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Good Thriller Movies (1970–75): Conspiracy Theories

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Ren Zelen itcherThere was a surge of thrillers during the 1970s which blurred the boundaries between the good guys and the bad guys and spurned the notion that a hero would save the day and walk off into the sunset with the girl. In these movies, the protagonist is not a hero, and in some cases, he doesn’t get to walk off at all. I’m taking a look at the conspiracy movies of the early 1970s. ~ Ren Zelen

Big Government, Bad Government

With an influx of rebellious young film-makers, the early 1970s was a time when movies became an autonomous art form. As war raged in Vietnam and the cold war escalated, Hollywood movies began to change in tone.

Damaging events such as Watergate created a political climate of disillusion and mistrust and spawned a spate of movies dealing with conspiracies and social unrest. I’m taking a look at this unique era of thrillers and highlighting some of the classics and some of the more notable films that may have slipped from attention.


Paranoid Thriller Movie Recommendations

‘Executive Action’ (David Miller, 1973)

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy is growing more liberal and espousing humanitarian movements in his policies. Soon, a shadowy cabal of oil magnates, hard-line conservatives, intelligence agents and rogue operatives meet to discuss the possible ultimate solution to put a stop to political trends they don’t approve of.

Foster (Robert Ryan) wants JFK dead, but the mysterious and powerful Ferguson (Will Geer) rebuffs the idea, preferring to discredit him instead. When this seems unlikely, Farrington (Burt Lancaster) carries out a military training operation in preparation for an assassination while he waits for their final decision.

Although initially ‘Executive Action’ appears dated in its ignorance regarding the now commonplace knowledge of the more sordid aspects of John F Kennedy’s personal weaknesses, the movie has an interesting slant on the enduring mystery of the JFK assassination, approaching the events from the viewpoint of the conspirators.

It’s a well-crafted film dealing with a high-level conspiracy, presenting Lee Harvey Oswald as a ‘patsy’ chosen especially as ‘the lone assassin’ and primed to take the blame.  It has an experienced and adept cast headed by the excellent Burt Lancaster.  ‘Executive Action’ remains a fascinating forerunner to Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie ‘JFK’ starring Kevin Costner. If you enjoy that movie, ‘Executive Action’ will also get you thinking.

‘The Day of the Jackal’ (Fred Zinnemann, 1973)

As the French political climate reaches crisis point over the situation in Algeria, an underground French paramilitary organisation, the OAS, plot to have President Charles de Gaulle (Adrien Cayla-Legrand) assassinated.  

When numerous attempts on his life fail, they resort to hiring a notoriously shadowy hit-man known as ‘”The Jackal” (the icy-cool Edward Fox) a methodical and deadly assassin. The enigmatic killer makes meticulous preparations in order to successfully fulfil his contract, and ‘removes’ any problematic people who might obstruct his mission. Meanwhile, Lebel (Michel Lonsdale), a shrewd Parisian police detective, attempts to unravel the mystery of the killer’s identity.

This is a superior thriller from the novel by Frederick Forsyth and directed by Fred Zinnemann (“High Noon”). It gives equal weight to the professional preparations of the assassin and the dogged efforts of the French detectives to run him down. The audience is placed in the ambivalent position of being as fascinated by the assassin’s methods as by the manhunt by the police.

‘The Day of the Jackal’ is a rare kind of character-driven thriller. It’s dispassionate and calm approach serves the plot perfectly. Featuring cons, weapon smuggling, disguises and sexual encounters, it is a thoroughly compelling story which shifts back and forth from the police hunt to the Jackal’s strategies to remain one step ahead of the authorities.

The director Zinnemann manages to keep a two and half hour movie free of extraneous scenes or pointless exposition, (and please believe me when I say, it is in an entirely different class to the dreadful 1997 movie ‘The Jackal’ starring Bruce Willis). ‘The Day of the Jackal’ is a film to stay focussed on, and repays your undivided attention.

‘The Parallax View’ (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)

After a presidential candidate is assassinated, political reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) begins to suspect that the mysterious Parallax Corporation may be involved. As he investigates, others who share his suspicions begin dying in odd circumstances, including his editor, Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn). Frady uncovers a conspiracy more far-reaching than he ever imagined and must race to try and prevent the corporation’s next assassination in a tense game of cat and mouse.

After forty years ‘The Parallax View’, based on Loren Singer’s novel dealing with political conspiracy and paranoia, still provides an understated and disturbing take on the political thriller genre. It posits a familiar premise – a crusading reporter on the trail of an inflammatory story, pitted against powerful and shadowy forces that will do anything to maintain their secrecy – but it turns some of those movie conventions upside down.

For example, the journalist protagonist proves himself to be less of a crusading hero than a shabby loser, manifestly incapable of landing ‘the scoop of the century’. Director Alan J. Pakula never makes anything entirely transparent and Warren Beatty never allows charm or good-looks to taint his central performance.

Although ‘The Parallax View’, has been often overlooked, possibly because of its low-key development, there are enough shocks and dark encounters to keep the viewers’ attention and only by the end of the film do its various directorial ploys come together. The denouement proves to be distinctly ominous.

‘The Parallax View’ paved the way for Pakula’s next film ‘All The President’s Men’ (1976) – he said that, if ‘Parallax’ expressed his fears about America, ‘President’s Men’ expressed his hopes. A few subsequent movies (such as the 1999 movie ‘Arlington Road’) have tried to imitate it, and although enjoyable, haven’t quite been able to pull off the same kind of unease.

‘The Conversation’ (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is an expert technician who is hired by a mysterious client’s brusque aide (Harrison Ford) to conduct electronic surveillance of a young couple, Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams). Tracking the pair through San Francisco’s Union Square, Caul and his associate Stan (John Cazale) record a cryptic conversation.

Harry has no personal interest in the private lives he secretly observes, but he begins to suspect that the subjects of this particular surveillance might be being lined up to be murdered. Tormented by memories of a previous case that ended badly, Caul becomes obsessed with examining the resulting tape, trying to determine whether the young couple are in danger.

The “compartments” into which Harry has carefully separated aspects of his life begin to disintegrate, and he is plagued by second thoughts about how he earns a living. Being better qualified than most to understand the implications of invasion of privacy, Harry himself begins to be tormented by feelings of paranoia.

Once ‘The Conversation’ picks up momentum, it maintains its grip throughout, outlining the details of Harry’s investigation and shocking the viewer with the aftermath of a violent turn-of-events. Director Coppola clearly aims to emulate the ambiance of European art films, particularly Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’. The film proves to be an examination of the morality of surveillance and the study of a man overcome with guilt and fear. Gene Hackman delves deeply into Harry’s character and David Shire provides an unsettling score.

The film deserves to be seen, not only because of the timely subject matter regarding invasion of privacy, but also its stifling atmosphere of despair and guilt. The film was the basis for Tony Scott’s film ‘Enemy of the State’ which featured Gene Hackman as a Harry Caul like character. If you enjoyed that movie then ‘The Conversation’ is a ‘must-see’ retro-classic.

‘The Secret’ (Robert Enrico, 1974)

A stranger, David Daguerre (Jean-Louis Trintignant), shows up at the home of married couple Thomas (Philippe Noiret) and Julia Berthelot (Marlène Jobert), appearing to have been brutally attacked. Daguerre claims he was beaten up by policemen because he is in possession of a terrible secret that is so damaging that the authorities will stop at nothing to protect it. Convinced by the stranger’s story, the pair help Daguerre cross the border into Spain, but gradually doubts creep in regarding his sanity and the reality of his persecution.

Initially we see Daguerre imprisoned in a row of cells whose occupants, in straitjackets, are chained to their beds. He manages to escape from custody and arrive at the couple’s house. There he predicts, correctly, that the state will mobilize its resources to find him, using as a cover story the claim that a paranoid killer is on the loose from an asylum, but whether his interpretation of events is accurate or not remains uncertain.

‘The Secret’ is a film involving just three characters, which consistently keep us guessing – is Daguerre insane – or is he telling the truth? Who, if anyone, is after him and what is the secret? Along with this conundrum a curious relationship between man and wife Thomas and Julia becomes evident. At various times Thomas appears to be offering his wife to David, then daring her, then testing her. All of them appear to be playing mind games.

Always intriguing and at times chilling ‘The Secret’ also boasts a fantastic score by Ennio Morricone which helps to hold the tension. Whether David is an innocent fugitive, or is the psychopath described by the police and press, remains a mystery until the last moment of the film.

‘Three Days of the Condor’ (Sydney Pollack, 1975)

On a seemingly ordinary day, Joe Turner (Robert Redford), a reticent CIA codebreaker, steps out of the office to buy lunch.  When he returns to his workplace he is horrified to find that all of his co-workers have been brutally gunned down. Joe flees the scene and contacts his superiors to warn them about the tragedy. However, he soon realises that those higher-up in the CIA have played some part in the murders and that his absence from the scene was the only reason he was left alive.

With no one to trust, and a merciless hit man (a sardonic Max von Sydow) close on his trail, Joe must somehow survive long enough to piece together the reasons why his own agency wants him dead.

In ‘Three Days of the Condor’, director Sydney Pollack and writers Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfield have crafted a tight, well-developed tale with a convincing thread of interconnecting events that escalate out of control as Turner tries to discover why he and his colleagues were targets of the Agency, and who is at the centre of the plot.

Turner is a smart guy who is able to put together the facts and adapt to his situation and one can empathise with his frustration as it dawns on him that he has to be ingenious and cunning if he is to come out of his predicament alive.

The movie also poses some intriguing questions regarding the role of secrecy in an open and supposedly democratic society. The multiple levels of deceit and deception depicted in the film may seem extreme, but given the temper of the times, this kind of paranoia was plausible in the wake of Watergate and all that was revealed about the machinations of the ‘invisible government’.

Redford’s character is clever, but also scared and hunted, and in this early role Redford proved that, rather than being just a photogenic face, he could handle a challenging dramatic role. Faye Dunaway however, is lumbered with an unrealistic female character who develops a sudden case of Stockholm Syndrome – incongruously jumping into bed with Turner within hours of her kidnapping. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most unconvincing liasons ever committed to film.

‘Three Days of the Condor’ is also distinctly a ‘New-York-City’ movie and (with sad irony) director Sidney Pollack made use of the then, newly-finished twin-towers, featuring the main lobby and a top-floor office inhabited by the CIA deputy director (Cliff Robertson).

Unsurprisingly ‘Three Days of the Condor’ ends with an anti-establishment message, but Sydney Pollack’s spy extravaganza also remains one of the most entertaining of ’70s thrillers, mixing its anti-government paranoia with a coherent plot, a great cast and deft direction.


New Hollywood, New Fears

If some of the ideas of these movies sound familiar, it’s because their themes and plots have been copied and recycled by subsequent movies over the years. The 1970s are acknowledged to be one of Hollywood’s golden periods (labelled ‘New Hollywood’) when film-makers assumed greater artistic control of their output, leading to other renowned films such as ‘Network’, ‘Chinatown’, ‘Klute’ ‘Serpico’,’ Blue Collar’ and ‘All The President’s Men’.

It is a worthwhile exercise to view these lesser known movies by some of the most gifted directors Hollywood has produced.

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