Techno-paranoia has become the norm in our post-Snowden world, and hit shows like Person of Interest play on our fears of being watched. But the high-tech conspiracy tale has its roots in the 1970s, which saw a great wave of movies about assassins, surveillance, secret governments, and corporate cabals. The result was a decade's worth of paranoid thrillers, many of them extremely entertaining. Here are the ten you must watch.
Between the Watergate scandal and a series of ugly revelations about the CIA, the FBI, and other federal agencies, the public was more receptive to stories where the country's leaders were the villains. And with the rise of the so-called New Hollywood, a younger, more countercultural group of filmmakers was ready to deliver them.
These aren't the best '70s conspiracy thrillers—a couple of them aren't all that good, though they're worth watching for other reasons. They're just the essential ones: necessary stops on any extended tour of the genre. In chronological order:
Not just the first on the list, but the worst on the list—a movie far more dull than the step-by-step story of a bunch of oligarchs plotting the execution of John F. Kennedy ought to be. But it's fascinating to watch anyway, if only because it somehow manages to be both deeply cynical and incredibly innocent at the same time, as though the filmmakers couldn't imagine an evil elite without also making the plotters' target improbably pure. On one hand, a character can casually declare that the secret purpose of the Vietnam War is to bring down the Third World population. On the other hand, there's the moment when a reluctant conspirator asks, "There ought to be a better way of settling things like this. Have you researched [Kennedy's] private history?" The unlikely reply: "If we could find a way to discredit him, believe me, we would have done it by now."
The ideal introduction to the '70s conspiracy cycle. It's got a series of political assassinations, a compromised federal investigation, a hidden cabal that's behind it all, and the best brainwashing sequence this side of A Clockwork Orange.
Francis Ford Coppola's tale of a surveillance expert forced to confront the consequences of his work was written in the 1960s, and in some ways it has more in common with paranoid '60s pictures like Mickey One than with the other movies on this list: The story hinges on an internal conflict within an anonymous corporation, not a broader plot against the public good. But it appeared as the Watergate scandal was cresting, and suddenly everything in the film seemed to take on a more directly political meaning.
To see how much the movie industry changed in the '70s, consider this: A decade earlier, the people behind the James Bond movies had been so wary of politics that they routinely replaced the Bond novels' Soviet villains with an apolitical terror network called SPECTRE. Now a studio considered it commercially savvy to add controversial politics to a picture: Three Days of the Condor doesn't just pit its CIA-analyst hero against his own agency, it transforms the original novel in ways that slice sympathetic CIA men out of the story and give the villains' crimes a more political edge. ("It was not mere greed that led them to murder," Kathryn Olmsted notes in her book Challenging the Secret Government, "but their fanatical, misguided patriotism.") This shift leftward in security-state politics was not matched by a shift leftward in gender politics: The protagonist kidnaps, binds, gags, and "seduces" a woman in a sequence that rivals The Parallax View's brainwashing segment for sheer creepiness.
Pakula's follow-up to Parallax tells the Watergate story from the Washington Post's point of view. That makes it the most optimistic film on this list: There are clear good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are driven out of power in the end. But there are a lot of paranoid moments along the way, including a sequence that plays with the idea that Bob Woodward might be killed for his efforts to expose the scandal.
Like Three Days of the Condor, this almost sounds like a conventional espionage movie: It's an action picture where a spy tries to stop a rogue Russian from activating a network of brainwashed assassins scattered across America. But the hero works for the KGB, not the CIA. And by the end of the story both the Soviet and the U.S. governments want him dead, each for similar—and similarly ugly—reasons. The effect is to make both sides of the Cold War look like one vast, callous machine.
Like Executive Action, this isn't really a good movie: It has one of those scripts where smart people suddenly do stupid things because the plot requires it, and it includes more than one heavy-handed conversation in which characters articulate themes that didn't really need to be stated aloud. Unlike Executive Action, it's never dull. Gene Hackman, who's great as always, plays a convict quietly guided into becoming an assassin for a mysterious, apparently all-powerful organization. By the conclusion, the conspirators seem to have an almost godlike ability to manipulate events.
The movie's outlook is so paranoid and cynical, it makes The Parallax View look like I'm Just a Bill. Yet it wasn't made by some New Hollywood radical. It was directed by Stanley Kramer, a man known for heavy-handed message-movies like Judgment at Nuremberg and Guess Who's Coming for Dinner—the sorts of stories that are supposed to leave the audience hungry for reform, not dazed by a vision of corruption so all-encompassing and inescapable that no reform is possible.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: After leading a mission to free some POWs in Vietnam, Chuck Norris learns that the rescue was never supposed to succeed. Yes, this is an embryonic version of Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and all the other bloody POW/MIA movies of the 1980s. But this one quickly morphs into a '70s-style conspiracy story, with Norris tracking down the well-placed plotters who sabotaged his mission. Its politics are closer to the spirit of the '70s than the '80s, too: Norris' character calls Vietnam "a war that never should have begun, in a country we never should have entered," adding that "the reasons for the war were beyond any rules of logic." I missed that scene in Rambo.
This is what Executive Action should have been: a wild and funny ride through virtually every conceivable villain in a JFK assassination conspiracy—mobsters, federal agencies, anti-Castro Cubans, even Hollywood itself. (The dead president here is called "Timothy Kegan," but Kennedy is the obvious inspiration.) I won't give away the ending, but I will note that while the identity of the villain must have seemed like a crazy piece of dark comedy when the movie first came out, last year a book appeared that attempted to make a serious argument that this character's real-world counterpart was responsible for the shooting in Dallas.
Along with Brian De Palma's Blow Out, this marks the end of the Watergate cycle of conspiracy pictures—though not, of course, an end to conspiracy-themed movies altogether. Strictly speaking, I suppose a movie from 1981 doesn't belong on a list of '70s thrillers. But this story about a hippie burnout and a Vietnam vet uncovering a plot in Santa Barbara is a last gasp of the New Hollywood, one of the final pieces of '70s-style cinema to slip into theaters as the executives were reasserting their control over the filmmaking process.
In this case, the executives interfered after the movie's release: Alarmed by early negative reviews, United Artists pulled it from theaters after less than a week. When some more positive press appeared, the studio reconsidered its plan and sent the movie over to its art-house division, which re-released it to considerable acclaim. The experience prompted an appropriately paranoid response from director Ivan Passer: "You can assassinate movies as you can assassinate people. I think UA murdered the film. Or at least they tried to murder it."
Jesse Walker is books editor of Reason and author of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.