Tag: Conspiracy

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are brainwashed in The Manchurian Candidate

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Frank Sinatra (Major Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Janet Leigh (Eugenie Rose Cheyney), Angela Lansbury (Eleanor Shaw Iselin), James Gregory (Senator John Yerkes Iselin), Henry Silva (Chun-jin), Leslie Parish (Jocelyn Jordan), John McGiver (Senator Thomas Jordan), Khigh Dhiegh (Dr Yen Lo), James Edwards (Cpl Allen Melvin)

Spoilers: Herein the biggest twist in The Manchurian Candidate is revealed

Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is cold, uncommunicative, reserved and difficult. So why, when asked, does everyone in his platoon say “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”? Welcome to the world of sinister brainwashing and mind-control. Welcome to The Manchurian Candidate.

Shaw returns from the war in Korea as a Medal of Honour winner. He saved his entire platoon – with the exception of two casualties – under heavy fire and is America’s blue-eyed-boy, already being hijacked by his ambitious mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) as a prop for the Presidential campaign of her second husband, her McCarthy-like puppet Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). But if things are fine and dandy, why does Shaw’s commanding officer Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) keep having a recurring nightmare of a hypnotised Shaw calmly murdering those two casualties in front of an audience of Russian and Chinese officers? Can Shaw be all he seems – or is he the new secret weapon in a deadly Cold War?

A film born at the heart of the paranoia of the sixties – it premiered shortly after the Cuban Missile and would be followed a year later by the assassination of JFK by the Shaw-esque Lee Harvey Oswald – The Manchurian Candidate captures the mood of its time in a way few other films have done. On top of which, it’s a brilliant, edge-of-your-seat ride, crammed with complex psychology and chillingly cold-hearted violence, directed with a more than a splash of cinema verité and plenty of panache by John Frankenheimer at the top-of-his-game. Touches of satire on politics and the media, are mixed with a terrifying fantasia on the powers of mind control. There is no other film that drips with as much sweat as this one (just look at some of those faces!) or plays more brilliantly into our own fevered nightmares of how we can be turned against ourselves.

The action in the film is dealt with all the expertise of a card sharp. The opening scene already tips us the wink about the lies in the memories of our heroes: not only do the soldiers clearly despise Shaw, as he plucks them out of a seedy bar in Korea, but we later see them bundled up by Commie soldiers into waiting helicopters. So, we’ve already got a pretty good idea why Sinatra’s Major Marco is as twitchy and sweaty as he is – and we’re immediately suspicious of just how Shaw managed to get his hands on the Medal of Honour (and why, perhaps, he doesn’t seem that happy about it – as if he already subconsciously knows he doesn’t deserve it).

The truth is revealed to us in an extended sequence that’s a tour-de-force or imaginative visual technique, that Frankenheimer doesn’t get enough credit for. Marco’s dream starts in a genteel hotel in America’s South, with a polite middle-class lady giving a talk about flowers on stage, surrounded by the platoon. The camera moves from the stage in a smoothly uninterrupted 360 turn looking at the audience of similarly middle-class, middle-age belles, before returning to the stage where the hotel backdrop has been replaced by huge banners of Stalin and Mao and our genteel lady has turned into a sinisterly jovial Chinese scientist.

During the sequence that follows, the camera shifts constantly from the subjective (Marco’s false memory of the hotel and ladies) and the objective (a surgical observatory pit with watching Communist apparatchiks), while never interrupting the chilling scientific explanation from Khigh Dhiegh’s (brilliant in every way) scientist. During this inspired barrage of false and true memories, spliced with alarming moments of violence, we witness just how far Shaw’s brainwashing programming has gone as, with complete politeness, he goes about shooting one soldier in the head and quietly strangling another. No wonder Marco – and the other soldiers who all share versions of the same nightmare – wakes up screaming every morning.

And why did they pick Shaw? Well obviously, his mother-fixation already makes him more than susceptible to external control (under hypnosis he describes Marco as his best friend – something that, Dr Lo points out, speaks volumes for his inclination to prostrate himself to authority). Played with an austere distance by Laurence Harvey – the film expertly uses Harvey’s prickly air of patrician woodenness – Shaw is desperately weak-willed and a natural follower, who has never escaped his mother’s influence. He’s already a lonely man, nursing heart-break, loathing the brashness around him with an elitist hauteur, but lacking the force of character to do anything about it. No wonder he’s ready to be reprogrammed.

And of course, there is no controller he is more likely to follow than his mother. Angela Lansbury excels in her finest, most iconic screen role, as Shaw’s ambitious, deadly, controlling and manipulative mother. Is there a finest reveal, than her sudden invitation at a fancy-dress party for Shaw to “pass the time by playing a little Solitaire”? The film skilfully suggests that it is power rather than ideology that motivates Eleanor – even before the reveal she’s clearly the brains in the marriage with her dull husband, and a forceful, overbearing presence to her son. It’s revealed she’s already wrecked poor Shaw’s life – forcing him to jilt his true love Jocelyn (Leslie Parish), because marriage to the daughter of a political rival ain’t part of the plan. Maybe as well she’s motivated by the unsettling air of incest between the two of them.

No wonder Marco starts to feel sorry for him. Sinatra is very good in this film, striking a perfect balance between twitchy unease and a growing fatherly concern for Shaw. Notoriously a one-take actor (a key scene where Sinatra appears slightly out-of-focus – an effect that suggests we are seeing him from the screwed up Shaw’s perspective – was in fact because Sinatra was most effective in the first take, but the camera was incorrectly set-up), Frankenheimer uses his presence extremely well. He has a brutal fight scene that uses every inch of his energy, while he’s not afraid to add a touch of vulnerability into his burgeoning relationship with Janet Leigh’s stranger on a train (despite an initial scene that suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities, this is a rather thankless part for Leigh, which she still performs expertly). Like Harvey, his face is frequently studied dripping with sweat.

It’s all shot with a brilliantly immediacy. A press conference – where Iselin (the McCarthy satire is hilariously wicked) rants about Commies in the State Department – is shot with such observatory skill, it feels alarmingly real. Moments of lightness – the slightly dreamy flashbacks of Shaw and Jocelyn running playfully together near the sea – are immediately punctured by terrifying moments of unsensational suddenness, none more so than when a programmed Shaw assassinates Jocelyn and her father (the bullet passing through a carton of milk in his hand, which pours out across the floor). It culminates in a race-against time that’s played out with a hair-raising tension.

The Manchurian Candidate combines skilful acting with real cinematic force and invention from Frankenheimer. It creeps into the darkest corners of our mind and invites our nightmares to come out to play. Dark, at times even blackly comic, it’s possibly the finest and most influential conspiracy thriller ever made.

Enemy of the State (1998)

Will Smith and Gene Hackman dodge the surveillance state in Enemy of the State

Director: Tony Scott

Cast: Will Smith (Robert Clayton Dean), Gene Hackman (Brill), Jon Voight (NSA Director Thomas Reynolds), Regina King (Carla Dean), Jason Lee (Daniel Leon Zavitz), Lisa Bonet (Rachel Banks), Barry Pepper (Agent Pratt), Loren Dean (Agent Loren Hicks), Jake Busey (Agent Krug), Lisa Bonet (Rachel Banks), Jack Black (Agent Fiedler), Jamie Kennedy (Agent Williams), Seth Green (Agent Selby), Ian Hart (Agent Bingham), Stuart Wilson (Congressman Sam Albert), Jason Robards (Congressman Philip Hammersley), Tom Sizemore (Paulie Pintero)

A congressman (a cameoing Jason Robards) is murdered for refusing to support intrusive new counter-terrorism legislation championed by NSA director Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight). Unfortunately, someone caught the killing on camera. When the NSA come hunting, he plants the recording on an unwitting lawyer friend, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith). Dean has no idea he has evidence that could blow the conspiracy – and is nonplussed when they set about destroying his life. The only person who can help is mysterious surveillance expert Brill (Gene Hackman), who has spent decades living off the grid. Can the clear Dean’s name and stop the bad apples in the NSA?

Enemy of the State is a fun chase movie, that enjoys the technical possibilities of the surveillance state, packaged with the fast-pace, bright colour-filtered style of Tony Scott (this is one of his best films). There is more than enough wit and enjoyment about it – not to mention watching a host of very good actors, many of them unknowns at the time, bring a lot of sparkle to the film (you’ve got to give kudos to the casting director). Everything of course gets tied up in a neat, pretty bow but it’s a damn lovely bow so that’s fine.

In its detailed look at the power of the surveillance state, Enemy of the State was, in a way, ahead of its time. The ability for the intelligence agencies here to look into literally everything in your life is pretty unsettling, from bank details to computer accounts. Every camera is an eye and satellites are tasked at will to watch anything. In fact, it’s quite something to remember that the state is only more powerful today – the internet and mobile phones would making tracking Dean even easier than the bugs they secrete about his person, which causes him to flee our baddies stripped to his undies. (Also, if only Reynolds had waited a few years, congress would wave through legislation such as he is requesting here, without batting an eyelid).

The film also dares to shade a little bit of naughtiness into Will Smith’s character. Sure, he’s a crusading labour lawyer (we’ve got to know he’s on the right side!) but he’s also an adulterer with trust problems in his marriage. Smith’s still at his charming best here, and his frazzled desperation as he struggles to understand why on earth the NSA is destroying his life is well-handled. Regina King gets a thankless role as Dean’s shrill wife, whose trust in her husband oscillates according to the requirements of the script, rather than any internal character logic.

Enemy of the State sometimes teeters on the edge of making a point about the dangers of the surveillance state. How easy could it be to abuse this power? Unfortunately it puts most of these arguments into the mouth of Regina King’s holier-than-thou wife, which rather undermines them. It’s also made abundantly clear that we’re witnessing rogue agents. This allows the film to focus more on the cool things surveillance can do, rather than clearer moral statements about whether that’s right or not, other than it being a dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong men.

Scott’s film is more of an entertainment than a treatise though (and thank God for that). It also has a nice little touch of 1970s’ conspiracy thriller to it, something the film leans into with the casting of Gene Hackman in a role reminiscent of Harry Caul in The Conversation. Sure, I can’t remember Caul driving a car while it was on fire or blowing up a building, but Hackman still gives the film some class and a touch of old-school espionage and cynicism. Truth-be-told, other than profession, Caul and Brill have very little in common (Brill is far more confrontational and confident, and much less likely to rip his apartment apart) but it’s still a nice call-back. I also rather enjoy Gabriel Byrne’s smart, playful little cameo as ‘fake’ Brill (hardly a spoiler as you can’t move without knowing Hackman is in the picture).

Scott’s high-energy fun culminates in a smart little trap laid by Dean for all his enemies, that plays nicely off the fact that the NSA agents and the Mafia are definitely paranoid and stubborn enough to not realise they are all talking at cross-purposes. The end of the film sees everything back to normal (it’s unclear how, or if, Dean got his job back considering his unceremonious firing), but I wouldn’t worry about it. It would be nice if it had said more, but as a rollercoaster ride it’s short, sharp and sweet.

Seven Days in May (1964)

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas find themselves on opposite sides of a military coup in Seven Days in May

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Burt Lancaster (General James Mattoon Scott), Kirk Douglas (Colonel Jiggs Casey), Fredric March (President Jordan Lyman), Ava Gardner (Eleanor Holbrook), Edmond O’Brien (Senator Ray Clark), Martin Balsam (Paul Girard), Andrew Duggan (Colonel Mutt Henderson), George Macready (Secretary of the Treasury), Whit Bissell (Senator Fred Prentice), John Houseman (Admiral Barnswell)

President Jordan Lynman (Fredric March) has completed his signature policy: a nuclear disarmament treatment with the USSR. Some are thrilled, others are horrified. In the latter camp are the Joint Chiefs of Staff, none more so than chairman General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). General Scott has a plan: a coup to be launched in seven days time, during a training op. But word leaks to his assistant Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas) who, however much he admires Scott, won’t be party to treason. Casey warns the President – and a race against time begins to stop the coup.

Seven Days in May opens with documentary style footage of clashing crowds outside the White House (one pushing for peace, the other for war) and then carefully balances that style with an unsettling sense of paranoia throughout. People suddenly disappear (once from frame to frame), most of the action takes place in confined spaces. When characters do head outside, they constantly seem to be looking over their shoulder, with the camera watching like a distant observer. The lack of music all adds the eerie feeling that this could just happen.

And, of course you, feel it could. Because we’ve not lost a tingling sense of unease at an over-powerful military. It’s a shame therefore that Seven Days in May doesn’t grip quite as much as it should. I think a large part of that is because the plot is exposed very early – and when Casey goes to the authorities with his suspicions, they are instantly acted on. Thrillers like this often work best with a “one man stands alone” vibe – it’s missing here, and instead we get the President and the cabinet laboriously investigating different elements of this conspiracy looking to turn up enough evidence to prevent the coup before it starts.

The drop in tension could have been counter-balanced if the film had more successfully explored the conflicts and contradictions in America. This is after all a country priding itself as being the home of freedom and democracy – but since George Washington, has had a fondness for installing military men in a job role pointedly called “Commander-in-Chief”. This is a film that could have explored how different parts of American society might admire either an Adlai-Stevenson-style intellectual or a blood-and-guts ‘simple’ soldier. But the film dodges this – and works hard to stress both men act within what they define as honour and the needs of the country. The film is to nervous about any suggestion that Scott’s coup could lead to a proto-dictator vetoing the electorate.

There is also a naivety about the film. A long subplot (not particularly interesting) features Casey being side-lined into uncovering evidence of Scott’s long-term affair. Ava Gardner does her best with a largely thankless part as the woman in question, but there is a touching faith that evidence of this will be enough to destroy Scott. It’s a faith in the system: while the public might be shaken slightly in their belief that Scott is like King Arthur reborn, finding out he’s actually Lancelot is hardly going to weaken his hold over many of his followers – or his military machine.  For a conspiracy film, Seven Days believes conspiracies are a relatively simple matter to defeat.

What’s best about the film – not surprisingly since it’s largely a chamber piece – is the strength of the acting. Produced by Douglas (who generously cast himself in the most thankless role as the decent-but-dull Casey), a cast of stars was assembled. Lancaster was perhaps the only choice as the holier-than-thou Scott, arrogant, morally-superior, cold, distant but capable of inspiring immense loyalty – it’s the perfect role for him and he plays it to the hilt.

The film’s finest sequence is a late confrontation between Scott – Lancaster oozing moral superiority and unhidden contempt – and Fredric March’s intellectual President. March is brilliant, a born negotiator and compromiser – all the skills you need to be a successful politician – with just the right edge of irritation, arrogance and pride for you to know that, even if he is right, he’s no saint. March also gives Lyman an old-school sense of honour and moral principle that makes him unable to cross lines Scott can leave behind him, while still be jittery and waspish to colleagues and friends.

Filling out the cast, O’Brien gives a wonderful (Oscar-nominated) turn as a hard-drinking, good-old-boy Senator who turns out to have principles of iron and the guts to match. Martin Balsam delivers one of his patented put-upon functionaries, struggling to keep stress at bay. Macready is great value as a bombastic cabinet member while Houseman glides above it all as an Admiral to smart to say anything certain either way.

Acting is eventually what powers Seven Days in May and if it never becomes the white-knuckle conspiracy thriller or the insightful political commentary it should be, it just about has enough entertaining scenes to keep you watching.

JFK (1991)

Kevin Costner goes on a quest for the truth in Oliver Stone’s crazy but brilliant JFK

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Walter Matthau (Senator Russell B Long), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Donald Sutherland (Colonel X), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Michael Rooker (Bill Broussard), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivan), Edward Asner (Guy Banister), Brian Doyle-Murray (Guy Banister), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Sally Kirkland (Rose Cheramie), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel), Priutt Taylor Vince (Lee Bowers), Tony Plana (Carlos Bringuier)

When great events happen, it’s hard for us to accept they might take place for random reasons. Rather than freak occurrences or boring individuals, we’d rather see them taking place due to an impenetrable web of shadowy figures. There is something in us that rejects randomness and embraces order. Conspiracy theories are the (ironic) result of these, with their exponents often the most passionate believers in the all-pervading genius of big government. Events like the death of President Kennedy can’t be because some nobody shot him. Instead it must be part of a wider junta of baddies, with every man you see merely a front for a cabal of the wicked. It’s hard not to be swept up by the lure of the conspiracy theories (they invariably have the best stories after all) – and Oliver Stone’s JFK is perhaps the definitive mainstream conspiracy theory essay.

Taking the campaign of Louisiana DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) to find out the “truth” about the murder of President Kennedy, Stone’s film is part a fascinating presentation of half-truths and “might-have-beens” and part a sprawling mess of irresponsible nonsense. Either way it’s assembled with astonishing panache, a level of filmic skill that makes it (literally) almost impossible to tell whether what you are seeing is true and what is invention. Stone’s film superbly interweaves a variety of film stocks and effects to seamlessly splice together newsreel footage, Zapruder film and his own reconstructions so brilliantly it frequently becomes hard to tell which is which.

The same logic also applies to the script. JFK is frequently engaging and fascinating. But you have to remember that it is the equivalent of meeting the most literate and articulate street corner “End-of-the-Worlder”. Such is Stone’s skill he could, I am sure, have created an equally compelling film which would have you questioning the Moon Landings or the shape of the Earth. JFK throws an army of questions, objections and theories at the screen. And while it rarely provides much in the way of answers, only points that it wants you to think about, these theories frequently fascinate. Imagine JFK as a sort of video essay, linked together with dramatic scenes, with its points delivered by authoritative and trusted actors like Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

There is absolutely no doubting the technique of Stone here, or his mastery of the language of cinema. The work of Robert Richardson’s photography, with its myriad styles, and of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia’s editing, pulling together a host of images, snapshots and flash cuts into an insidiously convincing whole, is breathtaking. Light in particular is superbly used, casting some characters in shadow, flaring up to (literally) blind others – light frequently plays across Garrison’s glasses, a visual metaphor for his own struggle to see the light. The speeches he writes for his characters are superbly done, and make their points with great skill – Sutherland (superb) has a hugely convincing story of military black ops action (and inaction) before and after the assassination that fills almost 20 minutes of screentime.

There are compelling arguments made about the ability of Oswald to fire the shots, the triangulation of fire, the spurning of an easier shot before the fateful turn, Oswald’s seemingly illogical movements after the shooting etc. etc. There is decent reasoning behind all of this, and the points are marshalled very well. But, like all extremist theories, suddenly it will turn into something just a little batshit (Lyndon B Johnson ordering the hit or some sort of cabal of Cubans, CIA, FBI and Secret Service working together to conduct a coup).

Much of Stone’s passion for finding the truth (the film’s mantra) is rooted in his own romantic view of Kennedy, as some sort of lost “Prince Who Was Promised”. To Stone, Kennedy would have withdrawn us from Vietnam (news I am sure to the President who started and escalated America’s involvement in it), ended the military industrial complex (contrary to his platform when elected of a stronger US military), bought the Cold War to an end (again, running against his sustained opposition to the Soviet Union) and introduced full Civil Rights (a cause he was lukewarm on at best – unlike his brother or his successor Johnson).

But Kennedy was a romantic figure who had the ability to invite people to invest him with whatever qualities they wanted (both good and bad), a magic cemented forever by his untimely murder. In reality there is no indication that JFK would do (or want to do) any of the things JFK argues he was assassinated for. But that’s all part of the magic of the conspiracy. Facts and events can be marshalled into whatever you want them to be. (Tellingly the only member of Garrison’s investigative team who questions these theories is shown to be a creep in the pay of the conspirators.)

So Kennedy can be a saint, and the film can outline (with no evidence at all beyond a series of coincidences and unlikely or random events) a grand vision of master schemers reshaping America over the body of a dead President. Does it really stand up? Well no of course not. But I will say it is compelling viewing – even if it is essential to keep an open mind about it. Stone later wished he had made clearer that much of the work here was pure fiction (and speculative at best). Certainly it’s a point to keep in mind.

Perhaps Stone should also have looked again at some of the other beats in the film. The film’s version of Jim Garrison as a kind of saintly campaigner for justice flies in the face of many (then and later) who believed the Louisiana DA a shameless self-promoter – an argument made easier to believe by the real Garrison’s cheeky cameo in the film as his ‘nemesis’ Earl Warren. No mention is made in the film that the case he brings against Clay Shaw was dismissed by the jury after less than an hour, and the film avoids explicitly showing his lack of evidence. Costner delivers the final speech, with its famous “back and to the left” commentary on what seems like Kennedy’s unnatural movement after being hit by a bullet and breakdown of the “magic bullet” (both theories now largely discredited), with aplomb, but the film puts a halo on Garrison which doesn’t really stand up.

But again at least it’s entertaining. Other parts of the film don’t even manage that: the baseline narrative that links up the various compelling conspiracy lectures is frequently dull, insipid and lamely written. Sissy Spacek has perhaps the most thankless role in film history as Garrison’s wife whose nearly every line is a variation on “Honey please stop reading the Warren Report and come to bed”. Even that though pales against the exploration of the 1960s gay scene in Louisiana (which Clay Shaw and his “fellow conspirators” were leading members of) which has an unpleasant stink of homophobia, playing into a host of deeply unpleasant (and false) stereotypes of gay people as perverted, promiscuous and preying on the straight. One suspects there was more than a little truth in the idea that Garrison’s fury at Shaw was at least partly motivated by homophobia.

These sequences work considerably less well today – and frequently go on far too long – but when the film focuses on its Kennedy theories it is at least compelling, even if it’s all rubbish. The film made it mainstream to believe Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy in which Oswald was, if he was involved at all, only a patsy. How different would the world have been if Oswald had lived and been made to explain why and how he killed Kennedy? But then chances are, being such an average an unremarkable man, people wouldn’t have believed him anyway.

Stone’s film is a triumph of agenda-led fantasy. Stuffed with faults it makes you at least ask questions – even if you wisely use those questions to affirm many of its points are questionable at best. But any film buff will love the skill it’s told with and the beauty of its technical assembly. Costner was perhaps a little too bland to drive the thing along (although the film uses his innate morality very well), but there are several good performances not least from Gary Oldman who is brilliant as put-upon, used but unknowable Oswald. Nuts, crazy and packed with compelling nonsense, it at least always encourages you to find out more about the actual history.

Seconds (1966)

Trauma abounds in dull, self-important conspiracy thriller Seconds

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Rock Hudson (Tony Wilson), Salome Jens (Nora Marcus), John Randolph (Arthur Hamilton), Will Geer (Old Man), Jeff Corey (Mr Ruby), Richard Anderson (Dr Innes), Murray Hamilton (Charlie Evans), Karl Swenson (Dr Morris), Khigh Dhiegh (Davalo), Frances Reid (Emily Hamilton), Wesley Addy (John)

In the 1960s, John Frankenheimer directed a string of conspiracy and paranoia thrillers, the most famous of which was The Manchurian Candidate. Seconds follows on in that genre, but where The Manchurian Candidate is first-and-foremost an adventure story with a deeper soul, Seconds is a self-important piece of overt arty cinema that quickly outstays its welcome.

This is particularly annoying as, on paper, this is a great story. A business makes its living from selling new, younger bodies (and new carefree lives), known as “seconds”, to old, rich people so they can start afresh. One such man is depressed banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who is reborn as artist Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). The one rule? They can’t tell anyone about the procedure or about their old lives, and must leave everything behind. Needless to say, the prospect of a new life is a hell of a lot better than actually getting it.

Seconds really should go from there into a fascinating exploration of truth and identity: instead it swiftly gets bogged down in arty camera shots, self-important philosophising about the nature of identity, and tediously over-extended sequences of Hamilton/Wilson trying (and failing) to come to terms with his new life. The entire film never shakes the feeling that it believes it is stunningly important and everything it does is making crucially important, profound points, and it quickly loses the audience. 

The basic problem with it, above all others, is that we are given no reason at all to care about Hamilton/Wilson in either of his two personae. John Randolph is so effectively beige as the original Hamilton, you genuinely end up not caring what happens to him. Nothing in either his life or personality sparks any interest, or any sense of loss. Pile onto that the fact that it seems to take an age for him to commit to having the operation in the first place and you have a rather slow, dragging half-hour opening with a character you care very little about. And that’s just the first act.

The point the film wants to make is that changing your face and your life cannot always change the man inside: that the basic unhappy discontent of Hamilton/Wilson isn’t going to be fixed by giving him Rock Hudson’s face. Sad people are going to be sad whatever. The fact that I have summed up all the ideas of the film in a few short lines tells you everything. The film takes over an hour to make the same statements, with Wilson as tedious a lead as Hamilton was. In fact, one of the main problems is that the most interesting characters by far are those on the edge of the film – from Will Geer’s seemingly benign, but deeply sinister exec running the business to Wesley Addy’s scarily omniscient butler, these side characters all offer a lot more interest than our lead.

Wilson ends up in a beach community, filled with a host of suspicious-looking people and staffed by company representatives determined to make sure Wilson doesn’t disgrace himself or blow the gaff. Hudson makes a decent fist of the job – many commentators have made the rather clumsy point that the famously closeted Hudson probably had more understanding of what it was like hiding your real identity than any other Hollywood star around at the time – but it can’t change the fact that he’s basically not that strong or compelling a performer. Or that, even in the new body, Hamilton/Wilson is still a pompous and dull stick-in-the-mud.

So even in a new skin the character is not one you can feel any investment in. The community sequences are as slow and overplayed as the opening half hour. We are never really clear what exactly Wilson/Hamilton finds so terrifying and unsatisfying about the community, or why he finds the idea of other “seconds” so deeply traumatising. The sequence is also cursed with a bizarre “grape crushing” ceremony, that plays out like a sort of Woodstocky orgy. I imagine it is meant to convey the sudden appeal of free living – but it’s so skin-crawlingly awkward and embarrassing in its staging that it makes Frankenheimer feel like a stuffy dad attempting to relate to the sexy young kids. 

Seconds is basically too dry and empty the majority of the time to really care about or enjoy. Frankenheimer – and in particular his cinematographer James Wong Howe – shoot the film with an inspiring and trippy inventiveness as well as a disconcerting surreality. The woozy black-and-white photography constantly mixes unsettling angles, disconcerting zooms and intense POV framing to leave you uncomfortable and on-edge while watching the film. While this artiness and theatricality does sometimes make the film feel like it’s trying too hard (and makes it feel very of its time) it does at least offer most (if not all) of the interest in the film.

Maybe part of the problem as well is that Seconds is an almost unbearably depressing film, with possibly the most horrifyingly grim ending you can imagine, shot with intense horror by Frankenheimer (I’ll also say that Hudson’s desperation and fear as he realises the final fate the company has in mind for him is brilliant). It’s not exactly fun viewing, but it’s so intense you have to admire it even while finding it terrifying. It’s one of the few moments where the film’s pretensions, and pride in itself, really pay off with the final product. 

It’s the problem all over with Seconds. There are moments in there you can admire – and you can totally see why it has been reclaimed by many now as a lost classic. However, it’s also really easy to understand why the film was a box office bomb, unloved by the cinemagoers and why it’s not very well known today. There is so little in there for you to feel an emotional connection to – its lead character is a bore and a cold fish, his love interest sinister, and huge chunks of the story are delivered with a puffed up pride at how clever the whole thing is. It’s a huge disappointment, considering its potential.

The China Syndrome (1979)

Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon struggle against Big Business interests in the Nuclear Industry in The China Syndrome

Director: James Bridges

Cast: Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman DeYoung), Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Peter Donat (Dan Jacovich), Richard Herd (Evan McCormack), Daniel Valdez (Hector Salas)

Do we really trust nuclear power? There is something about the dangerous possibilities of splitting the atom that alarms people even today. For all that burning coal wrecks our atmosphere, people would still rather that than live downwind of a station powered on substances that could obliterate everything within a five mile radius if something went wrong. The China Syndrome is about exactly that, an accident at nuclear power plant that could spell disaster for California.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a roving reporter for a Californian news channel, who (thanks to her sexist bosses) is constantly relegated to ludicrous puff pieces (“Today a hot air balloon landed in downtown LA!”). Sent to a nuclear power plant, she stumbles upon the real news story she has waited her whole career for when she and camera-man Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) secretly film a near catastrophic incident. Investigations try to brush the event under the carpet, but shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) knows corner-cutting and cost-saving is putting the whole of LA at risk – and, much against his inclination, he needs to speak out. 

The China Syndrome comes very much from that burst of 1970s conspiracy thriller films where shady big-business types are willing to throw almost anything under the bus in order to make a big bonus. It’s a film that takes a pop not only at the heartless bastards running a shoddy nuclear power plant (who couldn’t care less if the reactor is poorly welded together, so long as the money keeps rolling in) but also the hypocritical cowards running the media. The heads of the news channel kowtow swiftly to big business and are staggering in their sexism and race-to-the-bottom news coverage.

This film is as much about this brainless conformism as it is the dangers of nuclear power. The film is full of people who don’t want to rock the boat: half the people working at the plant would rather turn a blind eye to problems than pay the personal price of exposing them – even Jack Lemmon’s manager is the most reluctant whistleblower you’ll see in the movies. Fonda’s journalist may not be happy with her role as airhead eye-candy, but she will play the game in order to get ahead in the industry the role – and many of her media comrades seem almost totally lacking in any journalistic instincts. The film is bookended by inane TV coverage and advertising, a condemnation of an America that doesn’t ask questions and is sleepwalking towards catastrophe.

This catastrophe is, of course, extremely close – the power plant nearly goes into meltdown because a single dial gets stuck on a high reading, leading the control room to believe the nuclear rods are about to get flooded rather than nearly being exposed. Bridges mines a heck of a lot of tension from this crisis – told entirely from the perspective of the control room – as workers react with both stressed fear and a practised professionalism to a crisis that could become a disaster. Its part of a film where regular joes are generally professional and good at their jobs, but are let down and betrayed by the culture encouraged by the higher-ups.

Some of these themes, however, get a bit muddied in the film’s middle third, which gets bogged down way too much in nuclear theory, committee meetings, slow explanations of different types of weld, and dry lectures on the functioning of nuclear energy. While it is admirable that the film has no score, you can’t help but feel that a little music here to add some drama to Lemmon looking at x-rays or Fonda staring at diagrams could have helped pump up the tension. 

But it all gets paid off by the sudden (and surprising) shift to action and drama in the film’s final third, kickstarted by a surprisingly gripping car chase between Jack Lemmon’s quiet station manager and some shady goons hired by the company. Suddenly the film is powering through a tense series of set pieces that both feel like a different movie, while still a natural progression of the stakes.

Bridges directs the film very well. Each scene is calmly and coolly assembled, and he has a great eye and ear for technology and the noises and motions of machinery, which dominate the film – even if the film is rather in love with these background sounds, which risk taking over the soundtrack. It’s all part of stressing the cold mechanicalism and lack of humanity throughout both these industries. Sometimes the foot comes off the gas a little too much – you could probably trim at least 15 minutes – but when it comes to the moments of tension he directs with sharp snappiness.

The acting is also sublime. Jane Fonda is extremely good as Kimberly Wells. Initially she seems as light and superficial as the stories she is forced to cover, but Fonda paints a clever picture of a woman squeezed into playing a role, but yearning for (and capable of) so much more, who when she finds her moment shows levels of determination and cunning you would never have expected. For all her desire to become a ‘proper’ journalist though, Wells is savvy enough to make sure she is being filmed from her good side… Fonda makes her a careerist who uncovers a sense of moral purpose. She also manages to bring real emotion to the role, making Kimberly Wells a character we swiftly connect with.

The movie however is stolen away by Jack Lemmon, brilliantly low-key and everyday as the shift manager who becomes an overwhelmingly reluctant whistleblower. Lemmon’s performance is a perfect study in smallness, of a quiet dignity. He’s got no desire to rock the boat, quietly stating that the “plant is his whole life” – but when stirred, his professional pride transforms into determination to do the right thing, even while his lack of magnetism makes him unpersuasive and hard to take seriously. It’s a terrific performance of low-key tragedy, with Lemmon building the tension with small flashes of resentment, fear, determination and disillusionment flashing across his face. It’s a great reminder of what a marvellous dramatic actor Lemmon was.

Expertly produced by Michael Douglas (who does sterling work in the third-banana role as the camera man overflowing with conviction), The China Syndrome may at times be dry, but it makes up for that with its moments of high drama and moral conviction. By and large it avoids hectoring and lecturing the audience (when not teaching us about nuclear power), and lets its points be soft-sold rather than banged home. With some terrific performances, it’s a film that still feels relevant today, and is a great example of the 1970s conspiracy thriller genre.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Robert Redford goes on the run in conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor

Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Robert Redford (Joseph Turner), Faye Dunaway (Kathy Hale), Cliff Robertson (Director Higgins), Max von Sydow (Joubert), John Houseman (Wabash), Addison Powell (Leonard Atwood), Walter McGinn (Sam Barber), Tina Chen (Janice), Michael Kane (SW Wicks), Don McHenry (Dr Lappe)

Three Days of the Condor never leaves you in any doubt that the real villains are those in power – and the possibility of escaping the reach of organisations like the CIA is beyond all of us. Condor is damn well-made though – Pollack’s direction is nearly faultless in its taut claustrophobia – even if the film itself gets a bit lost in its confusing obliqueness.

Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) is a quiet, boyish, Robert-Redfordish academic whose job is to read books published all over the world and report back to the CIA any familiarities with any secret operations past or present, or any good ideas from operations. One day, while out fetching lunch for his colleagues, he returns to find they have all been murdered by a hit-team led by a shadowy foreigner (Max von Sydow). Calling in the CIA, he finds he can’t trust anyone – and is forced to hide out by kidnapping a woman, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), whom he bumps into in a shop.

Three Days of the Condor opens with an electric pace. The build-up to the assassination of Turner’s co-workers is extremely tense, while the immediate after effects – and Turner’s lost, confused terror – is brilliantly involving. The stream of conspiracy-laced events, and the unsettling lack of security about who to trust creates a terrific mood of paranoia. Pollack’s editing is tight, and the photography keeps the action naturalistic and eerily involving. It creates an unsettling drama where no one can be trusted. 

It taps perfectly into that 1970s vibe of the state being omniscient and inhumane – Turner’s CIA contact will only talk to him using his code name, shows no human interest in his deceased comrades and only asks if Condor himself is “damaged”. Later Turner chippily asks why a senior agent is addressed by his name, while he is only called Condor. 

Redford is very good as Turner – perfectly convincing as the bookish man thrust into circumstances where he is out of his depth, but whose innate abilities to think fast and adapt allow him to believably keep one step ahead of those pursuing him. The film has a love for the grimy Le Carre-ish detail of espionage, which it mixes well with its James Bondish elements of hitmen, violence and sex. The script has good lines, and several excellent set-pieces that trade in that queasy feeling of being out-of-depth.

The momentum of the first half however eventually gets bogged down in the “working out” of the conspiracy. This is a bit hampered by the early acts of the movie being focused more on atmosphere than on plot build-up. With the exact purpose and function of Redford’s CIA role only really being loosely explained quite late on – and the various inter-relationships of the assorted CIA bigwigs we see also not really being that clear – the final reveal of the wrong uns is murky and doesn’t quite justify the build-up. 

Part of this is the film’s 1970s vibe – its sense that the resolution is, in a way, less important than the downer atmosphere and conspiracy tension – but it’s also a bit of a narrative flaw. It’s hard to invest in a story that never really gets put together or explained properly, and doesn’t really give us a sense of the major stakes at play or the reasons why various characters do what they do. 

Other factors also have dated the film, principally the relationship of Faye Dunaway’s Kathy and Redford’s Turner. Now there is an odd Stockholm syndrome relationship if ever I saw one. From Kathy tearfully fearing rape and assault for most of the first ten minutes of their screen time together – and with no reason to believe the story Turner is peddling – sure enough within a few hours of knowing each other this pair end up in bed together. The film attempts to suggest Turner’s ability to understand her personality (in a way no-one else ever has naturally) through her photographs brings them together –but nevertheless it’s basically a hostage falling into bed with her kidnapper, about 20 seconds after she stopped crying, after he has just released her from being tied up and gagged in her own bathroom. 

I guess it helps when your kidnapper looks like Robert Redford – and the film uses Redford’s innate trustability well – but it’s a little unsettling. Kathy swiftly becomes Turner’s little helper – but you never really get a sense that the she is an actual character, or that the film even really needs her that much. Dunaway is a good actress and plays the part very well – but there is an unsettling submissiveness and even exploitation to her character that dates the movie (not that we have moved past films where female character’s principal role is to have sex with the hero to ease his pain). The best you can say for this character is that she has “pluck”.

It’s dumping Turner down into Kathy’s home where the momentum leaks out of the film slightly. It’s a film that feels like it’s going to be set-up as a chase movie with a spy tinge, but it never really turns into that. On top of which, it takes time away from properly developing Turner’s enemies. His possible CIA opponents, led by Cliff Robertson and John Houseman, don’t really come into focus as characters. The performer who does stand out – largely because of the wry world-weariness he brings to the role – is Max von Sydow as the hitman Joubert, a character I’d happily see more of (where was his spin off?). 

Three Days of the Condor is a well-made triumph of atmosphere – but the later sections of the film don’t quite live up to the build-up, and the film doesn’t quite snap together as much as you would like in the second half. It gets lost in its labyrinthine schemes and then doesn’t have a resolution that seems interesting enough to make satisfying narrative sense.  It’s got some great moments in it, but it’s a flawed film.

Marathon Man (1976)

“Is it safe?”: Laurence Olivier interrogates Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man

Director: John Schlesinger

Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Thomas “Babe” Levy), Laurence Olivier (Dr Christian Szell), Roy Scheider (Henry “Doc” Levy), William Devane (Peter Janeway), Marthe Keller (Elsa Opel), Richard Bright (Karl), Marc Lawrence (Erhadt), Fritz Weaver (Professor Biesenthal)

The 1970s were the era of the conspiracy thriller. These were deliberately enigmatic, almost opaque, mysteries in which a humble individual was thrown up against sinister forces, backed by equally shady governments. Marathon Man is a stylish (if rather impenetrable) mystery that offers some gripping moments but gets bogged down a little too much in pleasure at its edginess, darkness and professional assurance.

Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a post-graduate student working on a re-evaluation of the McCarthy era, partly aimed at clearing his father’s name (who committed suicide while under investigation). Babe’s brother Henry “Doc” (Roy Scheider) works for a shady government organisation, and has recently narrowly avoided assassination twice in France. Doc suspects the killers were sent by renegade-Nazi Dr Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier). Szell’s New York-based brother was recently killed in a car crash, and with his death Szell has lost vital access to his cash reserve of diamonds in a New York bank, which he needs to maintain his safety in Uruguay.

I hadn’t seen Marathon Man for several years, and I was struck by how long it takes to get going: it takes a solid 45 minutes to get to the point. Huge swathes of the opening act of the film is all about getting the set-up and atmosphere, rather than establishing the story. It also seems to be about setting up as complex as possible a context for a film that boils down to a pretty straightforward plot. Nearly all the action that Doc gets up to in Europe is pretty much impossible to work out and never seems to tie in with the rest of the plot once it starts (exciting as it is to watch him dodge assassination attempts). Even the marathon running of the hero, and his relationship with Marthe Keller’s mysterious swiss woman doesn’t in the end really tie in that closely with the story.

But then that’s often the way with Marathon Man. It’s a film in love with atmosphere, its Hitchcockian tricks and its brooding creepiness more than with logic, story or even (really) character. It’s pretty hard to work out what’s going on, and the muttered plot revelations and Schlesinger’s grimy, often deliberately obscure, filming style doesn’t always help the humble viewer work things out. It wants to be like other 70s thrillers and juggle huge events – but it’s actually a rather small-scale, humble film telling a deliberately dreary story, scored with a very 70s combination of electronic noises and plonking piano notes. Plot wise it never really explains what is it about, and gets so bogged down in cross and double cross that it eventually loses its own way.

Where the film does succeed is its individual scenes. Mention Marathon Man and anyone who has heard of it will immediately say “the dental torture film?” They might even say “Is it safe?”. Marathon Man’s dramatic centre-piece is this unnervingly taut torture scene (not too graphic it has to be said – gosh violence in films has moved on since 1976!) where Szell questions Babe (just the one question repeated over and over again) while using his dental skills to “encourage” Babe to answer (ouch!). Ever been even slightly squeamish about going for a dental check-up? This probably isn’t the film for you (heck even one of Szell’s murderous henchmen can’t watch). 

Schlesinger shoots this scenes extremely well, with the camera lingering effectively on everyday dental tools that become dreaded torture devices. Schlesinger builds sequences around action and violence very effectively: escape attempts by Babe are gripping and fight scenes are extremely tense, particularly Doc’s fending off of an assassin in a Paris hotel room.

That scene also highlights another effective part of Schlesinger’s direction of the film: his use of bystanders. The life and death struggle between Doc and an assassin is witnessed across the street by a wheelchair-bound old man powerless to intervene. The opening road-rage deaths of Szell’s Nazi brother and a furious New York Jew are intercut constantly with the reactions and confusions of people in New York’s streets. In the film’s finest scene, Szell has to undertake a terrifying (for him) walk through New York’s Jewish quarter to collect and value his diamonds. His paranoia and fear of being recognised mean he sweatily watches every face. When he is recognised by an old woman – who shrieks for help from bemused passers-by – you really feel Szell’s fear that this woman will turn the mass of watching New Yorkers into a lynch mob. The bystanders really add depth to the film’s paranoia – they are both dangerous and also help to isolate the characters.

The film’s main strength is Laurence Olivier’s stand-out sinister performance as the Mengele-like Szell. Terrifyingly cold, paranoid and sadistically proud, Szell is a truly great villain, and Olivier channels all his Shakespearean experience into turning him into an iconic villain. The film also really works matching Olivier’s imperious old-schoolishness with Hoffman’s edgy, brittle method (the famous anecdote from the film was Olivier’s aghast reaction to Hoffman’s decision to prepare for the torture scene by not sleeping for three days: “Dear boy, would it not be easier to just act?”).

Hoffman is actually very good in the film as a man out of his depth from the start who slowly becomes as hardened and dangerous as the people chasing him. In fact Hoffman, is so involving and empathetically frightened in this film (his desperate range of answers to “Is it safe” are really affecting) that you overlook that he is clearly far too old to be playing a college graduate. Roy Scheider is similarly good as his domineering, but loving spy brother.

But it’s Olivier’s mastery of nastiness that really makes the film lodge in your mind. Schlesinger’s film is often long-winded, opaque and confusing, but Olivier delivers a master-class in imperious nastiness. Szell is a nightmare image of the well-spoken, polite monster and Olivier’s eyes carry a spark of intense menace. Honestly I could happily watch just the scenes he is in – particularly that masterfully performed street walking scene – and be happy to stick with that. The rest of the film is often a bit of a murky mess, but when Oliver is at the centre you forget all that. Marathon Man is a conspiracy thriller so confusing I think it confuses itself – but in the individual scenes it often brilliantly captures dread, discomfort and fear.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Donald Sutherland is lost in the soulless world of Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Director: Philip Kaufman

Cast: Donald Sutherland (Matthew Bennell), Brooke Adams (Elizabeth Driscoll), Leonard Nimoy (Dr David Kibner), Jeff Goldblum (Jack Bellicec), Veronica Cartwright (Nancy Bellicec), Art Hindle (Dr Geoffrey Howell), Don Siegel (Taxicab Driver), Kevin McCarthy (Running Man)

Sometimes, as we look around our office-based world, it’s hard not feel that most of it is taking place on a weary treadmill. That we are going through the motions with no engagement or feeling, that we are all cogs in the same machine. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, like all great science fiction films, taps into this sense of individuality being lost in our modern age, and mixes it with a brilliant dose of Cold-War paranoia. Like much brilliant science-fiction, it offers a window on our world that makes us pause and reflect on our own lives.

Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is a health inspector (has there been a less sexy job for a hero?) in San Francisco. One day his colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) confesses to him that her boyfriend, dentist Geoffrey (Art Hindle), has changed so much that he feels like a completely different person. Turns out she’s not alone in the city – many people are reporting their loved ones have become distant and changed. While Matthew’s friend, celebrity psychiatrist Dr David Kibney (Leonard Nimoy), laughs off their concerns, Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) Bellicec are keen to listen – especially when they find a copy of Jack growing in their home. Can the people of San Francisco really be being replaced by copies in an alien invasion?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not just a great remake, it’s a great piece of film-making in its own right. It takes the ideas of the original and ramps them up into a Nixon-era paranoia fest, to create a creepy and unsettling film. It’s a film that perfectly understands the one thing all people value, perhaps more than any other, is their individuality and ability to feel and experience emotions. These are the two things the Pods take from you – in all other respects, the people are unchanged, they’re just unfeeling drones. 

What Philip Kaufman does really well is fill the film from the start with unsettling moments, and hints that things are wrong. The film opens with eerie visuals as the Pods arrive from space and slowly infect the vegetation of the planet. Unusual camera angles and lingering shots pick out people in the frame, behaving suspiciously robotically. Robert Duvall has a wordless (uncredited) cameo as a priest on a creaking swing in a playground – the sound and visuals both insanely unnerving, especially considering Duvall’s wordless intense stare. 

Pod people go about their work of taking over the earth with a relentless, eerie silence. Do they cling to silence so much, so that their piercing screams when they detect a rogue human can be heard? Late in the film, we see several instances of Pod people, freeze, point rigidly at an unconverted human, and then let out an inhuman shriek (it’s unsettling beyond belief). When pursuing humans, the run with a wild pack abandon. Throughout the film, the camera hovers on moments or scenes, asking us to wonder what’s going on. A floor cleaner mindlessly moves his cleaner across the floor and the camera lingers on him for what feels like ages – is he a pod person? Or is he just an ordinary Joe going about his work? Kaufman sprinkles moments like this throughout the film.

He and screenwriter WD Richter also tap into a sadness of the late 1970s – the world of the hippie, where it felt the world might change, is passing. Matthew, David and Jack all feel like old college buddies – you can imagine the three of them hanging out at Woodstock. Jack and Nancy have clung to their hippie lifestyle, but are reduced to running a mud-bath and trying to peddle Jack’s poetry to the bored and uninterested. David has repackaged himself into a soulless, impossibly vain and self-important TV psychiatrist, dishing out cod-advice and lapping up praise at swanky book launches. Matthew is a slightly grubby civil servant. Kaufman and Richter do a great job of suggesting the younger, more idealistic roots of these characters with minimal dialogue and action. It adds a rich theme to the film – are the Pod people and their mechanical, soulless routine just where the human race is going anyway? Is it any coincidence that the invasion takes places in hip San Francisco?

Kaufman shoots the film with an eerie off-kilterness, helped a lot by Michael Chapman’s excellent cinematography. Ben Burtt’s soundscape is also brilliant – from the creak of the swing at the start and the shriek of the Pod people, to the deafening silence late in the film of the almost completely converted San Francisco, as the Pod People go through the motions of their old lives, devoid of emotion. The design of the pods, and the growing replacement humans, is horribly eerie. This creepiness helps hammer home the sense of paranoia as more and more people are replaced by Pod people – leaving us, like the characters, constantly questioning who is “real” and who isn’t? Who can we trust?

Donald Sutherland is the perfect lead for this – he has both a slightly ground-down world-weariness but also a strong sense of maverick individuality. He’s an interesting, challenging actor and he’s very easy to empathise with. A lot of the film’s emotional force comes from the deep friendship (which could perhaps be more) between him and Brooke Adams (also very good). Leonard Nimoy offers a subtle inversion of his Spock persona, taking elements of Spock’s logical coldness and inverting them for both maximum smarm and creep. Goldblum and Cartwright are just about perfectly cast, with Cartwright especially good (and reaffirming her scream-queen skills) as a woman with a surprisingly sharp survival instinct.

Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is easy to overlook in the list of great American 1970s thrillers due to being both (a) a remake and (b) a science-fiction film. But this is an unsettling investigation of an America on the verge of changing from one type of generation to another. It’s unsettling, intriguing and gripping – wonderfully made and very well acted. It’s a film that understands paranoia, isolation and our love of our own individuality more than many others I can think of. It’s one of the great American 1970s films.

The Parallax View (1975)

The assassination game is grimly played out in Pakula’s groundbreaking conspiracy thriller.

Director: Alan J Pakula

Cast: Warren Beatty (Joseph Frady), Paula Prentiss (Lee Carter), Hume Cronyn (Bill Rintels), William Daniels (Austin Tucker), Walter McGinn (Jack Younger), Kelly Thorsden (Sheriff L.D. Wicker), Earl Hindman (Deputy Red), William Joyce (Senator Charles Carroll), Bill McKinney (Parallax Assassin), Jim Davis (Senator George Hammond), Kenneth Mars (Will Turner)

The 1970s. The decade that made the conspiracy theory popularly accepted. We all love them now – but the 1970s, with its growing disillusionment, was when it first became fashionable to openly question the reality placed before us. The Parallax View is perhaps the greatest conspiracy film ever made, an “experience” movie that captures the mood of the time so well because nothing in it is real, but everything about it feels like it could be real.

The film opens with the assassination of a reforming senator at the Space Needle in Seattle. A senatorial enquiry reports the act was the work of a lone gunman. Three years later, reporter Joe Frady is tipped off that many of the witnesses have been killed in “accidents”. Looking for a big scoop, Frady launches a one-man investigation. This suggests the assassin was someone else entirely, recruited by Parallax, a corporation in the business of identifying and training possible assassins. Or is it? Too late, Frady realises what he has got himself into.

The Parallax Viewis an unsettling, haunting piece of film-making with an impossibly glum view of the world as one where the goodies don’t have a hope in hell. It works despite (because of?) its lack of conventionality: it’s an investigative film where the investigator finds almost nothing out. It’s a tense thriller with no real plot. It tricks us throughout into thinking Frady is completely in control, when he is just a rat in a maze. It’s a film about plot rather than character, but it actually has very little plot as such in it. It’s more like an experience, an immersion in the shady underbelly of America. 

Pakula’s direction is masterfully controlled. Every shot is carefully organised. Every scene builds the complete picture. There is no fat on the film at all: everything we see is relevant. Sequences crackle with tension – most famously, a sequence where Frady finds himself on a plane he knows is carrying a bomb: wordlessly he scrambles desperately for a method to communicate this to the staff. The final sequence at a rehearsal for a senatorial rally is also nearly wordless, but is shot and edited with a relentless inevitability in it, Frady a powerless onlooker.

Warren Beatty gives an intriguing performance as Frady. He isn’t afraid to make Frady slightly unsympathetic: an arrogant loner, nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. His investigation is, when you look at, hilariously ill-prepared and blindly headstrong. He goes up against the system with little more than a complete faith in his pluck and resourcefulness. It’s not enough. Beatty has a cocky hipsterish quality, which only occasionally cracks when he realises he is in over his head. His attitude is summed up perfectly when he is confronted by a drunk cop in a bar: the cop tells him he’s got a hair like a girl; yup, replies Frady with casual defiance and contempt, that’s right I’m a girl. This is more infuriating than any angry retort would be – cue a barfight. It’s a nice, unflashy performance, full of subtle observances, that allows the plot to be the central character.

Gordon Willis was one of the leading photographers of the 1970s and created the visual language of the era’s best films (he also shot The Godfather and All the President’s Men). His photography became synonymous with an impression of the era as one of muddy colours and oppressive architecture, with well chosen streaks of colour throwing these into perspective. His framing throughout the film is exquisite. Events are framed to throw the principal characters into the corners of the frames. Unusual angles show buildings and architecture as oppressive monoliths. Long shots are combined with deep focus to give striking images – my favourite is a long shot from the roof of an air hanger, as a dead man’s golf buggy continues its unguided path, crashing quietly and slowly through tables and chairs. An interesting breakdown of the visual language of the film can be found here.

Sound is also brilliantly used. The score is practically the dictionary definition of spare. Silence is wonderfully used. Background noise dominates several scenes. Life and death events happen silently, lost among the sound of the world around them – whether that be waterfalls, parades or political speeches played over loudspeakers. The effect throughout unnerves and disorientates. It’s all part of the film’s device: the plot is actually extremely simple and the film is a punchy hour and a half. The key thing is the unsettling experience of watching the film, not revelations about our world like in, say, JFK. There is no mystery as such to unravel. Instead we are thrown into this world with no helping hand to guide us through it.

I have to mention the extraordinary assassin recruitment film Frady is brought in to watch by Parallax. It’s a fascinating triumph of editing, a deeply disturbing arrangement of images that slowly switch from positive to negative, subliminally building a message of the need for the individual to take decisive action. I won’t go into all this now – a well-written breakdown of its meaning is here.

And Frady is being tested. His arrogance, his go-it-alone independence, his lack of real relationships or friendships make him (unknowingly) a perfect Parallax subject. Unnervingly we are given no idea of Parallax’s aims. We never learn anything about them and why they do what they do. Are they in it for the personal gain? Are they hired guns? Is their whole programme not about recruiting assassins but recruiting plausible patsies to cover for the real hitmen (that certainly seems to be the impression from the film’s bleak ending)? It’s all left up to the viewer to decide from the scant evidence supplied.

What is clear is that The Parallax View is a deeply troubling film, which presents a haunting and disturbing image of a country where justice is dead and power talks. The film is bookended by a senate commission in session (seemingly floating towards the camera in a brilliant camera effect), giving almost identical reports on assassinations. It’s a chilling film, where even the heroes are not particularly sympathetic or heroic and where hope and change are distant dreams. It’s perhaps the perfect 1970s film.