How we learned to start worrying and love conspiracy movies

Just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean that conspiracy thrillers aren’t on to something. From Fritz Lang to Adam Curtis, filmmakers have pinpointed and predicted the dark turns in our politics leading to the post-truth era.

Stephen Dalton

The Conversation (1974)

The Conversation (1974)

Big Brother. Mass surveillance. The deep state. Double agents. The military industrial complex. The paranoid conspiracy thriller is a staple of cinema, with its own familiar grammar and a history stretching back to the silent age. But this most durable of film genres feels particularly relevant today, with authoritarian regimes on the rise, secrets leaking from the darker regions of the internet, and world leaders like Trump and Putin weaponising conspiratorial thinking to serve their political ends.

Conspiracy-driven thrillers have always reflected the anxieties of their era. In the early 20th century, the phantom menace was typically a secret criminal clique linked to some rival imperial power. During the Cold War, communist infiltrators lurked under every bed. JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal brought the enemy closer to home, a corrupt political elite working hand in hand with crooked corporate interests. Since the turn of the new millennium, the war on terror, the rise of the internet, and high-tech mass surveillance have supercharged the conspiracy genre with new fears and fresh enemies.

But there is also something malignant in this mode of thinking, of course: an inclination to blame scapegoats, manufacture enemies and discern dark forces at work behind even the most random events. Paranoid conspiracy thrillers have always depended on the unkindness of strangers.

Historian Richard Hofstadter highlighted this tendency in his celebrated 1964 essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, published shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “If for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, we can see how many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination”, he wrote. “Treason in high places can be found at almost every turning.”

Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour (2014)

The bad faith that Hofstadter pinpointed has spread exponentially with the growth of online conspiracy sites, a global troll army of 9/11 ‘truthers’, Obama ‘birthers’, anti-vaxxers, chemtrail cultists, New World Order doom prophets, climate-change deniers, apocalyptic anti-Zionists and fake-news snake-oil salesmen on both the alt-right and the alt-left. In a post-truth age, people are no longer satisfied with merely having their own opinion, they also want their own facts.

These digital-age scare stories have strangely ancient roots. Many borrow directly from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous antisemitic forgery first published in Russia in 1903, which purported to expose secret Jewish plans for world domination. Further back still, the Illuminati were a benign underground society founded in 18th-century Bavaria, but nowadays their clandestine plans for unlimited power are apparently being channelled through their unlikely new brand ambassadors, Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Mind. Blown.

But beyond the UFO spotters and space-lizard cranks, of course, there have always been real conspiracies and cover-ups. The best paranoid thrillers tap into a deeper truth about their eras, sometimes even predicting political mood swings, looming scandals and future assassinations. In recent years it has become hard for cinematic fantasy to keep up with jaw-dropping reality in an age of WikiLeaks, financial meltdown, hacked election claims and reality-bending tweets from the White House. Documentaries are the new conspiracy thrillers. Truth is no longer just stranger than fiction, but also more terrifying.

Into the shadows

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)

One of the founding fathers of the conspiracy thriller was the Austrian-born director Fritz Lang, whose Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) chronicles the exploits of a criminal mastermind bent on controlling the global stock market, forging banknotes and corrupting anybody who falls under his mesmerising gaze. Even today, almost a century later, Lang’s silent Expressionist epic combines great formal beauty with a strange occult power. All the James Bond villains of the last 50-plus years owe something to Mabuse’s saturnine charisma.

Lang later came to see Mabuse as a prototype Hitler figure, making the parallels more explicit in his later sequel, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). However, as a psychoanalyst and manipulator of the global financial system, the character inevitably played into familiar antisemitic stereotypes. One contemporary Nazi critic even called Mabuse “a quintessential Jewish figure” whose ultimate aim is “mastery of the world”. Lang, who himself was partly Jewish, learned the hard way that conspiratorial subtext is in the eye of the beholder. Alternative facts can be addictive.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

In English-speaking cinema, the leading conspiracy thriller pioneer was Alfred Hitchcock. Early works such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and Foreign Correspondent (1940) featured criminal cults and shadowy foreign enemies plotting sedition against the British empire. But by the time Hitch made his most straightforward adventure yarn, North by Northwest (1959), the Cold War was in full flow and the plotters were clearly Soviet agents in all but name.

Too much paranoia

McCarthy-era anxiety over communist subversion gave cinema a fresh shot of conspiracy mania during the Cold War, from Don Siegel’s seminal sci-fi shocker Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to kitchen-sink espionage classics like Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965). But the peak red-scare film from this period remains John Frankenheimer’s epochal masterpiece The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which stars Laurence Harvey as a US army sergeant brainwashed by enemy agents during the Korean war, then sent home to infiltrate the upper echelons of Washington politics.

Watch a trailer for The Manchurian Candidate

Co-starring Angela Lansbury as Harvey’s magnificently monstrous mother, and Frank Sinatra as his suspicious former army comrade, The Manchurian Candidate pulled off the bizarre feat of predicting JFK’s assassination one year early. Hallucinatory in style, nightmarish in mood, it still resonates strongly today. Numerous US publications over the last 18 months have drawn parallels between Harvey’s sinister double agent and Donald Trump, in reference to the president’s alleged secret links to Vladimir Putin. Time will tell.

The late 1960s brought an influx of druggy dislocation into conspiracy thrillers, their central mysteries turning more cosmic and existential than geopolitical. Michelangelo Antonioni’s cryptic murder mystery Blowup (1966) transformed swinging London into a Carnaby Street fashion shoot with dark forces just below the surface. Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst (1967) was probably the first self-conscious spoof of the conspiracy genre, its psychedelic riot of subplots involving renegade shrinks, sentient robots and Beatles-ish pop moptops. Meanwhile, Patrick McGoohan’s groundbreaking TV show The Prisoner (1967-68) plunged its rebel-spy protagonist into a surreal wonderland where nobody and nothing can be trusted, not even the fabric of reality.

The Prisoner (1967-68)

The Prisoner (1967-68)

But the implosion of the 1960s hippie dream ushered in a new decade of hard-nosed cynicism, and with it a new golden age of conspiracy films. The assassinations of JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King, the deepening horror of the Vietnam war, and the election of Richard Nixon to the White House darkened the mood of American cinema. Across Europe, meanwhile, political turbulence and a wave of domestic terrorism helped fuel a sense of distrust towards the machinery of state power.

One of the first films to highlight totalitarian tendencies in western governments was Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), a French-Algerian co-production loosely based on the 1963 assassination of the democratic Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis. Set in an unnamed European country, this darkly funny Oscar-winner was clearly a caustic commentary on the military junta who ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974. Half a century later, its Kafkaesque critique could equally apply to numerous contemporary regimes, from Turkey to Zimbabwe, Russia to Iran.

All the President’s Men (1976)

All the President’s Men (1976)

In America, the Watergate scandal was first prefigured then later recreated on screen by director Alan J. Pakula with his celebrated ‘paranoia trilogy’ of politically charged thrillers. In Klute (1971), Donald Sutherland’s tight-lipped detective and Jane Fonda’s emotionally elusive prostitute become embroiled in a corporate murder cover-up. In The Parallax View (1974), Warren Beatty’s undercover reporter investigates a sinister corporation that recruits and brainwashes political assassins. And in All the President’s Men (1976), Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford play the real-life newshounds whose dogged detective work eventually exposed the criminal conspiracy that toppled President Nixon.

The gathering storm of Watergate also hangs heavy over Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), which stars Gene Hackman as an audio surveillance expert whose eavesdropping antics lead him to intervene in an apparent murder plot. Inspired by Antonioni’s Blowup, Coppola’s clammy conspiracy classic seemed uncanny in its timing. In fact, the fateful parallels with Nixon’s secret bugging tapes were largely accidental, as shooting had begun before the main Watergate revelations broke.

Capricorn One (1977)

Capricorn One (1977)

Other Hollywood films that mined this creatively fruitful mood of post-Watergate pessimism include Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), about a CIA hit squad wiping out its own agents after they stumble on a dangerous secret; Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1977), in which NASA fake a manned mission to Mars for propaganda purposes; and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979), a bitter farce about the long-buried truth behind a JFK-style assassination, which was based on a novel by The Manchurian Candidate author Richard Condon.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Francesco Rosi caught Italy’s volatile political mood in Illustrious Corpses (1976), a noir-tinged murder mystery in which a shadowy cabal of party chiefs, crime bosses and establishment insiders conspire to liquidate a left-wing terror group. This elegantly chilly thriller proved prophetic about the future fate of Italy’s notorious Red Brigades, who kidnapped and murdered prime minister Aldo Moro two years later.

Revisiting this bumper harvest of paranoid classics 40 years later, The Parallax View is probably the film that speaks most closely to the post-truth climate of the 21st century. Unlike most of its contemporaries, Pakula’s fable-like thriller never reveals its secrets, leaving us only with a vertiginous sense of wheels within wheels, plots within plots, all directed by shadowy puppetmasters with cloudy motives. By ending with a deeper mystery, not a cathartic resolution, it leaves itself open to boundless conspiratorial speculation.

Watch The Parallax View trailer

“The Parallax View is in a sense a meta-conspiracy film”, wrote academic and cultural theorist Mark Fisher in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism. “A film not only about conspiracies but about the impotence of attempts to uncover them; or, much worse than that, about the way in which particular kinds of investigation feed the very conspiracies they intend to uncover.”

In 1980s Britain, the Thatcher government inspired a mini-boom in paranoid conspiracy plots on both big and small screen. Anxieties over Whitehall secrecy, Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with America, the Falklands war and the growing arsenal of US nuclear weapons arriving on British military bases fuelled films such as David Drury’s Defence of the Realm (1986), about a politically explosive military cover-up, and Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990), about a clandestine shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, on television, groundbreaking eco-thriller Edge of Darkness (1985) and Westminster game of thrones A Very British Coup (1988) delved into power, corruption and lies in high places.

For the past 30 years the reigning champion of conspiracy thrillers has been Oliver Stone, whose dense epic JFK (1991) crystallised decades of feverish speculation around Kennedy’s assassination into an all-you-can-eat buffet of potential suspects, outlandish plots and brazen fabrications. Stone’s meta-fictional blockbuster became a controversial but hugely lucrative hit, feeding into a wave of populist conspiratorial thinking that emerged in the 1990s with TV shows such as The X-Files (1993-2002).

JFK (1991)

JFK (1991)

Order out of chaos

The rise of the internet triggered a wave of techno-phobic paranoia movies, including The Net (1995), Enemy of the State (1998) and The Matrix (1999). Ironically, the worldwide web has become the chief platform for disseminating conspiracy theories, but it was first demonised on screen as a potentially Orwellian system of state surveillance and social control – correctly, as it later turned out, although fear of Big Brother’s prying eyes was a cinematic theme long before the computer age.

“This arsenal of paraphernalia and technology,” film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in Slate magazine earlier this year, “suggesting that the ordinary world isn’t quite what it appears to be and that everyday life is full of concealed plots and hidden dangers, is a staple of a genre that didn’t have to wait for video surveillance or the digital revolution before it took over people’s imaginations and has only spread further in this interconnected modern century.”

Standard Operating Procedure (2008) poster

Conspiratorial thinking has certainly hit epidemic levels this century. In a 2013 American survey, 30% of Republicans were convinced that Barack Obama was a devout Muslim, and more than one in four citizens feared a secret global shadow government was planning to impose a new world order. No major political rupture or terrorist attack can occur today without an instant flood of online claims about false-flag operations, crisis actors, fake news reports, Zionist plots and other spurious drivel. Reality has become negotiable and hotly contested.

In the midst of this avalanche of truth, half-truth and post-truth, documentaries and docudramas have overtaken fiction films for juicy conspiracy plots. Errol Morris illuminated the dark secrets of the war on terror in Standard Operating Procedure (2008), Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winner Inside Job (2010) unpicked the shady backroom deals behind the 2008 financial crash, and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) unearthed the roots of state-sponsored genocide in Indonesia. Meanwhile, Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour (2014) and Oliver Stone’s Snowden (2016) turned rogue CIA agent Edward Snowden’s bombshell leaks about mass NSA surveillance into a real-life spy thriller.

But perhaps the greatest spinner of conspiratorial webs in modern cinema is the BBC’s Adam Curtis, who has carved a unique niche somewhere between documentary maker and avant-garde artist. Piecing together dreamlike collages of archive footage interwoven with secret histories of shady geopolitical deal-making, Curtis presents reality itself as a kind of consensual conspiracy, a propaganda fantasy masking a much more complex dystopian reality. His most recent marathon essay-film, HyperNormalisation (2016), astutely predicted Donald Trump’s election victory and the polarising echo-chamber effect of online bubbles.

Watch the trailer for HyperNormalisation

From the age of imperial espionage plots to the digital era of fake news, cyber surveillance and rigged elections, the conspiracy thriller genre endures because it has proved endlessly adaptable to every new bump and twist in the global political landscape. But more than that, it also touches on a primal need in human nature, an understandable urge to find hidden order in a universe of random chaos.

“If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia,” author Thomas Pynchon wrote in his classic 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, “there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”

This craving for connection helps explain the addictive appeal of conspiracy theories, on screen and in real life. Behind our anxiety that Big Brother could be watching us lies a much deeper fear that he is not watching us, and never was, and may not even exist. 

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