THE PARANOID CONSPIRACY THRILLERS OF THE 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Paranoid conspiracy thrillers are not exclusive to the 1960s, 1970s or the 1980s. But those turbulent decades certainly inspired them.
This article will briefly mention a range of these movies. Have you seen any or all of them? If there are any you haven’t yet watched, please do so, you may find them as fascinating as I do.
Perhaps is it my distrustful nature, but I’m a sucker for mysteries where unseen people or organisations are working secretly against the hero – and by extension, the people (i.e. us).
I think my first memorable awareness of these thrillers was watching THE PARALLAX VIEW on TV. There’s a pleasure to be had watching a narrative where the “good” guys are fighting back against those abusing their power. Yet, unlike the traditional “Hollywood” model of storytelling, the endings are seldom happy, or neat. Endings like that can leave you disappointed, stunned or angry. But perhaps they can leave you energised.
I’m not suggesting that these thrillers are a rallying cry or incite reactionary behaviour. But at least they provoke thought, healthy argument, at least they challenge.
Surely, cinema should do that sometimes?
The 1950s to early 1970s, America was heavily involved in the Vietnam War – fighting a seemingly never-ending and ultimately losing battle in South East Asia. Yet conflicts across the world also had American involvement.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) is about soldiers returning from the horrors of the Korean War – one of them uncovering a brainwashing plot to create American assassins. The Manchurian Candidate was remade in 2004 – during the Gulf War.
The Cold War was still in full swing and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 saw the very real risk of nuclear conflict as the US Military threatened Soviet ships as they neared Cuba. The US had discovered that Cuba’s leader Castro, who had aligned himself with the Soviet Union, had already installed missiles on the island. War was avoided when last-minute discussions between President John Kennedy and Russia were successful.
U.S. President John F Kennedy, heavily involved in the Cuban issues, and president during the Crisis was assassinated in 1963. Rumours persist that JFK was killed by people upset at his presidency, his policies, or his decisions.
SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) American military leaders think their President is weak so engineer a plot to take over.
DESPAIR AND HOPE
1968 – the assassination of both Dr Martin Luther King Jr (Christian leader and Civil Rights activist) and Senator Robert Kennedy (JFK’s Brother and former Attorney General). Two high profile assassinations which shattered the public’s faith in the strength of peaceful progress and led to despair instead of hope.
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) is a slow-burning suspense thriller. A group of scientists investigate a crashed US satellite which has unleashed an alien virus.
I’d argue that the sense of there being something in society that insidious and unstoppable is a very likely theme that emerged from the late 1960s.
In June 1972 burglars broke into the Watergate hotel. This building housed the headquarters of the Democratic Party. The burglars were caught trying to plant listening devices. All the men worked for the Campaign to Re-elect the President (CREEP!).
The Republican Party had engaged in a “dirty tricks” campaign to discredit the Democratic Party and tap the phones of Washington reporters. All evidence pointed to an attempted “cover-up” to hide the truth. Richard Nixon, then President of the United States, denied any involvement. Later investigations revealed Nixon had regularly tape-recorded conversations in the Oval Office, and that some of those tapes had mysteriously vanished. Nixon resigned before he could be removed from office. Later revelations revealed corruption in police, the FBI and the CIA.
People didn’t know who to trust any more. After this, a series of dark conspiracy thrillers emerged that perhaps reflected this disillusionment.
AGE OF DISILLUSIONMENT
THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974). A reporter uncovers a shady organisation which is involved in political assassination.
This film is superbly paced, with fantastic performances from Warren Beatty, Hume Cronyn and William Daniels. Alan J Pakula’s direction is taut and lean, photography by Gordon Willis gives the film a realistic sheen, and Michael Small’s score is truly atmospheric.
The film absorbed me. The naturalistic acting style seemed so different from other Hollywood movies. The conspiracy hooked you, the injustice burned you, and then that ending. Wow.
THE CONVERSATION (1974) A surveillance expert suspects a young couple may be targeted after he records a seemingly simple conversation. Then he begins to fear he is target himself.
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) An officer of the CIA survives an attack on his office, only to realise that the people trying to kill him work for his own organisation.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) A dramatized version of the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two reporters from The Washington Post who uncovered the Watergate conspiracy.
These mid 70s thrillers are chilling, gritty and can be quite stark. They suggest the world has gone wrong, where wrong and right are mixed up, or at least the borders between them are blurred.
In the late 1970s, the development of nuclear power plants was controversial, with many worried about the potential dangers of using nuclear materials. The real-life events around the life and death of Oklahoma nuclear-plant worker Karen Silkwood would be fresh in the minds of the audience. Silkwood was a whistleblower who discovered she had been exposed to radiation and was about to reveal the malpractice in the power plant when she was killed in a car accident. The public was understandably worried about cost-cutting or quality control failures in nuclear plants.
THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979) Reporters making a documentary at a nuclear power station witness a near accident and meet obstacles trying to investigate. At the same time, one of the workers suspects that faulty construction may be to blame.
Twelve days after the release of The China Syndrome, one reactor in the “Three Mile Island” nuclear complex in released radiation, damaging the nuclear core and leading to the evacuation of many nearby residents.
Other conspiracy movies from the 70s:
- The remake of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” from 1978 which is about a horrific alien invasion (but is arguably really about the alienation of living in a busy society – and the inability to trust, or even know your neighbours).
- Medical cover-up “Coma”
- The pulpy but great “The Boys from Brazil” (about a Nazi conspiracy which still operates internationally),
- “Marathon Man” (Nazi criminal legacy in contemporary USA), and
- “Capricorn One” about a conspiracy to cover up a fake Mars landing (which arrived not long after prominent the mid-70s conspiracy theories emerged about the real moon landings!)
All of these films reflect the times they were produced, shown, and set in.
Did it stop in the 1970s? Of course not.
AGE OF OPPORTUNITY
You know the eighties? Everything was possible. Yuppies happened. Anyone could achieve anything in the progressive societies like the USA and the UK where Reagan and Thatcher governments suggested deregulation and free markets. Everything was out there just waiting for you to grab it. Think Alec Baldwin’s “Blake” character at the start of the movie version of “Glengarry Glen Ross” (David Mamet’s eighties play which would be made into a star-studded movie in the 90s).
Yet the thrillers continued, suggesting all was not well underneath the marketing and the spin. The UK saw production of films like “Defence of the Realm” and “Hidden Agenda“, both dealing with political corruption and state cover ups.
The US thrillers continued in the 1980’s, including starry vehicles like
- “The Star Chamber” with Michael Douglas seeking justice
- Brian de Palma’s “Blow Out” (where sound recordist John Travolta discovers a political assassination) and
- Kevin Costner’s “No Way Out” (spies inside the government).
The early eighties also saw the release of “Silkwood” (starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher) which attempted to tell Karen Silkwood’s story.
So what’s the relevance here? Conspiracy thrillers are just another genre surely? Yet I would argue that they are also reflecting what is happening in society.
It seems to be more than a coincidence that the thrillers happen on or around startling revelations in our political and social history. I think the conspiracy thrillers are a necessary outpouring of the fears, frustrations or worries of a world where institutions, individuals or conventions are breaking down.
These thrillers are like the flip side of the coin – everything is going to sh*t, so flip over to see how cinema artists react to that.
The fear that there are unknown forces working against you, the paranoia of not being in control, did not stop in the 80s either. By the time of the 1990’s we had
- Oliver Stone’s “JFK”
- Harrison Ford’s innocent man on the run megahit “The Fugitive”
- Clint Eastwood’s “Absolute Power” (corrupt presidency) and
- the truly shattering “Arlington Road” (suburban neighbours are potential threats).
Name something that the public was afraid of and a movie could reflect it.
One of the most popular and accessible contemporary conspiracy thrillers was the highly successful “Enemy of the State”, where Will Smith is caught up in a political assassination. ENEMY is very much a product of the events of the nineties – but that’s a whole other article on its own.