Having woken up alone the morning after an impromptu party in his shop, Harry realizes that Meredith has betrayed him. Such a moment of anger and shame cuts him far more deeply because he had, against his nature and his better judgment, revealed himself to her. Moreover, she had made her betrayal apparent (to us, at least) the previous evening when Bernie revealed that he had successfully recorded the conversation between Harry and Meredith. She had lured Harry out of the chain-link cage, into a kind of industrial forest; beyond the fenced walls, Harry’s shop consists of empty space save for a number of wooden support beams. There, seemingly safe from the others, Meredith insists that Harry can trust her and that he should confess his secrets to her.
Meredith is terribly coy throughout the encounter, accidentally (but by design) bumping her head into a hanging outlet, stumbling as though she is drunk. And yet, in spite of the fact that she carries a cup full of booze in her hand, she never takes a drink onscreen, not even after they clink glasses. Desperately in need of a confessor, Harry Caul takes a wildly miscalculated chance on Meredith and describes his suppressed love for his mistress, Amy. As the camera swings in a small arc at his side, resets, and makes the same journey again and again, we are drawn into the same dizzying paranoia that Harry feels at every moment.
Shortly thereafter, Bernie reveals that he has bugged Harry; he is desperate to demonstrate to Harry that he is the better surveillance man—particularly after recounting Harry’s crowning achievement in eavesdropping: bugging a conversation between the president and accountant of a phony union welfare fund, a masterpiece of spying that resulted in the deaths of three people. Harry gives a canned answer, “It had nothing to do with me.” However, when Bernie gets the better of him by bugging his conversation, Harry is almost unable to handle it. He tears off his convention name badge, reinhabiting his role as “Lonely and Anonymous” from Dear Abby, mentioned by Bernie at the beginning of the party.
Except that Harry does not yet return fully to loneliness. He insists that everyone leave except for Meredith, who sees in this moment another opportunity for manipulation. By morning, Harry realizes what we understood the night before: that she has played him for a fool twice, having taken his tapes and delivered them into the hands of the Director’s assistant.
Why would Harry have opened up in the first place? The layout of his shop establishes the extent of his secrecy and mistrust of others; his work stations are housed within a locked chain-link cage, within which there lies another, inner cage labeled No Admittance for which he has the only key. It appears that, save for the party, he allows only his employee, Stan, in his shop. And even Stan is suspect (for whom else has Harry mounted the No Admittance sign?), a fact that leads him to moonlight for Bernie. The fact that Stan acts genuinely hurt by Harry’s suspicion suggests that he is trustworthy.
No doubt the root of Harry’s suspicious nature is deep-seated, as evidenced by his bizarre dream sequence, but the immediate causes of his suffering are the deaths of the three people and his fear that he may be responsible for more murders if the tapes he has made are delivered to the Director. Meredith’s advice that “It’s only a trick; you’re not supposed to feel anything about it” is doubly damaging. Not only has she branded Harry a trick, but she has also ground salt into Harry’s wound because he feels the effects of his choices very deeply.
To be so guarded at all times is exhausting, and to seek comfort in a confidant only to discover that the instinct never to externalize anything has actually been the right one produces a torturous burden, borne by the sufferer alone in a recursive, hall of mirrors manner. The crushing guilt, loaded onto the back of a man who is predisposed to secrecy and paranoia, weighs upon us as we continue to observe Harry, particularly in the film’s final scene, which is as tantalizing as it is haunting. Harry’s reasons for wearing a thin windbreaker, his reasons for keeping his telephone in a drawer, and the relief he is afforded by playing saxophone (watch also for a meaningful saxophone in the scene with the Director’s assistant at the surveillance convention) are far clearer to us than they are to him. We are unsettled as we watch him being watched.