March 31, 2014 Slideshows

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Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers 

With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
Klute (1971)

The first entry in director Alan J. Pakula's celebrated conspiracy/paranoia trilogy, this missing-person mystery, photographed by the great Gordon Willis, teams a small-town Pennsylvania detective (Donald Sutherland) with a New York prostitute (an Oscar-winning Jane Fonda). The film's obsession with audio -- the opening credits unspool over an image of an audiotape -- prefigures a number of the entries on this list.
Chinatown (1974)

Much like a few later titles on this list, Roman Polanski's classic yarn, taken from a canonical Robert Towne screenplay, overlays elements of film noir with conspiratorial foreboding. Starring Jack Nicholson and his carved-up nose, the lasting power of Chinatown comes from the fact that its conspiracy is just as much personal as it is political.
The Conversation (1974)

Starring Gene Hackman (who will appear again later on this list), and released the same year as The Godfather: Part II, this Francis Ford Coppola-directed exercise in audio surveillance has held up beautifully over time. Reviewing the film in 2001, Roger Ebert writes the following of Hackman's character: “Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work.”
The Parallax View (1974)

Co-written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who passed away just last week), Alan J. Pakula's second crack at the conspiracy genre, again shot by Gordon Willis, tracks a Warren Beatty as a reporter who treads into an increasingly dangerous investigation into the assassination of a U.S. senator, gunned down atop Seattle's Space Needle. “Nature itself is infected by paranoia,” writes Fernando F. Croce of the film's suffocating dread.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Co-starring Winter Soldier's Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, this Sydney Pollack film sports a killer hook: A diligent CIA researcher (Redford) returns from lunch to find his co-workers murdered. As a director, Pollack would return to related territory with his later The Firm, a 1993 John Grisham adaptation; as an actor, one of his final screen performances came in no less a conspiracy gem than Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton.
Night Moves (1975)

Not to be confused with the forthcoming Kelly Reichardt film, this is actually one of director Arthur Penn's finest efforts, even though he's more often remembered for 1967's influential Bonnie and Clyde. Mixing the role of the private-eye noir hero with the misery of post-Nixon America, the movie also gives Gene Hackman one of his most immortal lines, courtesy of screenwriter Alan Sharp: "I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry."
All the President's Men (1976)

The third Pakula-Willis collaboration in the genre follows Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Redford) as they investigate the Watergate scandal. The influence of the detail on display here is evident in such recent procedurals as David Fincher's Zodiac and Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty.
Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)

The final collaboration between director Robert Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster, this split-screen-heavy film is the only one they made together that wasn't a Western (the other three: 1954's Apache, 1954's Vera Cruz, 1972's Ulzana's Raid). As a Vietnam conspiracy, it's something of an outlier on this list, but it could use the recognition. I'll leave the final word to R. Emmet Sweeney: “[M]aybe it's the first found footage movie, a scarier version of The Blair Witch Project in which the bogeyman isn't one pissed off ghost but the entire social and political system in which we live and work.”
Cutter's Way (1981)

Another selection suffering from a Vietnam hangover, director Ivan Passer's murder-mystery showcases phenomenal performances from its three main actors: John Heard, as a crippled, disillusioned veteran; a post-Heaven's Gate Jeff Bridges as Heard's closest friend; and Lisa Eichhorn as Heard's alcoholic wife. “A passionate story about friendship, love, and commitment among three powerless people caught in a maelstrom,” writes Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Passer's masterpiece plays like a forties film noir transplanted to a wholly contemporary setting.”
Blow Out (1981)

Itself influenced by the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 Blow-Up and Coppola's The Conversation, Brian De Palma's political thriller involves a jaded sound recordist (John Travolta) who digs into an assassination plot. The film was a favorite of the critic Pauline Kael, who wrote: “This is the first film [De Palma] has made about the things that really matter to him. Blow Out begins with a joke; by the end, the joke has been turned inside out.”
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Klute (1971)

The first entry in director Alan J. Pakula's celebrated conspiracy/paranoia trilogy, this missing-person mystery, photographed by the great Gordon Willis, teams a small-town Pennsylvania detective (Donald Sutherland) with a New York prostitute (an Oscar-winning Jane Fonda). The film's obsession with audio -- the opening credits unspool over an image of an audiotape -- prefigures a number of the entries on this list.
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