“The Kennedy murder was one of the single events of the post-war generation, my generation. Vietnam followed, then the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, the Pentagon Papers, the Chile affair, Watergate, going up to Iran-Contra in the Eighties. I think the American public smells a rat that's been chewing on the innards of the government for years.” – Oliver Stone, Director of Salvador, Platoon, JFK.
When the filmmakers behind the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s collided with the political malfeasance of the early 1970s, American cinema became a potent voice for a disillusioned and increasingly angry population. Embroiled in a deeply unpopular war and governed by a President whose covert illegalities shamed his office, the movies reacted with a wave of smart paranoid thrillers and fiercely-politicised dramas. The 'Cinema of Conspiracy' genre was born.
A retrospective of classic conspiracy films screens at the Adelaide Cinémathèque in the weeks ahead, showcasing a deeply subversive series of films that grew from the last great period of independently-minded American studio output. The program features four works that capture the essence of an American public experiencing a strong disconnect from their elected government officials: Arthur Penn's cynical, despairing Night Moves (1975), starring Gene Hackman; Philip Kaufman's spin on the creeping threat of governmental conformism, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978); and two films, stemming from the controversial findings of the Warren Commission into President Kennedy's assassination, that expose labyrinthine plots to bring down the US Commander in Chief – Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (1974, pictured) and William Richert's notoriously-overlooked masterpiece, Winter Kills (1979).
In his essay States of Paranoia, author Adrian Gargett defines the social mindset from which the conspiracy genre emerged as “a condition where all moral certainties have gone, leaving instead a can of worms where questions of friendship, loyalty and honesty are redefined in the ambiguous light of institutional corruption”.
In the '70s, the US populace was experiencing such a vast dissatisfaction with authority figures that the thrill of rebellion began to infuse some of Hollywood's oldest genre staples: the cops-&-robbers pics (Clint Eastwood's outside-the-law policeman, 'Dirty' Harry Callahan); gangster stories (the Corleone family in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather lived by the creed, “Don't ever let anyone outside the family know what you're thinking”); horror (William Friedkin's The Exorcist, 1973, mused on the impotence of institutionalised medicine); science-fiction (truth-seeking average-man Richard Dreyfuss met with a web of high-level deception in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977; the moon landing was faked in Peter Hyam's Capricorn One, 1978); gumshoe 'whodunits' (Roman Polanski's Chinatown, 1974, was awash with unethical industrialists); and the media industry itself (the murderous extremes to which a television network will go for ratings in Sydney Lumet's Network, 1974).
The late director Alan J. Pakula was at the forefront of paranoid cinema, making three films that spoke of the struggle for truth in a fractured world, devoid of a unified reality. Starring Donald Sutherland as the titular detective, and anti-establishment icon Jane Fonda as prostitute Bree Daniels, Klute (1971) is an old-school noir thriller that utilises what would later become the basic tenet of conspiracy storytelling – isolated leads seek each other out yet remain perilously close to murderous authority. Pakula followed that with The Parallax View (1974), his rebuke of the contentious 'lone gunman' findings of the Warren Commission, in which Warren Beatty's journalist uncovers the tentacle-like grasp of a corporation that effectively dictates the actions of the global political machine. Finally, Pakula just let reality tell its own conspiratorial story in his adaptation of All the President's Men (1976), journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's account of their investigation into the Watergate Hotel break-in and its subsequent cover-up.
Much of America hated its elected officials over their handling of the Vietnam War, but the Watergate scandal took the distrust of Washington powerbrokers to a new level. The President was caught out, lied about it, then fell on his sword; filmmakers recognised that the public was willing to buy just about any notion that perpetuated the theory that the nation was rotten to the core.
Hollywood listened attentively to the cries of discontent that echoed across the heartland: Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation (1974), a quietly terrifying tale of the surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) who is himself watched; Elliot Gould starred in Jack Gold's Who? (1973), a neglected thriller in which a scientist who returns from Russia shrouded in a metal mask, sets off extreme reactions under the prevailing Cold War paranoia; Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1976) starred Robert Redford as a CIA researcher targeted by the cloaked divisions within his own organisation; Richard Fleischer's Soylent Green (1973) and Michael Anderson's Logan's Run (1976) depicted futuristic worlds in which the population became currency for government manifestos and victims of unquestioning adherence; John Schlesinger's Marathon Man (1976) and Franklin J. Schaffner's The Boys from Brazil (1978) both conjured intricate conspiracies fuelled by the memory of the Nazi atrocities; and Brian De Palma melded telekinetic terror with secret government military research in The Fury (1978) and saw off the decade-long conspiracy genre with his surveillance-themed assassination thriller, Blow Out (1981).
The conspiracy film fell out of favour in the 1980s with the emergence of Reagan-era nationalism and the conscience-nullifying corporatisation of the studio system. The genre's influence, though, was vividly celebrated in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) and felt in works like John Carpenter's They Live (1988) and The Wachowski's Matrix trilogy. And there was a resurgence of sorts during the unpopular Bush administration, when projects such as the TV series 24, Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Matt Damon's Bourne films and Green Zone (2010) took advantage of the government's interpretation of its constitutional rights. These issues are revisited in director Robert Redford's upcoming new film, The Conspirator, which parallels the questionable trial of Mary Surratt, implicated in the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln, and the use of military tribunals in the wake of 9/11.
They're Out To Get You: American Conspiracy Theory Films of the 1970s screens at the Adelaide Cinémathèque from June 27 – July 7. More information click here.