was reparable and the hotel quickly reopened in 1907.

The hotel has hosted more than its share of celebs, politicians and royalty, but it’s witnessed a couple of darker moments.

In 1921, it was the scene of the much-disputed scandal which ended the career of silent screen comic Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and in 1950, singing star Al Jolson died in his suite here.

The techies’ post-convention party at Harry’s workshop turns sour and afterwards Harry is haunted by a disturbing confessional dream in which he tries to communicate with Ann, the woman he recorded and whom he believes to be in danger.

The Conversation film location: Alta Plaza Park, Steiner Street, San Francisco
The Conversation film location: Harry's dream': Alta Plaza Park, Steiner Street, San Francisco

The mist-wreathed park is Alta Plaza Park on Steiner Street at Clay Street in Pacific Heights. Take a peek around the corner at the damage caused by reckless use of locations. The park's main steps on Clay Street were notoriously damaged during the car chase in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball comedy What’s Up Doc?.

Despite Harry’s best efforts, the tapes find their way to the director’s assistant and he guiltily collects his payment from the Embarcadero office.

Afterwards he trudges glumly along Clay Street past the distinctive X-bracing of the Alcoa Building, which stands opposite, and which is more prominently featured in the disturbing 1969 thriller Daddy’s Gone a-Hunting.

There’s a bit of a cheat with the audio for the ending, which proved controversial – but since Harry’s increasingly bizarre hallucinations establish a more subjective point-of-view, I never had a problem with this.