Panic in the 70s

In the 100+ year history of cinema, there is no doubt in my mind that the 70s represented the best era of filmmaking. It was a time driven by creativity, not box office. Films were driven by character, not plot and CGI was a meaningless acronym. Modern cinema evolved from the rules that were broken during this decade of decadence. The word “fuck” was first uttered in a major studio film in 1970. Sex became more graphic. Violence became more realistic. Even the summer blockbuster was invented in 1975. Modern masters like Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and DePalma were mere novices paving the road to the future at twenty-four frames per second. Film today would not be where it is without the trends set in the 70s.

Films are time capsules. They reflect the trends of the era: The fashion, the cars, and the political climate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the films of the 70s. Just as film was evolving, we were evolving as a nation. Presidential scandals are fairly commonplace now but in 1972 the nation was rocked by Watergate. That, coupled with the growing dissatisfaction with the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, created a climate of unrest and mistrust with the government and it wasn’t long before those feelings translated to film. Thus, a niche genre was created in 1974 that had a healthy life throughout the decade: The paranoid thriller.

In a paranoid thriller you don’t know who to trust. You don’t trust your friends, you don’t trust your government and you certainly don’t trust your lover. Your home isn’t safe. Maybe it’s been bugged. You don’t go to the police. Maybe they’re in on it. The goal is for the audience to share the paranoia and confusion of the main character.

The Conversation

The Conversation

First to hit the scene was Frances Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Playing as almost a direct reaction to Watergate, it’s perhaps the epitome of the genre. The Conversation chronicles Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), an expert in wiretapping and surveillance, as he becomes increasingly unhinged by his inability to interpret a recording of what may or may not be a murder plot. The irony is that Caul is an expert in invading other people’s privacy yet is obsessed and consumed with maintaining his own, even living off the grid (or as off the grid you can get in 1974). Typically in a paranoid thriller the hero turns to his friends for help, but Caul has alienated all his friends here with his intense obsession with his privacy. The film’s haunting final shot perhaps serves as the defining image of this sub-genre.

The Parallax View

The Parallax View

The Conversation is an unusual paranoid thriller in that it doesn’t contain an element of political conspiracy. The Parallax View (1974), on the other hand, centers on a reporter who uncovers a corporation which recruits and manufactures political assassins. Interestingly, The Conversation and The Parallax View both use the plot device of our hero being unwittingly tricked. Not only can the hero not trust the people around him, he can’t even trust himself. Parallax also uses Warren Beatty’s 70s cool to its advantage to create an engaging hero as opposed to Gene Hackman’s troubled and icy Harry Caul.

Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor

Robert Redford must have been particularly paranoid in the 70s since he appears in two notable paranoid thrillers, Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976). Condor tells the story of a CIA analyst who is literally out to lunch when his entire field office is assassinated. He finds himself on the run from not only the assassins but from his own employer, which may have been behind the hit. All the President’s Men (or ATPM as my friends and I call it) is a cinematic version of Watergate detailing the reporters who helped uncover the scandal. While ATPM covers its source accurately and professionally, Condor takes a more cinematic approach that makes for a film that’s more fun. Condor is also the most aggressive of these thrillers in taking on the government. In this story, the entire CIA may be the enemy.

Other notable paranoid thrillers of the 70s include Marathon Man (1976), the little seen Winter Kills (1979) and, to a more abstract degree, the critically lauded Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). These films are fun relics of their era and every film listed here is a skillful thriller in its own right. For fans of 70s cinema, these are required viewing but for those interested in broadening their film palette, I suggest you take a walk through this brief but memorable sub-genre. Just make sure you’re watching with someone you trust…

The Conversation (1974)
The Parallax View (1974)
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
All the President’s Men (1976)
Marathon Man (1976)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Winter Kills (1979)

3 Responses to “Panic in the 70s”
  1. “In the 100+ year history of cinema, there is no doubt in my mind that the 70s represented the best era of filmmaking. It was a time driven by creativity, not box office.”

    Yes to the first sentence. No no no NO!!! to the second.

    • Gavin Craig says:

      Yeah, I think it’s hard to argue that any era of filmmaking wasn’t driven by the box office. There was, however, something of a shift of day-to-day artistic control on a film from the studio to the director, no? Or at least that’s the narrative we’ve been sold–“a crop of young directors influenced by the French new wave brought auteur filmmaking to the US!”

      I’d also be interested in how the paranoid sub-genre related to earlier films such as “The Manchurian Candidate.” What’s the difference between 50s and 70s paranoia? (Fear-of-other in “Manchuria” and the Bond films to fear-of-self in the 70s?)

  2. The bigger narrative is that commerce is the enemy of creativity. It’s a narrative that permeates discourse on the arts, and it’s toxic.

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