I’m trying out writing some thoughts beyond reviews, because I just don’t have the time and money to watch enough movies to provide as much content as I would like. This particular feature is going to be just a little article about the genre of “paranoid thrillers.”
The paranoid thriller is a genre defined by the conspiratorial world that the protagonist uncovers, a world of lies and deception that this protagonist attempts to unravel in order to find the truth at its heart. The protagonists are never clear heroic types or even the sort of “un-moral” heroes that populate film noir but rather innocents, people pulled into the web of lies and deceit by forces outside themselves much the way that Alfred Hitchcock’s heroes so often were. The villains typically possess either a brutal pragmatism that they suggest requires abolition of high-minded ideals or a vicious idealism that allows to practical considerations to stand in the way of the golden age they see, and in either case are usually in some sort of official capacity, even if they are there under false pretenses.
The genre is perhaps best exemplified by the brilliant Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, USA 1973), one of my personal favorite films, in which CIA bookworm (He says once, “I’m not a spy! I just read books!” Joe Turner uncovers something strange but of no obvious meaning: a poor-selling mystery that was translated into an odd assortment of languages with no apparent logic behind its translations. Turner files a report on his discovery, which eventually leads to his entire office’s murder while he is literally out to lunch. When he calls for help, Turner suddenly realizes that in the world of espionage, with his unit destroyed, he has no way to know whom he can trust, and he spends the rest of the film attempting to find out why someone attacked his unit, uncovering a vast conspiracy, a “CIA inside the CIA” that goes all the way to the top. In the end, Turner finds that the CIA is “playing games” (their words) to be prepared for the mere possibility of shortages in oil, food, or other resources in the future even though the games include murders of both operatives and innocents. He attempts to take out the conspiracy the best way he can: revealing it to the New York Times, saying that the CIA should ask the public instead of getting its desires by such means. The film ends with Turner walking away, looking over his shoulder, unsure of whether the public would approve of what the CIA is doing or not and unsure of whether the conspiracy will still be out to kill him.
It’s a tangled web of conspirators whose motive is unclear until the last few moments, a world where morality is so defined only by honesty and truth rather than a suite of rights and wrongs that a paid assassin is the most moral, most trustworthy person he can meet. Film noir occupied a similar world, but its conspiracies were smaller and the criminals had far less of a tendency to have some sort of official sanction. The paranoid thriller is about the dangers of large, powerful, secretive government, not the dark forces that move people in noir.
Some date the paranoid thriller’s first mature example as Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, USA 1944), which played on the fear of the Nazis and their increasing power in crafting a story around a Nazi sympathizing spy ring. After that point, the paranoid thriller essentially languished as a subset of spy story rather than a full-fledged genre until the Red Scare of the 1960s brought about another suitable enemy in Communism, an enemy that could infect everyone’s neighbors and turn them into a conspiracy to overthrow the nation, best exemplified by The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, USA 1962).As hokey and silly as The Manchurian Candidate‘s Communist mind-control plot may appear today, its central idea of outside forces gaining the seat of power in the country is something that has never again left the public consciousness.However, what really opened the box to turn the paranoid thriller into an important genre was Watergate. After that scandal, a slew of paranoid thrillers with clear connections to it appeared: The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1974) followed a surveillance expert who stumbled across a conspiracy while tape recording conversations for a client. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1974) found a political party willing to hire assassins to stop its opposition. All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1976) addressed Watergate directly.And even after its post-Watergate boom, the paranoid thriller remained popular: Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, USA 1976) and The Boys from Brazil (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA/UK 1978) brought back the Nazis and suggested that the then-current government was unaware of the threat they still posed. Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, USA 1973), Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, USA 1976) and Network (Sidney Lumet, USA 1976) all in some way worried that the government or the media was desensitizing society and making us vulnerable to governmental abuses.
Throughout the 1980s, a duel raged between paranoid thrillers that saw a lone hero saving society from corruption that could easily have starred John Wayne if he were in his prime (Chuck Norris made approximately one billion of these films.) and paranoid thrillers that saw courage in stopping similar vigilantism–a clear proxy for the political battles being fought at the time.
However, since then, the paranoid thriller has seen a decline in popularity. There are certainly elements of the paranoid thriller to Divergent (Neil Burger, USA 2014), but that film is more concerned with emotional/internal motivations than with political/external motivations and exists in a world that is much more up-front about its motivations and actions than the worlds of espionage and spycraft that so often populated the genre throughout its history. Indeed, the last clear example of a paranoid thriller is The Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, USA/Malta/France/UK) 2006, and even there the conspiracy is a religious rather than a political one.
Perhaps nothing can so symbolize the death of the paranoid thriller so easily as the two versions of Edge of Darkness. In its first incarnation, it was an overlong, over-complicated UK miniseries from 1985 that began with a man’s daughter’s death that turned out to be connected to a conspiracy involving nuclear weapons that includes the government in its wrongdoing that was nonetheless extremely popular with critics and the public. In 2005, writer/director Martin Campbell brought his own series back with a film version, attaching disgraced star Mel Gibson. (Presumably, the interest in the film was not high enough to attract a star who could get other work more easily.) Neither critics nor audiences embraced the film and, even though it was a much more tightly focused and interesting version of the narrative than the earlier version, it sank from view quickly.
I won’t pretend to be able to predict whether the paranoid thriller will return, but it seems to have died a quiet death sometime in the 1990s, and it’s a shame, because it has long been an enjoyable and endlessly adaptable genre that has provided us with innumerable memorable films. Films like Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, USA 1968) slowly turned horror into the genre du jour for making points about possible political dangers and modern political documentarians have proven adept at using people’s willingness to accept conspiracies to drive their own work, and we don’t seem to be on the verge of turning back anytime soon.