from the point of view of your average film buff, the 4th of July has unfortunately become something of a cringe-worthy occasion. Capitalizing on both the holiday time off given to most Americans, and the association of Independence Day with Grand Spectacle, major movie studios have begun dropping their biggest would-be blockbusters on the July 4th weekend. Of course, said blockbusters tend to eschew interesting characters and complicated plotting in favor of expensive special effects and the traditional morality tales of Good v. Evil. But in 2004, something strange has happened¾one of the most popular and talked about films of the summer has been Michael Moore’s incendiary documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, a film that among other things carries a dark conspiratorial vision of an alliance between the Bush administration and the Saudi oil money, an alliance, Moore argues, that has been kept under wraps by the mainstream American media. Unfriendly critics and right-wing pundits hurl the word “paranoid” at the film as a term of approbation, apparently in the belief that suspicion of power isn’t, shall we say, the American way. Moreover, the end of the month will see the release of The Manchurian Candidate, a remake of the classic 1963 film that reportedly updates its Cold War paranoia with a warning that the “war on terrorism” may do more for domestic and corporate political interests than it will to actually stamp out the Bin Ladens of the world.

It’s been a good long while since truly quality “conspiracy films” have ruled the cinematic roost. But they once did, as any glance at some of the major blockbusters of the 1970s will tell you. In that decade, often celebrated as the golden age of American cinema, conspiracy thrillers developed as a genre unto themselves, mirroring the political context of the times. These slices of paranoid darkness managed to strike the difficult balance of being uncomfortably subversive, profoundly dark and unsettling, and yet richly entertaining and often quite successful. And while since 1980, examples of the genre still popped up here and there, rarely have they combined the gripping suspense and trenchant sociopolitical critiques the conspiracy thrillers of the 70s managed with such aplomb. So it is worth wondering why the 1970s featured a slew of brilliantly made “paranoia” films so distinctive and yet thematically similar to one another, while the current generation of cineastes has until recently been treated to such excrescence as Conspiracy Theory and Clear and Present Danger.

One reason, of course, is topicality. If there is indeed to be a revival of the conspiracy thriller, it is undoubtedly the result of the growing feeling that the current imbroglio in Iraq is the result of official deception on the part of the Bush administration. It is impossible to separate the genre from its cultural context; Vietnam, Watergate, a wave of political assassinations, and other national calamities created the aura of institutional distrust that the original conspiracy thrillers played on. Indeed, the genre drew its greatest influence from the 1963 Manchurian Candidate, a film that suggested McCarthyism and the Red Scare were actually tools of an American right/Soviet left conspiracy to impose martial law on the United States. The paranoia films of the 1970s took that suspicion of our political institutions and ran with it, in the process creating one of the most exciting, unnerving, and important bodies of art in mainstream American cinema. As the July 4th fireworks fade and the genre appears primed to re-emerge, now seems a perfect time to tell their story.

Alan J. Pakula, 1971
I’m sure it comes as no great surprise to you when I say that there are little corners in everyone which were better off left alone.”

It’s ironic that our story starts here, as Klute is without a doubt the least explicitly conspiratorial and least explicitly political of the genre. Nevertheless, it is considered Part One of Alan Pakula’s “Paranoia Trilogy” for a reason.

Straight arrow private eye John Klute (Donald Sutherland) comes to New York to investigate the disappearance of his best friend Tom, a supposedly upright citizen who evidently led a sexual double life. Klute discovers his friend knew a high-class call girl named Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), who wants no part of Klute’s investigation but does reveal she is being stalked by a mysterious john. Over time, and to the chagrin of Bree, she and Klute fall in love as the stalker becomes more and more insistent, eventually making his inevitable attempt on Bree’s life.

While the plot is standard detective movie potboiler, the film (and its implications) is not. Pakula frames his story as one of emotional isolation in urban America, where hidden evils have a way of reaching out and destroying the innocent. Almost all shots are in dark, claustrophobic environments, frequently emphasizing the isolation and vulnerability of all the main characters (a recurring conspiracy thriller motif). And when the killer is finally revealed, Klute anticipates later examples of the genre (Chinatown, Winter Kills) by portraying evil as masked by authority and respectability (Vietnam, anyone?)

By establishing themes the paranoid thriller would repeatedly turn to, Klute in retrospect was an essential introduction to the conspiracy film genre, even if its lack of a political dimension might at first glance make it an odd choice to include on this list. And in a move that can only be described as prescient, Pakula chooses as his opening scene a chilling depiction of the killer playing Bree’s voice on an audiotape. Three years before Watergate entered the national consciousness, Pakula was already implying the ability of technology to erode personal privacy and autonomy, a theme he himself would return to later on and one that other conspiracy film directors (Coppola most explicitly) would obsess over.

The Parallax View
Alan J. Pakula, 1974
There will be no questions.”

So much for gritty realism. Released the same year as the Watergate story broke, in the second installment of the Paranoia Trilogy Pakula unleashes a surreal monument to existential dread that might best be viewed under the influence of various illicit substances. To put it more bluntly, The Parallax View is an absolute acid trip of a movie, and as pure a distillation of psychological paranoia as has ever been filmed. Warren Beatty plays Joe Frady, a loutish reporter who becomes convinced that an assassination his ex-girlfriend witnessed was actually a conspiracy when she dies under that catchall phrase “mysterious circumstances.” Joe goes undercover to infiltrate the Parallax Corporation, a secretive entity that, as it turns out, recruits and trains political assassins for hire.

In order to interest Parallax in recruiting him, Joe pretends to be the quintessential “angry lone nut” with an affinity for violence. Thus begins a bizarre sequence of scenes, in which Joe first kills a local sheriff in a riverbed in what must rank as one of the strangest fight scenes ever filmed, stops a plane from being bombed out of the sky, and in a truly classic Pakula moment, is forced to watch the Parallax “training video.” The video is a none-too-subtle blend of wholesome Americana themes (mom, pa, apple pie) with grotesquely violent and disturbing images (mass graves, images of assassination, Nazism, rape…the list goes on). Pakula’s somewhat didactic but surreally effective point is that violence and political assassination have become as American as, well, the 4th of July.

The Parallax View’s closing sequence also ranks as a classic of the conspiracy thriller genre. After Parallax succeeds in knocking off a U.S. senator (a man who practices his golf swing in between rehearsing his political speeches), the film’s obvious stand-in for the Kennedy assassination’s Warren Commission intones its all-too-pat “angry loner” conclusion as the camera slowly pulls away, with the stinging closing line “there will be no questions.”

All the President’s Men
Alan J. Pakula, 1976
It leads everywhere. Get out your notebook. There’s more.”

Stepping slightly out of chronological order to wrap up Pakula’s paranoia trilogy, we come to All the President’s Men, a film that for all its acclaim as the perfect Watergate movie might actually be underrated as a great American movie. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who uncovered the Watergate conspiracy. In addition to being (to this critic) the best film about journalism ever made, All the President’s Men is a lot more complicated in its political critique than its unfortunate assimilation into the “because Nixon resigned, the system works” narrative would have you believe.

Through sheer brilliance of technique, if nothing else, Pakula succeeds in creating an almost overpowering atmosphere of paranoia and menace that the two reporters are barely able to fend off. Redford’s meetings with Deep Throat in the deserted parking garage are chilling enough, but when Deep Throat tells him “your lives are in danger” and implies that Woodward and Bernstein are the subjects of electronic surveillance, the film becomes downright creepy, as the suggestion of an omnipresent watcher fills the viewer with so much dread that it is surprisingly easy to forget how the story turns out. Moreover, the real life “happy ending” (with Nixon’s resignation and the exposure of his dirty tricks operation) is downplayed as much as possible in the film, to the point where it is clear Pakula is making a deliberate statement. All the President’s Men closes not with a jubilant scene of vindication, but rather with one of the all-time great movie endings—as Nixon can be seen speaking on TV, the camera slowly pulls back from Woodward and Bernstein while their furious typing becomes increasingly loud, and eventually moves directly to a close-up of the Post’s teletype machine mechanically rattling off the Watergate headlines.

The viewer is left with the unmistakable implication that while the immediate problem is solved, the larger question of governmental mendacity and official deception is still with us and requires constant vigilance—not exactly a “Happy Days Are Here Again” finale. Given Alan Pakula’s disposition and beliefs, no other conclusion to the Paranoia Trilogy would have worked quite so well as this one does.

The Conversation
Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
We’ll be listening to you.”

From the perspective of volume, 1974 was the high point of the conspiracy thriller genre. Three of its greatest films were released that year, including The Parallax View, Chinatown, and The Conversation. The traditional explanation for this is that these films were simply a response to the Watergate scandal. This, of course, utterly ignores the realities of movie-making. Watergate fully emerged onto the national consciousness in 1974, and scripts for mainstream movies released in that year had to have been written months, if not years before. Certainly The Conversation, while powered by an electronic bugging storyline that is strikingly similar to Watergate, had bigger fish to fry.

The film is less a response to any one political event than it is a generalized commentary on the erosion of privacy and individuality in American society. Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is the greatest surveillance expert in the country, and as an ironic (but perhaps inescapable) result is also a deeply lonely and paranoid man. Fully aware of how easily a man can be spied on, he is so fearful of losing his own privacy that he refuses to buy a phone and won’t even tell his girlfriend his real age or what he does for a living. He justifies his job by telling himself that what his employers do with the information he provides them is their own business—he just collects it for them. But his self-satisfied (and utterly delusional) moral neutrality collapses when he thinks he has uncovered a plot by one of his clients to murder a young couple the client has hired Harry to spy on. Desperate to do something, Harry’s pathetic attempts to intervene only guarantee a murder—but not the murder he thinks he’s stopping.

The Conversation’s greatness lies in its use of paranoia to delve deeply into an existential character study of a modern American type. Technology, Coppola suggests, has succeeding in creating men like Harry, who are so disconnected from other human beings that they are unsure of how to act in the world and are divorced from the moral consequences of their actions. But there is also an unsparing political critique just beneath the surface. The company that hires Harry (watch for a brief appearance by Robert Duvall as The Director) represents corporate malfeasance at its highest level, willing to spy on and kill to get what it wants. And in the film’s greatest scene, Harry witnesses a murder through the window of his hotel room, as the victim’s bloodied arm suddenly and nightmarishly presses itself against the glass. As Harry reels back, the TV switches on to coverage of Nixon discussing Watergate, and Coppola’s indictment of institutional corruption is complete.

Roman Polanski, 1974
You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.

This may be an example of the perfect film, one in which it is impossible to find a flaw. It’s also an example of the kind of dark, despairing aesthetic so many of the art films of the 1970s were aiming at, particularly the conspiracy thrillers. Chinatown, despite its reputation as a detective noir movie, is included in this list because its institutional mistrust and doggedly conspiratorial tone fits right in with contemporaries like The Conversation and All the President’s Men. The people and institutions Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes confronts are positively malevolent, engaging in conspiracies of murder, incest, and land acquisition that allow them to run the city of Los Angeles like a personal fiefdom. At the center of it all is John Huston’s Noah Cross, one of the purest representations of evil in the history of American film. Of course, this being a conspiracy thriller, he is allowed to win an unqualified victory at the end of the film.

Chinatown functions in part as a response to those who might argue that institutional corruption and political deception are relatively recent developments. The film depicts a 1930s Southern California that is teeming with lies and a corruption that is both personal and political. Nicholson’s uncovering of a conspiracy to steal Los Angeles’ water pales before the infamous “sister, daughter” revelation, a scene that reveals that moral sickness infects even such previously untouchable institutions as the family. Corruption, Polanski is arguing, is everywhere, and it is not a new phenomenon. This theme struck a chord both with Polanski himself, who seven years earlier had had his wife murdered by the Manson Family and was thus in no mood to let his characters live happily ever after, and with the mid-70s American public, whose post-Vietnam hangover combined with the exploding Watergate scandal left them with the impression that lies and deception were all around them. The film’s immortal closing line (“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”) serves as a metaphor for the apparent uselessness of individual idealism when faced with systematic evil and corruption.

Despite its awesomely grim conclusions, Chinatown ranks as one of the most entertaining films ever made, an incongruity common to the conspiracy thriller genre and the secret to its phenomenal success. Even profound depression, it seems, can pack the theaters if presented artfully enough.

Three Days of the Condor
Sydney Pollack, 1976
What is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?

The plot of Condor is the kind of High Concept that Hollywood loves. CIA researcher Joe Turner (Robert Redford) literally returns from lunch to discover everyone in his office has been assassinated. When he desperately tries to contact his superiors and get spirited away to safety, someone tries to kill Turner as well. His only option is to kidnap a random woman (Faye Dunaway) and use her apartment as his hideout while he attempts to uncover the conspiracy against him.

Condor is less the existential exploration of paranoia and corruption represented by The Conversation and Chinatown, and more of a standard, yet extremely well-made, man-on-the-run thriller. But its political implications are as essential as they are explicit. The film’s condemnation of the American intelligence community cannot be understood without reference to the Pentagon Papers (particularly in the movie’s closing scene outside the offices of the New York Times) and the Church Committee’s 1973 congressional investigation of CIA malfeasance, which established the agency’s disturbing propensity for overthrowing mildly leftist foreign governments and even engaging in several assassinations of foreign leaders. Director Sydney Pollack and screenwriters David Rayfield and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (the latter of whom also co-scripted The Parallax View) take no small amount of glee in bashing the CIA, giving Redford several speeches full of righteous indignation in which he rails against the agency’s corruption and lack of accountability. The haunting atmospherics of the film combine with superb acting performances (especially Max Von Sydow as a chillingly pleasant but ruthlessly efficient assassin) to elevate the material beyond the script’s occasional didacticism, and the ambiguous “will they or won’t they?” ending is truly masterful.

Winter Kills
William Richert, 1979
The courier’s dead. Yeah, fell off the toilet seat and broke his neck.”

A spectacularly strange film, Winter Kills is known in the movie industry as a sort of minor league Heaven’s Gate, the notorious epic whose utter box office failure nearly bankrupted its studio and essentially consigned director Michael Cimino to the filmmaking wilderness. The two films were released within two years of each other, and Winter Kills director William Richert suffered the same Hollywood exile as Cimino. But the similarities end there; where Heaven’s Gate is an overlong, self-indulgent mess, Winter Kills is a brilliantly menacing and blackly humorous ode to conspiracy-mongering, and the first of the paranoia films to look self-referentially on the genre.

Supposedly a thriller about uncovering the truth behind the Kennedy assassination, Winter Kills’ feverish mélange of conspiracy theories is so over-the-top that the storyline is impossible to take at face value. What if, the film asks, all the outlandish theories about the JFK assassination were true? Jeff Bridges, playing the younger brother of the slain president, comes into contact with low-rent Mafia thugs, Cuban counter-revolutionaries, corrupt cops, wild-eyed right wing oil barons (Sterling Hayden, in a classic cameo that not unintentionally recalls his Dr. Strangelove scene-chewing) , and a mysterious woman on a bicycle who seems to suddenly appear every time one of the witnesses is predictably murdered. Richert cheerfully reveals on the enormously enjoyable DVD commentary track that he originally intended to open the film with a shot of the bike-riding woman flying through outer space before landing on Earth, where she would function as an alien observing our bizarre planet and its strange inhabitants. But, says Richert, he ran out of money to shoot the scene. Uh-huh.

There is a point to this satirical madness, one that becomes ever clearer as the film approaches its stunning denouement. Winter Kills, for all its surface paranoia, is in part a commentary upon our obsession with conspiracies, a film in which Bridges becomes less certain about what happened to his brother the more he investigates the assassination. Yet at the same time, Winter Kills is careful to reveal Bridges’ growing disillusionment as he uncovers networks upon networks of corruption. All power is essentially tied together, the film suggests, to the point where even a man as rich and powerful as the President’s father (John Huston, in a masterfully grotesque performance) is trapped by the crooks and corporate interests he associates with.

Simultaneously outrageously hilarious and deeply paranoid, Winter Kills is a neglected masterpiece. And watch for an uncredited appearance by Elizabeth Taylor(!) as a Cuban madam who, in a comic gem of a scene, silently mouths a frustrated obscenity.

Blow Out
Brian De Palma, 1981
No one wants to hear about conspiracy any more.”

Although it was released in 1981, Blow Out deserves inclusion here because it (along with Winter Kills) helped signal the end of the deadly serious conspiracy thrillers that had ruled the mid-70s. De Palma, whose entire career has been an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, was in retrospect the perfect director to tackle a deeply self-referential film about paranoia and political assassination. It seems fitting that the main character, played by John Travolta, is a sound effects man for low budget horror movies—De Palma is at least as interested in examining the conspiracy thriller genre itself as he is in advancing it into the 1980s.

Travolta, while recording outdoor effects for his movies, witnesses a car containing a presidential candidate plunge off a bridge after its tire supposedly blows out. When he replays the tape, he becomes convinced it demonstrates the sound of a gunshot just before the blowout—clearly, the man in the car was murdered. With witness Nancy Allen in tow, Travolta begins a futile attempt to prove the existence of a political conspiracy in supposedly placid Reagan-era America. Like Chinatown, Blow Out is interested in demonstrating that corruption and institutional evil is not just a product of Watergate and Vietnam. Unfortunately, the film’s relative box office failure seemed to suggest that 1981 audiences didn’t want to confront that reality.

While the movie’s subject matter and De Palma’s effectively Hitchcockian direction drive the political points home, Blow Out is so florid and melodramatic (especially in the second half) and contains so much “look at me!” camera work that the viewer suspects De Palma might have his tongue planted firmly in cheek. The scene in which Travolta returns home to find his recordings stolen is a classic example; the camera spins completely around the room several times, supposedly reflecting Travolta’s paranoia and disorientation, but also implicitly sending up the stone-cold gravity of the conspiracy thriller genre. With nearly a decade after Watergate and the end of most American troop presence in Vietnam, the genre’s vitality as an accurate psychological reflection of American political life was nearing self-parody.

The genre did not entirely collapse, of course, but it did fade into the cinematic woodwork. Coppola went on to film Apocalypse Now before heading into one of the most notorious tailspins in film history, De Palma and Pollack moved on to become two of more respected (if increasingly less interesting) mainstream American directors, and Richert, as noted above, found himself shunned for the next twenty years. Only Alan Pakula, director of the “paranoia trilogy”, evinced any consistent interest in updating the conspiracy thriller genre. He made the wonderful Presumed Innocent before going lamentably Grisham with The Pelican Brief (as did Pollack with the slightly more successful The Firm), dying several years ago in a car accident so bizarre it’s doubtful he would have found it plausible for one of his own movies. The main flag-carrier for the genre in recent years has been Oliver Stone, a gifted if undisciplined director whose increasingly bloated films mirror his increasingly addled public ramblings.

There are those who would rather celebrate than decry the fading of the conspiracy thriller genre. Films about wide-ranging governmental conspiracies and unstoppable corruption, goes the all-too-common argument, only feed the fears of an American public that presumably cannot differentiate movie reality from actual reality. Such critics of “irrational” paranoia in films often miss the point. The great contribution of the best conspiracy thrillers is to represent political reality psychologically, to tap into a cultural undercurrent of distrust with American institutions without presenting a strictly academic criticism of political life. As Roger Ebert aptly said in his review of Stone’s JFK (an historically flawed but artistically brilliant film): “this is not a film about the facts of the assassination, but about the feelings. JFK accurately reflects our state of mind since Nov. 22, 1963. We feel the whole truth has not been told…” Similarly, the conspiracy thrillers of the ��70s did not succeed because, to take an example, people actually believed an entity called The Parallax Corporation trained professional assassins to take out political leaders, but because a general atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust after Vietnam, Watergate, and a rash of political killings came to represent a very real part of the American psyche.

Indeed, the signs of a potential paranoia revival may actually represent a healthy national development, an odd thing to say about a genre that evokes some of our deepest fears and most irrational suspicions. Should conspiracy thrillers be considered any less healthy than the bloodthirsty fantasies of the Rambo films that most commentators agree reflected the simple-minded patriotism of Reagan’s America? A little distrust and suspicion emerging to pull us out of our political and cultural quiescence would, ironically enough, likely be cheered by the Jeffersons and Madisons of the world. If so, don’t be surprised to see film, as it so often has, lead the way.

By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-07-07
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