The Anxious Pleasures of the Paranoid Thriller

The ’70s were a great decade for movies made for adults

Robert Rubsam

For a few years in my early teens, I was a nut about conspiracy theories. It started in the 7th grade, when a friend gave me his copy of a book called UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe. It’s a winking, “just joking” omnibus of every imaginable 20th century plot: Roswell, JFK, the moon landing; you name it. Its author? Law & Order Extended Universe player Richard “The Belz” Belzer. Then, for some reason, my comparative religion teacher showed our class the unquestionably anti-Semitic Youtube sensation Zeitgeist, and then let me take the DVD home. I have a distinct memory of showing the 9/11 section to my parents, and deciding as they turned their very serious faces toward me that I would never bring it up again.

I moved on from indulging questions about the comparative heat of jet fuel around the time I stopped listening to alt-rock radio. This shouldn’t really be a surprise. After all there’s something inherently adolescent about conspiracy theories, with their suggestions of a secret world hidden in plain sight all around you, visible only to those with the courage to dig deep into dangerous knowledge. However unsettling this discovery might be, it ultimately leads to a kind of comfort, rejecting the mundane chaos of everyday life in order to grant one’s reality a larger, more coherent form. They are in their way a deeply regressive form of rebellion, rejecting the impinging world of complex adult life in favor of the comfortable sureties of childhood: secret forces, powerful institutions, heroes and villains and stories that ask us to pick a side. They allow us to stand athwart adulthood and grumble: stop.

And yet, as an adult I am drawn back in again and again by way of one of my favorite cinematic genres: the paranoid thriller. The genre, such as it is, emerged in 1971 with Alan J. Pakula’s Klute. Jane Fonda, in an Oscar-winning performance, plays a New York City call girl named Bree Daniels who becomes a person of interest in the disappearance of a small town Pennsylvania family man. Private detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) begins to shadow Bree as she auditions for plays and tries out for modeling jobs, and he records her calls with potential johns from a rented room in the basement. When Bree discovers these recordings on his reel-to-reel machine she is understandably horrified, but only as one in a series of near-daily violations, from customers, cops, her pimp, and the unknown man who follows her on the street and calls her at night, but never says a word.

For a mainstream hit, Klute is a startlingly mature movie, frequently putting Klute’s investigation on the backburner so that we can watch Bree navigate intimacy and sexual love in a series of conversations with her psychotherapist. Fonda invests her character with a cagey hesitance, holding her arms to her sides and speaking indirectly, afraid to show true emotion. Her clothes, her shag haircut, her bohemian affectations and the prickly barbs she constantly flings at Klute, are like a barricade, a suit of armor, keeping his eyes on the surface in the hope that they won’t end up peering into the depths. Her self-investigation provides the film with its emotional power. She is searching for a life outside of her defenses, and a self open to love.

Klute’s obvious companion is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 The Conversation. Both films focus on closed-off characters, two people who live out their lives in a kind of controlled insignificance, who keep both the world and their own interior lives at a great distance. Both are also stories about surveillance, about the experiences we choose to record and how those words can be weaponized. Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is a technological master, a surveillance expert for hire who can record even the most private conversation from a distance. Caul hides behind his professionalism, avoiding the consequences of his work by treating it as a matter of technological invention.

But technology is never neutral. If Klute is the story of a woman struggling against her own defenses and projections, it is also that of a man (a sweaty corporate executive played by Charles Cioffi) addicted to debasement. The executive despises women, blames them for his sex addiction, calls them hysterical when they fight back against his beatings. Every time he visits the city, he hires a sex worker, and documents the whole encounter on a pocket tape recorder, to replay in the privacy of his office. The tapes allow him to run his life back, to create a self-exculpating story from a safe distance. Bree, by comparison, has only herself.

It also creates evidence, or more crucially the expectation of evidence, which is to say: a zone of fabrication. The Conversation opens with Caul and his team recording an adulterous couple during their clandestine lunch-break meet-up. As he fiddles with the tapes, running all the various signals through a series of processors and filters, Caul begins to make out a phrase spoken in fear: “He’d kill us if he could.” Wracked with guilt, he believes that he has condemned the couple to their deaths. Yet in the film’s climax, the exact opposite proves true: the husband is dead, the couple fleeing from the press. He thought he had invaded their private thoughts, but he only heard what they wanted him to.

1974 also saw the release of The Parallax View, Pakula’s return to the genre, and maybe his best film. The film begins with one political assassination and ends with another. In between, Warren Beatty discovers a secret company operating on the margins of American life and recruiting assassins via personality tests. It’s a decidedly bigger film than Klute, full of fist fights and car chases and leering brutalist architecture. Pakula stages key scenes on massive sets, so that his wide shots hold both story and viewer at a distance. We see what the public will: the dead senator, the gun on the scaffold, but not even who fired the shot. Two years later, Pakula would direct maybe the great journalism film, but Beatty’s investigation here is completely futile, every discovery a carefully calculated feint by the Parallax Corporation. He believes himself the hero, but he’s only a patsy; at no point has he been in control.

Conspiracies are often framed as outré knowledge, but they play to our expectations. They let us feel the relief of recognition, of messing with the settings long enough until the noise resolves into a message. Everything comes into focus. These answers can be anything, especially if we expect them: fearful adulterers, vengeful husbands, inside jobs, lone wolves.

Yet for all their focus on conspiracy, the best paranoid thrillers are marked by a stubborn opacity, as if the true story were taking place behind frosted glass. Again and again, their heroes brush over the deeper conspiracies without really seeing them. For all his discoveries about the Parallax Corporation, Beatty never approaches the question of who even pays for the assassinations. Towards the end of All the President’s Men, Deep Throat intimates a vast network dedicated to winnowing the possibilities of American democracy; taking down the president comes to feel like small potatoes.

The genre reached its peak in 1976, when All the President’s Men was nominated for eight Oscars, and won four. Everything since has been a riff, or a devolution. In 1981, Brian De Palma mashed The Conversation up with The Parallax View to create Blow Out, restaging key sequences with flatter characters and outrageous flair. In place of Fonda’s self-interrogating call girl, we get Nancy Allen’s doomed hooker with a heart of gold. John Lithgow’s performance here isn’t so far off from the one he gives in Cliffhanger. Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State has to invent surveillance technology of the computer: zoom and enhance variety to approach the menace of Coppolla’s film. Then of course Gene Hackman shows up to turn that technology on its makers and stick it to the man, a good guy with a geolocator.

Far more absurd is JFK. Oliver Stone’s paranoid fantasia features any number of call-backs to the films of the 1970s, even employing Sutherland for a key scene. Stone makes explicit everything his influences subsumed, like a story constructed entirely from The Parallax View’s subliminal cue cards: Love, Mother, Enemy, etc. His film oozes a childlike sense of betrayal, responding to the disappointments of one narrative by constructing another, even more ludicrous one. He can’t stand Pakula’s opacity, his willingness to leave the answers on the table. What if the truth doesn’t get out? What if the good guys don’t win? It’s all or nothing with Stone, usually the latter.

Stone’s certainty makes him a dull director, and an adolescent thinker. To use Som-Mai Nguyen’s phrase, he utterly lacks “the self-respect of ambivalence” that marks all genuine artists, those people who accept that frustration attends knowledge and who are comfortable residing, at least for a while, in that zone of uncertainty. It is precisely this uncertainty that conspiracy theories seek to banish, the sense that one’s life is always obscured by the veil of one’s ignorance. Yet for all its anxieties, that self-respect is precisely what we hope to gain as we grow. It is the movement from the child- to adulthood, certainty to ambivalence, enclosure to freedom. As with Bree, there’s no guarantee we’ll succeed. But who are we if we don’t give it a shot?

Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.