Last night was another quiet evening at home and I was jonesin’ for a classic 70s “paranoid thriller”. This might be my favourite period for thrillers. Certainly Hitchcock was, is, and may forever be the king. And yes, if pressed: Die Hard remains my all-time, number-one, absolute go-to thriller (and favourite Christmas movie).
But if I need to settle on the BEST TIME OR ERA for thrillers (and this is an important topic to settle) then, no question, the paranoid/conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s tops the list. We’re talking many of the American thrillers made between, but not including …say Steve McQueen’s Bullitt (1969) and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (from 1981 and which I still refuse to call Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark). These movies were made during and after the final years of the Vietnam War and Watergate. They demonstrate a profound mistrust in government agencies and authority. These films also are often bleak, dark, with resolutions that suggest there are no easy answers or remedies when our institutions fail us. Some of these films are truly miserable, if urgent viewing experiences.
FUN! Well, some are fun. I like to re-watch 3 Days of the Condor every couple years or so. Starring Robert Redford (back when he was young) and Faye Dunaway, the baddies are definitely bad government types and Redford never really knows who to trust. The movie moves along at a brisk enough pace; its murky themes are tempered with a sweet romance in the middle. It’s a fine entry point into the genre.
At the other end of the spectrum – less heroic Robert Redford for more conflicted Gene Hackman – check out Coppola’s The Conversation. There really isn’t any specific government department causing trouble here. Instead, the film how considers surveillance (specifically in this case audio surveillance) makes everybody paranoid – from the listeners to those being listened to. There is nothing sexy about Hackman’s awkward, tech-nerd performance or any of the high-end spy gadgets that litter the film. The audience is made to feel creeped out, lonely and isolated by its conclusion. It is a challenging, yet engaging, movie experience.
Also challenging, but perhaps more straight-forward is All The President’s Men. Also featuring Redford, along with Dustin Hoffman, it is the account of how Nixon’s Watergate was uncovered and exposed by the Washington Post. I saw several years ago but I am sure it remains a a comprehensive and compulsive watch.
But last night we were looking for something somewhere in the middle. I wanted the paranoid, but my wife prefers the fun. The natural choice seemed to be Marathon Man. Yes, it has bad espionage agents doing bad things, with the tacit support of the police and the US government. It seems like everybody kind of betrays hero Dustin Hoffman. But, on the other hand, the movie’s very exciting, fast-moving plot circles around nazis, stolen diamonds and evil dentists – all terrific fun.
These movies remain essential viewing for any fan of genre filmmaking and I can’t help wishing that this trend didn’t end around the first Indiana Jones movie. First rate thrillers are still being made, of course, but they lack that sense of despair that make 70s era thrillers so juicy. A later film like David Fincher’s Zodiac is superb and depressing as anything, but -while it certainly portrays how a society can be gripped by fear – it lacks real paranoia. The third Bourne movie mixes some nifty post-911 criticism in with its fantastic action, but it hardly makes the viewer really consider how our governments may overstep their boundaries. Let’s call it “70s Conspiracy Movie Lite”.
Next time I need the real thing, I’ll stick to the source. I’m overdue to rewatch something like The China Syndrome anyways.