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Put on Your Tin Foil Hats: Paranoia in 60s & 70s Films

paranoidThis post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently, Ruth of Silver Screenings, and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. See the full roster of the other entries HERE!  Also take a moment to stop by Flicker Alley, the sponsor of this blogathon!

The image you see on the left here was a popular poster during the early 1970s.

I saw it every day in my kitchen as I was growing up.

If you’re not old enough to remember the late 60s and early 70s, it’s a little hard to explain the atmosphere of the times. It wasn’t all peace and love and drugs and rock and roll. Besides the split in the country over the Vietnam War, it SEEMED (especially, I think, to children) as if there were assassinations happening ALL THE TIME. I don’t remember John Kennedy’s assassination, but one of my earliest memories is watching his funeral with my mom. That was my first experience with the concept of death.

We were out of the country when Malcolm X was assassinated, but were here when Martin Luther King was killed. I was watching an I Love Lucy rerun (the Superman episode) with my grandparents when they broke the news that he had been shot. I had no idea who he was at that moment. I was surprised my grandmother was so upset about someone she didn’t know.

Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I remember that as clear as a bell. I woke up to hear my mother crying and yelling into the phone, accusing the person on the other end of lying to her.

Everyone had theories for why these things were happening, including many conspiracy theories. My mother talked a lot about how innocent people were before Kennedy was assassinated, and how that all changed when he was killed.

This soon reflected in the culture, and movies were no exception.

Paranoia existed in film before the 1960s, of course. Film noir reflected male anxiety over female sexuality, which intensified when so many men were away at war. The post-atomic age horror movies were filled with anxiety over what might happen to the world because of radiation fallout. The Red Scare of the 1950s was a theme of several movies, sometimes overtly, sometimes in the subtext, most notably The Manchurian Candidate and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Something fundamentally changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s films. The threat wasn’t always easily definable. It wasn’t man-eating women, or giant mutant insects, or infiltrating ideologues. The threat became much more elusive, almost unknowable. And when it was identifiable, the people working against the main character(s) sometimes turned out to be the ones closest to them.

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Even genre films saw a change as paranoia was infused along with the classic tropes and themes. In Chinatown, the detective noir expanded from uncovering personal deviation to an extensive political conspiracy. Dystopian films such as Logan’s Run and Soylent Green revealed conspiratorial horrors their societies refused to acknowledge. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone berates his fiancée Kay for naively thinking powerful politicians don’t have people killed.

I will be concentrating on three films that I feel best represent the specific paranoia of this era: Rosemary’s Baby, The Conversation, and The Parallax View.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW.)

In Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, based on the novel by Ira Levin, the threat is so close the heroine can’t see it.

The tale of a young woman (Mia Farrow) desperate to start a family but married to an ambitious actor less keen on the idea, what’s truly going on underneath the surface is not exactly clear at first–to either Rosemary or the audience. Befriended by a pair of elderly next door neighbors, Rosemary finds their attentions a bit overbearing. When she finally becomes pregnant, they act as if they are invested in her child.

Little by little, Rosemary pieces together that her kindly neighbors and their friends–even the high society obstetrician they sent her to–comprise a coven. She assumes they want her baby for their Satanic rituals. She eventually concludes that her husband–whose career has suddenly become very hot–is in on the conspiracy to take her baby from her.

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Polanski kept to the book’s device of staying entirely in Rosemary’s point of view, meaning the audience is as in the dark as she is for most of the film, receiving information only when she does. The effect is quite remarkable, as a mundane situation (a woman having a baby) escalates into a conspiracy by a bunch of old people no one would suspect of nefarious intentions–or even notice much at all.

Working against Rosemary is the very fact she is a pregnant woman, making it easy for anyone she asks for help to conclude she is going through some sort of pre-partum breakdown. Captured by the coven, she gives birth but is told her child is dead.

Rosemary puts the last piece of the puzzle in place. The final twist–that her baby was actually fathered by Satan, and not her husband, and that she was sold by him for this purpose–isolates Rosemary completely. Faced with the choice to either kill or accept her half-inhuman child, Rosemary surrenders to her overwhelming desire to be a mother.

The conspirators win, on every level.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a wiretapper obsessed with his own privacy. He is also haunted by how one of his previous jobs lead to the murders of three people. Listening to the young wife of his client and her supposed lover, Caul concludes she is terrified her husband is going to kill her. He grapples with the moral dilemma of whether he should stay out of the situation or do something to save the couple. He can’t stop himself from becoming involved, and rents a hotel room next to where he thinks the woman’s murder will take place.

It turns out it’s not the woman who is the victim–it’s her husband, and apparently the woman and her lover are in on the plot. Caul realizes he misinterpreted the recording. He finds himself on the receiving end of his own professional tricks after a phone call telling him they are watching him. Convinced his apartment is bugged, he tears it apart, breaking down walls and even prying up the floorboards. The final scene is of Caul playing his saxophone, surrounded by the chaos he has created.

In this case, Caul’s paranoia steered him in the wrong direction and created his downfall. The threat was real, the source of the threat was wrong.

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Today we are so used to our privacy being more a state of mind than actual fact we almost accept it as a given. There’s something prescient in Caul’s situation, because he knows deep down that no one is really safe from having their privacy violated. The final scene is a surrender to the inevitable destruction of our privacy.

In Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 film The Parallax View, conspiracy theories about assassinations reach a whole new level. Based on the novel by Loren Singer, it is the second in his “paranoia” trilogy (the first is Klute and the third is All the President’s Men). While it is less well-regarded than the other two films in the trilogy, it’s my favorite and, in my opinion, a very underrated film.

Reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is present the day a Senator is assassinated at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle. The gunman is killed at the scene and the investigation concludes he was working alone. Joe’s ex-girlfriend Lee, who was right next to the Senator when it happened, comes to Joe three years later and tells him she fears for her life. Several of the other witnesses that day have already died under mysterious circumstances. Thinking she is just depressed and paranoid, Joe discounts the idea that there is a conspiracy.

Lee turns up dead soon after. Joe decides to investigate the case. It eventually leads him to a company called The Parallax Corporation that recruits men who are unemployable due to their anti-social behavior. Pretending to be a petty criminal with anger management issues, he goes undercover and soon recruited. He stops one assassination, but is unable to stop another. At the second one, he is spotted and assumed to be the gunman. One of the Parallax people shoots him before he can escape or be captured by the police. An investigation finds that Frady was obsessed with assassins and acted alone when he killed the Senator.

This movie is highly unusual because it’s a rare case where the hero is killed and unsuccessful at bringing the bad guys to justice. Even more unusual, Frady is successful as a recruit because in some ways he fits the profile of the assassins the corporation wants to recruit.

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Arguably the most famous scene in the movie is the “test” given by the Parallax Corporation, where a new recruit has to watch a montage of images. His reactions are monitored by some kind of sensing device. The images start out as positive ones about love, family, home and self-image. As it progresses, the images become more negative and eventually frightening. They depict the world-view of a sociopathic loner who feels he hasn’t received what he’s entitled to from life.

(It’s fairly easy to find the test sequence online–there are several clips of it on Youtube. However, I would recommend seeing the entire film with a good print. And if you ever get the chance to see it on a big screen–TAKE IT. I was fortunate enough to see it several years after its release on a big screen. It is visually spectacular, not only because of Pakula’s direction, but also Gordon Willis’ brilliant cinematography.)

Another unique aspect of the movie is that we are never told the purpose of these assassinations or the reason why Parallax exists. The first politician killed in the opening scene is “so independent you can’t tell what party he belongs to.” The other two targeted Senators are ideological opposites.

This was actually true of assassinations that took place in the 1960s and early 1970s–for instance, the leader of the American Nazi Party was assassinated a year before Martin Luther King. George Wallace, who survived his assassination attempt but was permanently paralyzed by it, was nowhere near the part of the political spectrum occupied by the Kennedys.

I don’t think Pakula’s point was that there was literally some faceless organization going around randomly assassinating political figures. Rather, I think the point is that it’s remarkably easy to construct a narrative people want to believe, in spite of factual evidence. Frady comments to his boss (also killed by Parallax) that it’s unnecessary to have the CIA involved in the conspiracy to make it work. He cites the bureaucratic tendency to cover up mistakes and points out it’s unnecessary to infiltrate the whole agency.

As with the prescient nature of The Conversation, the idea of politicians, government agencies and/or the media giving credence to narratives that subvert reality and even plain common sense doesn’t seem strange today. Sometimes this results in absurdities like Truthers and Birthers.

And sometimes . . .

Well, you know it’s true.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

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7 thoughts on “Put on Your Tin Foil Hats: Paranoia in 60s & 70s Films

  1. I love how you packaged these three films in a kind of Paranoia Boxed Set – ha ha. Because you provided great political / sociological context at the beginning, we can see why these films were made and why they were so successful.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon with this important look at a conspiracies in film.

  2. THE PARALLAX VIEW is one of my favorites as well (I wrote about it when I was writing about the movies dealing with JFK’s assassination on the 50th anniversary of that day), and you did a very good job in showing why it’s so good. I also liked your write-ups of the other two, which I like a lot as well (the former is the only “It was the work of Satan!” kind of movie I like, because Polanski grounds it in every woman’s anxiety about being pregnant, yet at the same time also treats it satirically).

    1. Glad to hear from another fan of the movie! I think Pakula is a very under-appreciated director. True, he got nominations and praise during his career, but he’s not seen as on quite the same level as some of his contemporaries. We need a Pakula Renaissance! 🙂

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