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10 Paranoid Conspiracy Thrillers Worth Investigating

Catch The Bourne Ultimatum this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Mary Evans/Universal Pictures/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

After the Kennedy Assassination and Watergate Scandal, the American public found themselves living with a greater sense of paranoia and cynicism toward the powers that be. Those bleak fears bled into popular culture and especially cinema in the 1970s, which gave us arguably the greatest, most influential decade of American film. In the post-9/11 political landscape, fear-mongering and a higher emphasis on invasive government surveillance have reignited Big Brother paranoia all over again. Before you go on the run with superspy Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum on IFC this month, check out our list of conspiracy thrillers worth investigating. But be careful…You never know who’s watching.

1. All The President’s Men

That demise Richard Nixon’s presidency is in part the result of some ace investigative journalism by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who are the subjects of director Alan J. Pakula’s classic film, the third and final installment in his unofficial “paranoia trilogy” which includes the excellent Klute and The Parallax View.

As Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) begin uncovering proof of wire taps, blackmail, and other forms of clandestinely illegal activities tied to Nixon’s administration, their lives are put into greater danger. William Goldman, who also wrote The Princess Bride, was personally chosen by Robert Redford to pen the script, but Redford didn’t like the first draft and had Bernstein and then-girlfriend Nora Ephron write a draft. Ultimately, Goldman’s taut, tense script won out and netted him an Oscar as well.


2. Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor  is one of seven films Robert Redford made with director Sydney Pollack before Pollack’s death in 2008. The film centers around Redford’s CIA analyst character, code name “Condor,” who returns from lunch one day to find all six of his co-workers murdered. Turner goes on the run while he tries to uncover who is behind the murders, never knowing whom he can trust, including the CIA.

Three Days of the Condor started shooting about a month or so after Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and is one of the first of a slew of films influenced by the corruption of the Watergate era. Interestingly enough, the film inspired the story structure for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which also, coincidentally, stars Robert Redford.


3. Marathon Man

Depending on when you grew up, Marathon Man may have kept you from visiting the dentist’s office thanks to the sadistic torture techniques used by Sir Laurence Olivier’s terrifying Nazi war criminal Dr. Szell on Ph.D. student, Babe (an intense and neurotic Dustin Hoffman), after he gets mixed up in his older brother Doc’s (Roy Scheider, a smooth operator here in his first post-Jaws role) unfinished government business.

The infamous torture scene involving teeth-pulling, drilling, and needles was actually much longer in the original cut, but was shortened after test screening audience members fled the theater in disgust. Nevertheless, Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, which he filmed while battling cancer and a degenerative muscle disorder.


4. Blow Out

While recording sounds for a slasher film, Jack Terry (John Travolta) overhears an assassination involving a presidential candidate. Terry winds up saving a young woman (Nancy Allen) who also happened to be in the car with the murder victim, and the pair wind up scrambling to assemble proof of the assassination before she can be murdered too.

Based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up, which is about a photographer who accidentally captures a murder on film, Blow Out reteamed director Brian De Palma with John Travolta after the pair worked together on Carrie in 1976. Fun fact: Quentin Tarantino was inspired to cast Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction based on his performance in Blow Out, which is one of Tarantino’s favorite films.


5. Minority Report

Even if you eliminate the sci-fi element,  Minority Report is still a tense, elegantly constructed thriller about corruption, murder, and conspiracy in the nation’s capital. Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name, follows pre-crime Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) as he and his team set out to solve murders before they happen based on information given to them via PreCogs or “precognitives.” But after discovering the unsolved murder of a young woman who has special ties to one of the PreCogs, Anderton finds himself on the run from the FBI and his own team when he himself is accused of a murder he has yet to commit.

The film was enthusiastically praised for its writing and especially its visuals, including a breathless chase set in a car factory that was based on an idea Hitchcock had for an unfilmed sequence in North by Northwest. Look for a strong performance from Max Von Sydow as Anderton’s superior, who may or may not have something to hide.


6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

While most may think of the second installment in Marvel’s Captain America franchise as a superhero film first, it is highly influenced by many of the 1970s conspiracy films on our list, including Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, and The Parallax View. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely felt the conspiracy genre was the best match for Captain America’s readjustment to the modern political landscape and his distrust of many of its most prominent players including his own employer, S.H.I.E.L.D.

As Cap (the affable Chris Evans) navigates a web of government lies and cover-ups with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, thankfully getting a lot more to do here than she did in The Avengers), he discovers all is not what it appears to be, and his faith in his country and S.H.I.E.L.D. is tested. Captain America: The Winter Soldier also has ties to All The President’s Men beyond Robert Redford: a copy of the book is visible on a bookshelf is Steve Rogers’ apartment. Cap has good taste!


7. The Bourne Series

Matt Damon saves himself for a change in these fast-paced thrillers about an amnesiac man on the run from the CIA, trying to piece together his memories and uncover a covert conspiracy within the organization. Bourne Identity director Doug Liman originally offered the role of Jason Bourne to Brad Pitt, who turned it down to make a different spy film, Spy Game with Robert Redford. Damon went through three intense months of training for the role, and did many of his own stunts, including several dizzying climbing sequences on the exteriors of buildings.

Though he returned for both The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Matt Damon chose to skip out on The Bourne Legacy (Jeremy Renner took a starring role), but will be returning for an as-yet-untitled fifth Bourne film due in July 2016. The Bourne Series, loosely-based on Robert Ludlum’s novels of the same name, have been praised for their realism and reliance on practical stunt work versus computer-generated effects, no doubt inspiring the Bond franchise to branch out into similar, brawling, broody territory when Daniel Craig came aboard in 2006 for Casino Royale.


8. The Conversation

The Conversation was released just a few months before Nixon resigned the presidency, so it’s difficult to not see links between Francis Ford Coppola’s film and the current events of the day, especially given the surveillance and wire-tapping equipment used by main character Henry Caul (a fine Gene Hackman) is the same as that used by the Nixon Administration during the Watergate Scandal (a coincidence that visibly shocked Coppola after the film was released).

Coppola, like De Palma, was inspired by Antonioni’s Blow-up, and began writing The Conversation in the mid-60s, focusing on a humble, intensely private surveillance expert in San Francisco who overhears a conversation about a potential murder. Caul is hesitant to hand over the tape to the man who commissioned it (Robert Duvall) and finds himself under pressure from a bullying aide (a pre-Star Wars Harrsion Ford). The film, both Coppola and Hackman’s personal favorite, happened to be released the same year as The Godfather Part II, which wound up overshadowing it at the Academy Awards.


9. No Way Out

No Way Out is one of two great films Kevin Costner made in 1987 (the other is The Untouchables), and it is widely considered the film that launched Costner as a leading man. A remake of 1948’s The Big Clock, No Way Out centers on Lt. Commander Tom Farrell (Costner) who strikes up an affair with a young woman (Sean Young) he meets at an inaugural ball.

Farrell, who works at the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman), is unaware the woman was having an affair with Brice, and when she winds up dead, Farrell is framed by Brice for her murder and accused of being a KGB agent. No Way Out is, in many ways, a solid precursor to many of the big screen adaptations of John Grisham’s novels that dominated the box office during the ’90s.


10. The Parallax View

The opening scene of The Parallax View was purposely shot to mirror Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, heightening the unsettling fear at the heart of the film’s story about a newspaper reporter (Warren Beatty) who gets mixed up in a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of a presidential candidate. Joe Frady’s suspicions are further provoked by his investigation into a mysterious company called The Parallax Corporation, which he discovers is a recruiting front for political assassins.

The film, the third and final of Alan J. Pakula’s Political Paranoia Trilogy, started principal photography without a finished screenplay due to a writer’s strike. Star Warren Beatty took it upon himself to do re-writes with the help of his friend Robert Towne (the screenwriter of Chinatown), and the film was finished on schedule. Though it received mixed reviews at the time (possibly due to its bleak ending), The Parallax View is now considered one of the best films of the conspiracy genre.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.