Political/ paranoia thrillers of the ‘70s

In February this year, Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige stated in a widely quoted interview that next year’s Captain America sequel The Winter Soldier would resemble a political thriller. In a July interview at Comic-con, the directors of The Winter Soldier, Joe and Anthony Russo emphasized this thematic direction, referring to the famous movies of the 1970s, which encompassed related sub-genres like conspiracy-thrillers and paranoia-thrillers. All these stories were typically told through a ‘man vs. establishment’ narrative. So I could well imagine Cap’s relationship with SHIELD escalating in that direction in the sequel…he already had strong moral issues with SHIELD’s clandestine efforts to build WMDs in 2012’s The Avengers.

A week ago, the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrived and indeed it had the look and feel of a political thriller, albeit a high-tech one that has a flying aircraft carrier in it! One of the new characters introduced in the sequel is a SHIELD operative named Alexander Pierce, played by none other than Robert Redford. This is an interesting bit of casting, which the Russo brothers referred to in their July interview. Mr. Redford made his name playing anti-establishment protagonists in iconic 70s films like Three Days of the Condor and All The President’s Men; even the characters he played in Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Jeremiah Johnson or in his more recent thrillers like Spy Game (2001) and The Company You Keep (2012) are patently anti-establishment. Hence the irony of casting him on the other side of the fence, representing the establishment (a shadowy one at that) with possibly a hidden agenda behind Cap’s back!

This trailer got me thinking about those 70s political/ conspiracy thrillers, many of which I had not yet watched. Some were inspired by the real-life incidents of government wire-tapping, such as Coppola’s The Conversation and Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Many were adapted from novels – Three Days of the Condor (James Grady), The Odessa File and The Day of the Jackal (Frederick Forsyth), The French Connection (Robin Moore), The Boys from Brazil (Ira Levin), Eiger Sanction (Trevanian) and Marathon Man (William Goldman). Of course the biggest purveyor of the stuff was novelist Robert Ludlum, but very few of his books were successfully adapted to film in the 70s, until the Bourne series came along a decade ago.

Since I was looking to get started on this genre, I googled “70s political and conspiracy thrillers”. Among the search results, I came across Alan J. Pakula’s ‘Paranoia trilogy’. This refers to 3 films that Pakula directed from 1971 to 1976 – Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, which together covered the entire range of assassinations, espionage, subversion and paranoia.

I decided to watch all three over the weekend and discovered three very differently executed films. If I wanted to split hairs, I would say that Klute is a paranoia-thriller, Parallax is a conspiracy-thriller and President is a political-thriller. I’ll talk about them in reverse order of their release dates.

All the President’s Men (1976) is the most well-known of the three movies (Oscar-nominated for Best Picture and Best Director), however, I didn’t find it too interesting from a technical perspective, i.e. music, editing or cinematography. Clearly, the director went for a documentary-style approach, which was probably the right thing to do as a counterpoint to the 4 years of sensationalist high-decibel Watergate coverage that preceded the film. While it may have been the right decision for the time, I was disappointed with this low-key approach which avoided delving into the hearts and minds of the men at The Washington Post. There are a few exceptions and these scenes were the ones I enjoyed the most – the casual but purposeful banter of editors discussing the priority of news items for the following day’s issue; the sharp and strained repartee between two journalists under pressure as they strive to deliver stories with sufficient proof before the printing deadline – these ‘fly on the wall’ moments really humanized the narrative. In spite of these quibbles, there is no denying the appeal of watching two of the biggest 70s heartthrobs Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford share screen time together as Bernstein and Woodward, the journalists whose initial reluctance to work together is overcome by their shared desire to get to the truth.

The movie works well as a tutorial on journalistic practices of the time and I imagine that it must have been used as supporting material for master classes on investigative journalism for several years. It is fascinating to watch how the two men slowly peeled away the layers of secrecy of a government conspiracy that went all the way to the top. All the more so, because they did it in full public view; every phone call or house call they made was done using their real names, no cloak and dagger stuff…and still there was nothing the government could do to stop them. If this had been a made-up story, they would surely have been knocked off by an assassin!

And that’s exactly what happens to a number of people in Pakula’s 2nd thriller, The Parallax View (1974), adapted from a 1970 novel by Loren Singer, no doubt influenced by the Kennedy/ King assassinations of the 1960s. It tells the story of a reporter (yes, reporters were the good guys in those days) who tries to uncover a conspiracy behind a political assassination, with the trail leading to a shadowy organization called The Parallax Corporation, that appears to be recruiting hit-men on American soil. The journalist Joe Frady is played by another 70s sex symbol, Warren Beatty, tousled hair and all! How nice it was to be an actor in the 70s; you could grow your hair really long and you didn’t need to comb it! It seems like only Robert Redford combed his hair (and he’s kept exactly the same hairstyle unchanged for 40 years!). Once again, like the characters in All the President’s Men, there is very little attempt to flesh out Beatty’s character or back story; the director is more interested in telling the story of what Joe Frady uncovers. The film is famous for a chilling sequence where Beatty infiltrates the Parallax HQ and participates in a recruitment test for assassins. As part of the test, he is shown a series of images which appear to blur the lines between patriotism and terrorism…a very relevant concept even today. The film ends on a bit of a downbeat note, implying that there is no way to stop the puppet-masters.

The first of Pakula’s three thrillers, Klute (1971) is in my view, his most accomplished work. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay and it won Jane Fonda the first of her two Best Actress Oscars. Trained by famous acting teacher Lee Strasberg, Ms. Fonda’s method acting performance is extraordinary and forms the emotional core of the film. It is a must-see for anyone interested in her body of work. She plays Bree Daniel, a call girl and aspiring model/ actress who believes that she is being stalked by an ex-client. She crosses paths with private investigator John Klute (Donald Sutherland) who is investigating the disappearance of a friend, who also happens to be an ex-client of hers. As he gets drawn into her world, he develops protective feelings towards her. She on the other hand, is torn between wanting him to fill the emotional gap in her life, and wanting to manipulate him just as she has done with all the other men in her life.

The music by Michael Small is eerie and haunting, using a combination of electronics and abstract vocals (the only time I have come across that in a movie). But he also uses a traditional rock track to great effect in one scene – Fonda walks into a club distraught, looking for some sort of emotional anchor; as soon as she enters, she automatically slips into flirtation mode with various men at the club; she then spots her ex-pimp (Roy Scheider) and quickly settles into his arms, switching in a moment from lost waif to contented cat (you can almost hear her purr!) while staring defiantly at Klute who has followed her into the club.

Fonda’s performance and her relationship with Donald Sutherland lift this film from being a run-of-the-mill thriller to a disturbing and haunting masterwork. Gordon Willis does an outstanding job behind the camera (particularly in lighting Bree’s little studio apartment and the closed confines of the climactic scene). A year later his name appeared on the credits of The Godfather and he was on his way to becoming one of the most influential cinematographers of all time. He shot the subsequent Godfather movies, the other 2 Pakula thrillers mentioned here and the famous Woody Allen films Annie Hall, Manhattan and Stardust Memories. Yet, he never won an Oscar until the Academy belatedly awarded him an honorary statuette in 2009!

To complete my journey from the trailer of Captain America: The Winter Solider to the political thrillers of the 70s, I squeezed in Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, another iconic paranoia thriller of the 70s. This film stared Robert Redford and allowed me to ‘close the Redford loop’. Like Klute, Condor also invests time in building a relationship between the audience and the protagonist, something that the Russo brothers have promised they will do for Captain America in The Winter Soldier; I can’t wait for April 2014!

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