The Essential 1970s Conspiracy Thrillers

From Executive Action to Cutter's Way.


I have an article up at io9 listing 10 essential 1970s conspiracy thrillers. From the opening:

And the Academy Award for the best use of a picture of Thor in a feature film goes to…

Techno-paranoia has become the norm in our post-Snowden world, and hit shows like Person of Interest play on our fears of being watched. But the high-tech conspiracy tale has its roots in the 1970s, which saw a great wave of movies about assassins, surveillance, secret governments, and corporate cabals. The result was a decade's worth of paranoid thrillers, many of them extremely entertaining….

Between the Watergate scandal and a series of ugly revelations about the CIA, the FBI, and other federal agencies, the public was more receptive to stories where the country's leaders were the villains. And with the rise of the so-called New Hollywood, a younger, more countercultural group of filmmakers was ready to deliver them.

These aren't the best '70s conspiracy thrillers—a couple of them aren't all that good, though they're worth watching for other reasons. They're just the essential ones: necessary stops on any extended tour of the genre.

The article is pegged to my book The United States of Paranoia, which discusses most of these movies and much else besides. It's been a while since I last posted a roundup of United States of Paranoia coverage, so here's a few of the highlights from the last month or two:

• The Chicago Tribune included it in its list of 2013's best books.

Boing Boing's podcast You Are Not So Smart interviewed me about it.

• Ed Driscoll invoked it while discussing how "Beltway and Northeast Corridor elites have plenty of conspiracy theories of their own."

• Arthur Goldwag, who had already posted one review of the book on his personal blog, published another article about it in The Washington Spectator. If you read the piece, be sure to check the comments, where I take issue with how he interpreted a part of the text.

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  1. Coincidentally, I just read The Six Days of the Condor, which, besides including three more days, also was a little less political in the sense that the book just had a couple of rogue guys in the agency.

    1. You beat me to it. That is a great movie. What I always liked about it was that the Robert Redford character did nothing but read for a living. Yet, he learned so much that it made him a dangerous opponent.

  2. Glenn Beck says Bill Nye's fight against creationism is like the Catholic Church's war on Galileo

    Can't talk CT without a Beckerhead quote.

    1. CHRISTFAG!!1

      You didn't even take the meds this morning I see. You are already having a Christfag seizure.

    2. Bill Nye lost me after this completely ignorant explanation he gave. He was completely talking out of his ass.

      It was amazing that during the Fukushima incident, I never saw an actually nuclear engineer or health physicist interviewed about the reactor.

      1. That's because they're all in the employ of Big Atom.

      2. As Bill Nye ages, he is slowly becoming a supervillain. Look at his bony face there. Obviously evil.

        1. What's weird is that I find him currently annoying, but still watch his old shows with my six-year old. What he needs is for Carol Weathers to come to his door and take him to Watts to train in a shitty gym.

          I find it increasingly annoying that the media--including documentary productions--have these standard go-to "scientists," regardless of the science being discussed or the background of the "expert." Nye, for instance, is an engineer.

  3. The Conversation at number 3 instead of one or two? And no Marathon Man? No Boys from Brazil?

    1. The Conversation at number 3 instead of one or two?

      It's chronological.

      1. Okay. But still no Odessa File.

    2. It's i09. You shouldn't be surprised by their shitty and simple-minded taste.

      1. I have an article up at io9

        Ack. Now I RTFA.

        Sorry Jesse. It's a knee-jerk reaction I have to i09.

  4. And the Odessa File totally belongs on that list.

    1. Well, that's the great thing about lists. There's always a discussion that follows e.g. Capricorn One (1978).

      1. That is a fun one. Not a great movie. But fun to watch.

        1. And kind of circular in its cultural affects: it was based on conspiracy theories but is now used to bolster claims of a conspiracy.

  5. Jesse- I haven't read your book, but I hope it at least mentions "The President's Analyst," which deserves to be on your list in this article, if only to provide a smart, humorous alternative to some of the unrelentingly tense and/or dull movies that did make the list. For a while, in the years after it had been released, events and changes in the world (especially the abandonment of 70s fashion) made "The President's Analyst" seem quaint and outdated to me when I would catch it in reruns on TV. But now, decades later, and despite its conceits of the period and cold-war setting, this movie only seems to be more on target and relevant than ever. At least it entertains and provides a laugh or two.

    1. I haven't read your book, but I hope it at least mentions "The President's Analyst," which deserves to be on your list in this article

      It's a great movie, and I do mention it. It isn't on this list because it came out in the wrong decade.

      1. So it did -- during the Summer of Love, even, as IMDB reminds me! Now I am depressed. I am so old the decades are beginning to run together. 🙂 I probably lumped this movie in with the others precisely because, during the period when I watched them (in reruns), I sought out "The President's Analyst" as a chaser and something of an antidote; it also seemed to me to garner more critical respect in the 1970s than it did originally. Anyway, I'm glad it got a mention in your book, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in the "conspiracy theory & paranoia" genre check it out.

    2. That is a very good movie. And much less quaint than it should be. If it came out tomorrow Google and the NSA were working on a project to implant internet devices in everyone's brain, would you be that surprised?

      1. See the new CBS TV series, "Intelligence." The Internet started with academia and the military (via ARPA/DARPA), and now everybody has it. In this show, internet interfaces in the brain start with elite military. And then...? And then...? 😉

        1. Sadly believable.

        2. It's disappointing that the show is so flawed. I liked the idea of a serious Chuck and it's got some good cast members (always happy to see Lt Daniels in a show), but some of the plot points are just ridiculous. Like how the hell did that Chinese agent with the new chip not get captured right away?

  6. Techno-paranoia has become the norm in our post-Snowden world, and hit shows like Person of Interest play on our fears of being watched.

    Isn't Person of Interest actually pro-surrveilance? The entire premise of the show is basically "Why are we limiting the Panopticon to terrorist threats when we could use it against all crimes if we just stopped handcuffing Top Men with silly things like due process?"

    1. I thought that too. But Episiarch and Sugar Free, who are both avid fans of the show, say it is anti-surveillance. They say the show is about a guy who idealistically worked for the government until he realized the system he built was being misused. The show is about him going rogue and fighting government surveillance.

      I haven't ever watched the show. But they have and claim it is not pro surveillance.

      1. The creator of the machine strives to balance security in privacy in a way that irritates the Top Men, but he won't budge on it. And one of the main characters has recently become disillusioned with The Machine and wonders if it hasn't made things worse. I don't know if it's directly pro or anti surveillance so much as viewing a very possible surveillance future through a conflicted lens.

    2. PoI makes the point time and again that the only danger The Machine poses is when it is used by Top Men. You can't actually surveil anyone with The Machine, and all it gives you in the case of terrorists or street crime is a Social Security number--not even indicted if the number is a victim or a perpertrator.

      And omniscience, impartial machine intelligence focused on thwarting crimes that involve the taking a human life and nothing else is about as libertarian as law enforcement can get.

      (Of course, the show has complicated this basic premise in very interesting ways.)

      1. Maybe an AI can clean up my damn typos.

        1. Clean up? I always assumed your comments were all written by a Markov chain.

      2. That still seems to fall into the Top Men narrative to me. From the summaries, the protagonists argument seems to be that the problem isn't The Machine itself; it's not that it's necessarily falliable and will lead to innocents being targeted; it's not that sort power is inherently corrupting; no, the system is actually perfect, we just don't have the right person in charge of it. If we just put an uncorruptible ubermensch like Harold Finch in charge, all our problems would be solved.

        1. But the only reason that Finch is an attractive candidate is because he is doggedly unwilling to take up that mantle. At least in the beginning he was the Jimminy Cricket character and he said that nobody should have that much power.

          1. But he is willing to take up that mantle. He's not trying to destroy The Machine; he's just fighting to control it so it will be used in what he considers the right way.

            Again, based on the summaries, his primary beef seems to be that the government was ignoring the "irrelvant targets". That is, he's upset that the Government was being too restrained with their use of his invention.

            1. Do you actually watch the show? At this point, The Machine has gotten out of Finch's control and speaks to Root (the delicious Amy Acker) directly. I'm not even sure where they're going with it at this point, but Finch isn't calling any shots. The Machine is. Finch could be called guilty of TOP MEN leanings, but the show is somewhere else at this point.

              1. Thank you, that was not explained in the summary I was reading.

            2. Stormy has the exact same impression I had.

              Hard to believe Epi isn't cynical enough. But I think the tone of the show is clear: government power is our God and Savior except for the few bad apples spoiling the bunch.

              1. I've been watching the show for its whole run. If it were actually statist, I'd have turned it off by now. I'm not sure what it is--I don't even think the writers do--but it's interesting enough, and has enough anti-government sentiment to keep me watching.

                You're not going to get Firefly in every show. PoI is interesting enough to give it a watch.

                1. As a general fan of blasphemy I'm going to say I find Firefly unwatchable. It's a poor man's Cowboy Bebop.

                  I guess I'd like to give that show a shot. I'm currently enjoying Kevin Bacon's quest to get a higher body count than a cult of serial killers.

                  1. As a general fan of blasphemy I'm going to say I find Firefly unwatchable. It's a poor man's Cowboy Bebop.

                    Have you seen any of, or intend to see anything of Space Dandy?

                    1. It's like a comedic parody of spacetime bounty hunters? Weird. I'll keep it in the back of my mind if I find myself bored on a cold or rainy day.

                    2. I don't really know anything about it other than that it's made by many of the same people as Bebop and that several of my friends are really excited about it coming out.

                      I haven't even watched the trailer yet.

            3. Kind of, but he's still avoiding general surveillance. The machine is built to give just enough info to avert catastrophe without really impinging on privacy. In this case the machine itself is the idealized Top Man, not Finch. Finch is just the most morally sound oracle; everyone else is corrupt, which forces the show to keep asking the question whether that kind of power is really worth the risk.

              It's an enjoyable show, not amazing, but enjoyable. It starts off as a little less nuanced though so you might need to give it time to warm up. I'm guessing the plot summaries don't do justice to the running themes and focus more on the action of the bad guy of the week.

  7. "Why are we limiting the Panopticon to terrorist threats when we could use it against all crimes if we just stopped handcuffing Top Men with silly things like due process?"

    Isn't a basic theme of all law and order type shows that limits on government only help criminals?

    1. Only for about the last 40 years.

      1. Y'feel lucky, punk? Well do ya?

        1. Speaking of cultural artifacts. I think you can say in defense of both Dirty Harry and Death Wish that they were made in a much different world. Big city policing really did fall apart in the 1970s and there was a huge crime wave unlike anything the people living then had ever seen.

          Those movies were more a cultural zeitgeist of a public demanding the government do its basic function of protecting the public from crime than they were an endorsement of some police state like shows such as Law and Order are now.

          1. Thank you for concise explanation. I loved Dirty Harry and Bronson growing up and I am sometimes uncomfortable with the knowledge that, even after I discovered the constitution and embraced it as my holy book, they still feel like good guys to me.

    2. Even the straightest of police procedurals, the original Law and Order, showed them violating Constitutional rights in almost every episode. And rarely were they wrong or punished beyond the exclusion of some evidence they got around of in the end.

      1. I always thought the Sam Waterston character on the original Law and Order was about as good a depiction of the typical prosecutor who has let his commitment to get the bad guys corrupt his morals as you could have.

      2. And they're portrayed as heroes.

      3. Interestingly (or not), it was watching a lot of L&O that got me started on rejecting the whole narrative of "the police are our friends." From watching those shows, I developed the determination that if the police ever want to talk to me about a crime or "take a look around" my answer will be no.

  8. Two "quaint" cultural memories from this list:

    i) Three Days of the Condor: Redford stymies any future attempt on his life by telling his pursuers that the press have all the information he has and can blow things wide open. Hard to imagine all the press today backing a Redford-style whistle-blower.

    ii) Parallax View: there's a scene where Beatty's character thinks an airliner is going to be blown up. So, he runs across the tarmac, gets on board, claims an empty seat and pays cash to the flight attendant for his trip. To think air travel was ever that simple.

    1. AMC was all Godfather last weekend. I was watching Godfather II and the scene where Diane Keaton tells Micheal that she didn't have a miscarriage but instead had an abortion and murdered his son so he wouldn't grow up to be a gangster. It is a brilliant scene and a very clever way to get around the plot problem that the movie has to end with Micheal, who spent his whole life obsessing about family, ends up with no family, but his dynamic with Kay is always that he lies and she comes back. Her killing his son is the one way to make it believable when he won't have her back.

      But there is no way Hollywood would ever write a scene or create a plot that so explicitly considers abortion murder today. Couldn't happen. They would have written some lame ass "I could have been an independent woman" speech for Keaton or just left it unexplained why Micheal wouldn't have her back and the movie would have been much poorer for it.

      And we wonder why movies are not generally as good anymore. When there are lots of ideas that artists are not allowed to express or use, art suffers.

    2. And any scene involving a pay phone is now a quaint culture memory.

      1. It's really amazing how quickly payphones went away. I find it mildly jarring when I occasionally see them on the street now.

        1. Pay phones are a part of some of t he Seinfeld plots. That was only in the 1990s.

          1. Can't Hardly Wait (1998) has a scene where Jenna Elfman plays a stripper wearing angel wings struggling to get out of a phone booth. It seemed totally normal then. A few years later cell phones were common and by the mid-2000s they were ubiquitous. It really happened in a flash.

        2. We just had that feeling a few days ago. Outside a new-favorite Indian restaurant, we noticed an old stainless-steel pay-phone kiosk, from which the phone had been removed and capped cables now protrude. Then we had occasion to walk through the County government building, and, in the atrium, just outside courthouse-wing security, stood a fully maintained and functional twin of the kiosk we had seen at the restaurant.

      2. Jim Croce's "Operator" is a beautiful song, recently rendered about as quaint as "Bicycle Built for Two" by advances in the telephone network, especially as caused by the juggernaut cell-phone industry.

      3. And even early cell 'phones. Take a look at some of the first few seasons of the X-Files. Technology is always portrayed as "cutting edge" and the cells are those ones you could use as a weapon if needed.

    3. I remember when it was that simple. Circa that same era, he could have boarded that plane with a pistol in a shoulder-holster, too.

    4. Oh man. I bet once he was on the plane he lit a cigarette? I may cry.

  9. How about when Bigfoot turned out to be a robot? That was pretty big.

  10. The killer test sequence in The Parallax View was how I thought an LSD trip would be like when I was a kid. The mixture of relief and disappointment was dead even when I found out the difference.

    1. I always thought LSD would be like the final scene in 2001.

      1. Oh, that was in the MOVIE?

  11. Reading through the comments, I see that the i09 community is still having trouble grasping simple concepts like "10" and "Essential" and "70s" and "conspiracy thrillers."

    1. Who thinks The Manchurian Candidate was made in the 1970s? It is in black and white for God's sake. And I am not really sure the point of Alien was to expose the corporate conspiracy.

    2. I'm surprised there weren't more complaints about Dr. Who not being on the list.

      1. Though the thread does show that Winterkills, whatever that was, has one of the best movie posters of all time.

        1. With a cast of thousands, yet I've never even heard of it.

      2. Damn, I missed that PL. Good catch.

  12. Jesse,
    I was disappointed that David McRaney didn't facilitate a discussion with both you and Steven Novella. I think that could have been a lot of fun to listen to. More fun though would be if you were a guest on SGU or Rationally Speaking. I think your book would make a good topic for either show.

    1. I like SGU (haven't listed to RS) but I occasionally get depressed when they default to statist mode e.g. anyone who rejects the concept of income taxes is a nut; priests should be prosecuted for saying miracles will happen and then don't.

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