Certain films seem tailor-made for a Friday night at home or a Sunday afternoon at a revival house. Think of a cozy romantic comedy such as Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet (1958) or a heart-rending domestic drama such as Robert Mulligan’s Same Time, Next Year (1978) — two fine films that, in their strikingly warm and inviting ambience, are easy to embrace.
But what about a mystery focused on a wary proprietor of a surveillance business? Or a thriller in which a small-time investigative reporter goes up against a corporation that traffics in assassination? Or a suspense yarn in which a CIA employee squares off with insurgent forces within his agency? Films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (both 1974) and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) may be gritty or grim, but they possess an undeniable popcorn-movie appeal. Their cynical, conspiracy-tinged visions of clandestine corporations and duplicitous governments belie their essential triviality.
In telling stories that bear scant resemblance to real life, these films — and dozens of other similar “paranoid thrillers” produced during the same period — can be enjoyed because of, not in spite of, their implausibility. As in listening to a tall tale or reading a novel by Agatha Christie, the satisfaction comes in the assembling of scattered puzzle pieces. Reviewing The Parallax View, Time magazine critic Richard Schickel perceptively noted: “It is apparently comforting for many people to believe that the course of the world is changed more by rational planning, however evil, than it is by irrational individual actions.”
Paranoid thrillers were made as early as the silent era — Fritz Lang’s Spies (1928) is one notable example — but the genre did not take off until the 1960s, a decade in which institutions, governmental or otherwise, began to be regarded with skepticism. In 1962, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate — an adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel about a Korean War soldier put through a round of brainwashing in order to catapult a figure operating under the influence of Communists into the White House — established a formula to be followed by countless successors. The film is played sufficiently straight not to be mistaken for a satire, à la Dr. Strangelove or One, Two, Three, but was dotted with enough darkly comic details never to be confused with a docudrama.
In his choice of imagery, Frankenheimer signals that The Manchurian Candidate was not intended as a solemn warning about Communism but as a kind of life-size comic book rendered in crystalline black and white. For example, the brainwashing endured by the soldier, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is depicted as a garden-club get-together in which the ladies of the club are revealed to be Chinese Communists. Later, Frankenheimer gets much mileage out of the item whose presence prompts Shaw to do as he’s told: a queen of diamonds plucked from a deck of cards.
Garnering a pair of Academy Award nominations on its way to cult status, The Manchurian Candidate breathed life into the paranoid-thriller genre. Two years later, Frankenheimer’s follow-up — the military-coup fable Seven Days in May — was released, followed in 1968 by the decade’s most accomplished, albeit unlikeliest, entrant in the genre: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Based on an Ira Levin novel, the film is told from the perspective of a wide-eyed Catholic mother-to-be named Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), who convinces herself that the child she is carrying is sought by a coterie of Satanists. Although Rosemary does not understand her situation in full — in fact, the Satanists called forth the Devil to impregnate her — the film presents a creepily credible picture of a paranoid state of mind: Rosemary comes to regard nearly everyone she encounters, whether stranger or acquaintance, as a possible co-conspirator in the effort to separate her from her offspring.
In one bravura sequence, Rosemary huddles inside a phone booth to call a physician in whom she has faith. “Dr. Hill, there’s a plot,” she plaintively insists. “There are plots against people, aren’t there?” For a few fearful moments, Rosemary suspects that a man looming outside the booth is one of her pursuers — and, because Polanski’s camera remains trained on Rosemary and doesn’t cut to an angle that would reveal the man’s identity, so do we. Throughout the film, the director sustains a tone of general, pervasive unease; even the cover of a magazine Rosemary randomly picks up — the famous edition of Time that asked “Is God Dead?” — seems to spell doom.
In fact, a low-grade sense of society spinning out of control is found in many of the best paranoid thrillers. At one point in Klute (1971), a top-drawer mystery centered on a New York call girl, an FBI agent makes the following baseless assertion as though it were nothing more than a ho-hum fact of life: “There are thousands of honest, decent men who simply disappear every year.” This is, of course, highly unlikely. Yet, to liberal moviemakers in the early 1970s, the twin sins of Richard Nixon’s presidency and the continuation of the Vietnam War were evidence enough that the country had come unglued. Not coincidentally, that decade gave rise to the best, most sophisticated, and occasionally most delirious paranoid thrillers.
In The Conversation, surveillance-business proprietor Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) — like Rosemary Woodhouse, identified as a Catholic — strives with an almost monastic intensity to decipher a distorted line in an audio recording. Caul tinkers with the track until the line emerges clearly: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Because indistinct audio can be even more mysterious than blurry imagery, the film is more fun than Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), to which it owes much. As it turned out, The Conversation was so in tune with the mood of the public — or, at least, the mood of upscale parts of Los Angeles — that it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture alongside a far better-known film by the same director: The Godfather Part II (which won).
Less respectable — and certainly less wrapped up with theological matters — is Three Days of the Condor, which boasts an especially far-fetched plot: CIA employee Joe Turner (Robert Redford), assigned to scour works of fiction for hints of real-life plots, has a bull’s-eye placed on him by factions within his organization. Yet, as is the case with many paranoid thrillers, the film convinces with a smattering of details — offhand lines and incidental scenes — that manage to plausibly hint at a sinister and unseen larger conspiracy. Consider the scene in which Joe places a call to the main office and the man answering the phone, identified as “the Major,” leaves him with the following ominous instruction: “Walk away from the phone — don’t hang it up.” Or the clever, fun-to-contemplate brainstorm Joe offers at one point: “Maybe there’s another CIA inside the CIA.”
The Parallax View opens with the most impressive, and genuinely unsettling, scene in any paranoid thriller. On an almost blindingly bright, clear day, journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) and a television colleague, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), attend an unremarkable campaign event for a fictitious senator at the Space Needle in Seattle. Then, with little obvious foreshadowing, the senator is felled by a pair of bullets; two waiters in red jackets are seen brandishing guns, but only one makes his way to the sloping top of the Space Needle, from which he ultimately tumbles to his death. That last moment is silent except for the patter of shoes, the distant horns of tugboats, and the gunman’s scream. The scene is marked by its jumble of conflicting signals — it’s a puzzle that will take the whole film to solve.
By the end of the decade, however, paranoid thrillers began to lose their luster. James Bridges’s The China Syndrome (1979) was too sanctimonious in its baldly stated objection to nuclear power, shorting entertainment for preachiness, while Pakula’s Rollover (1981) suffered from the opposite problem: The film, though directed with admirable flair and frenzy, was not even slightly credible in its panic over the stability of financial institutions. The gloom and doom offered in such films was not in keeping with the mood of a country that was confidently heading toward Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.” Notably, one of the most talented filmmakers of the era, Philip Kaufman, kept up with the times: After making the first-rate, science-fiction-inflected paranoid thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers during Jimmy Carter’s administration, he shifted to the manly patriotism of The Right Stuff during Reagan’s first term.
In the end, is it altogether healthy to continually absorb so much pop culture in which the structures of society are doubted and the worst is assumed about those in power? A surer, saner worldview can be found in films that demonstrate the resiliency of institutions, such as John Ford’s gushing tip-of-the-hat to West Point, The Long Gray Line (1955), or Otto Preminger’s more restrained salute to our legal system, Anatomy of a Murder (1959). The mindless fun of paranoid thrillers is undeniable but is probably best consumed in small doses.
– Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.