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.