Prompted by the 48th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy (which, incidentally, was carried out by an America-hating communist — and not by a Texan, Tea Party type), I thought I’d discuss some movies which I’ve enjoyed through the years that deal with secret plots and conspiracies. There are a good bunch of them out there; and the best of them can be truly unforgettable.
I’ll start in the 60’s: 1962, the year before JFK was murdered, saw the release of the John Frankenheimer-directed film adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate. Widely considered a classic of the political thriller genre, it features Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury (plus Psycho’s Janet Leigh!) in prominent roles, as cogs in a machine set in motion by Russian and Chinese spies to overthrow the U.S. government. Acting, screenplay, and direction mesh together perfectly for truly spine-tingling results . Skip the 2004 remake and watch the black and white original instead. You know who’s the villain in the 2004 version? A Halliburton-type corporation. Yeah, in the 2004 version crony capitalism isn’t good enough. Corporations have to carry out high-level assassinations to actually influence government.
Another paranoia great directed by John Frankenheimer is Seconds (1966), which is not just a thriller, but a morality tale of sorts. The protagonist is an older, successful, middle class straight arrow who feels unfulfilled and frustrated with his station in life. When he learns of a shadowy organization that can provide him with a new, exciting life as an accomplished artist with a younger body and identity, he approaches it – and is essentially given no choice but to accept its services. But his new, glamorous, hedonistic existence is not quite the right fit. Things quickly become more challenging as his regrets add up. Creepy and heartbreaking at the same time, it stars Rock Hudson, whom we now know led a double life himself. It’s another black and white title, but color would just ruin the entire atmosphere of the film. This is a movie designed to make you uncomfortable as it entertains you. It accomplishes that and more.
One of the go-to movies for paranoia in the 70’s has to be Three Days of the Condor (1975), starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. Redford plays a CIA analyst who — perhaps predictably — has analyzed more than he should have, though even he is not aware of what makes him so dangerous to the CIA agents who want him dead. The jazz score by Dave Grusin alone is a delight, but the movie is just plain fun to watch. Redford and Dunaway are great together; and you can’t help to root for them as they try to figure out who to trust, who to run away from, and ultimately where to turn for help. Max Von Sydow plays a hitman who’s both elegant and menacing at the same time.
Moving on to the 80’s, for paranoid horror nothing beats The Thing (1982), directed by John Carpenter. A sci-fi thriller through and through, and excellently executed — including its old school in-camera special effects (no CGI back then). The minimalist Morricone score is a perfect fit for this story of a group of men stuck in an arctic outpost where there is really not much to do beyond looking at snow and feeling cold — until it becomes evident that some life-form which can mimic any other living creature 100% is making its way through the facility with fatal results. Who to trust? Who is really human and not the creature in disguise? Kurt Russell stars. And Wilford Brimley has to be seen to be believed, literally.
Also in the sci-fi genre, 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a great example of how science fiction can work with basically any storyline. It’s a political thriller. No, it’s a sci-fi adventure set in the Star Trek universe. Wait: It’s a political thriller and a sci-fi adventure set in the Star Trek universe. Much like the Soviet empire which collapsed two years before this movie was released, the Klingon Empire – perennial enemy of Starfleet — is no longer viable. It’s a chance for peace, at long last. But there are forces on both sides that cannot abide this potential ‘New Space Order’, including Captain Kirk himself. There are patsies and there are plotters. And the long-beloved veteran Enterprise crew is stuck in the middle. I had only seen one Star Trek movie before I saw this one in the theater back in the day; and yet I enjoyed it tremendously. If anything, check it out just so you can see Kim Catrall with pointy ears. Also features Christopher Plummer…as a Klingon!
Moving into the first decade of the 21st century, I’m torn between a number of choices. But it’d be too obvious for me to discuss Minority Report or Valkyrie (both of which coincidentally star Tom Cruise), two great titles which dwell in themes of conspiracy and paranoia. So let me close by recommending the fifth installment of another beloved franchise: Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. One caveat: I believe it’s better if you watch all the prior movies in the Potter series before seeing this one, in order to really enjoy it. But if you ever want to see a group of wizards organize a secret magi militia to defend their community because their government is too corrupt, co-opted, or inept to protect its citizens from an imminent existential threat, look no further. Watch it with a liberal friend and then ask him if he was rooting for the protagonists. Then sit back and laugh a little.