Classic conspiracy (and political paranoia) movies for summer viewing, week 6

PICK OF THE WEEK

This week’s recommendation is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the good news is that you have several different versions to choose from. All the versions are based on Jack Finney’s 1950s science-fiction novel about pod-people and a secretive alien invasion.

As might be expected, the various versions of the film reflect their respective times. In the first movie incarnation, this seems especially the case. Although people involved in making the 1956 original denied that it was an allegory about the Red Scare and McCarthyism of a few years earlier, the film’s debut at that point in the Cold War makes those connections apparent, even if they were not intended. Indeed, the plot, which involves space-pod aliens assuming the identities of ordinary Americans, is only mildly conspiratorial in the usual sense, but it is steeped in Cold War paranoia.

The whole premise of the movie is that your neighbors, your friends, or even your family might not be as they appear. There is nothing particularly shocking about that, but this film takes the idea to terrifying extremes. It’s a fantasy not unlike the Domino Theory, the fearful political idea that ran rampant in the early postwar years. The main idea was that if America were not careful, one after another after another nation would fall to communism until finally, America would find itself all alone and surrounded in a sea of Red. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there aren’t any communists but there are sinister aliens, and they plan is just the same: slowly encircle unsuspecting citizens until they are alone, at which point the implication is that they, too, will succumb. (As you may have noticed, this is the general narrative in most zombie stories, as well. They are not so much about zombies as about being surrounded by death, whether literal or metaphorical.)

I tend to prefer the 1956 original, which was stars Kevin McCarthy and ‎Dana Wynter and was directed by veteran Don Siegel, who directed a lot of things including Dirty Harry two decades later.

Many people like the 1978 version, which was directed by Philip Kaufman, even more. It’s definitely a contender, especially with a stellar cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy.

Less well known but worth a look is a 1993 version, simply titled Body Snatchers, directed by Abel Ferrara and featuring Gabrielle Anwar, Billy Wirth, Terry Kinney, Meg Tilly, Christine Elise, R. Lee Ermey and Forest Whitaker. It’s a looser adaptation of the original novel than the previous two film versions, but may still be of interest.

And finally, with an even more abbreviated title, there is 2007’s The Invasion, which stars Nicole Kidman. (Veronica Cartwright, from the 1978 version, is also featured.) It changes the underlying story more than any of the earlier adaptations, but the influence of the original novel is still there.

In a way, Invasion of the Body Snatchers may seem to be a story of its original time–a time that is now long gone. Yet, I think when future observers look back at the whole post-9/11 era, they are likely to see, if not outright paranoia, then at least a level of national anxiety and suspicion that rivals the national mood of the 1950s.

In any case, no matter which version you choose, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an intriguing film that probably says more about our culture overall than you might think.

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TO MARK THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BOOK CONSPIRACY THEORY IN FILM, TELEVISION, AND POLITICS, I ‘M SUGGESTING A DIFFERENT CLASSIC FILM WITH A CONSPIRACY OR POLITICAL PARANOIA THEME EVERY WEEK THIS SUMMER. THINK OF IT AS A DO-IT-YOURSELF PARANOID SUMMER FILM FESTIVAL.

Classic conspiracy movies for summer viewing, week 5

CLASSIC CONSPIRACY MOVIE PICK OF THE WEEK

Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) is this week’s recommendation for a classic conspiracy-political paranoia film. What you think about it as a movie will likely depend on what you already think about John F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination in 1963. If you’re the kind of person satisfied that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, which was what the Warren Commission determined shortly after the assassination, then Stone’s version of events may drive you crazy. But if you suspect that Oswald did not alone and that there was a larger and more sinister conspiracy at work, then there is probably something in Stone’s film that you’ll find intriguing.

Whatever you may think of Stone because of his outspoken political beliefs, it’s hard to argue that JFK is not highly effective and original filmmaking. It’s partially based on theories devised by Jim Garrison, one-time District Attorney of New Orleans, but it extends its speculations well beyond that. 

Despite the fact that many writers, editorialists, and cultural observers concluded that Stone’s JFK was hogwash, many of these same people clearly were fearful that people would take it seriously. It’s easy to see why. Stone brilliantly marshals his creative powers to drive home his points. Some scenes are pure Hollywood, but Stone mixes in authentic archival footage and simulated footage to create a persuasive whole.

In some ways, JFK‘s release in 1991 kicked off a decade of much conspiracy theorizing. American politics was becoming harsher and more cynical, creating ideal feeding grounds for growing conspiracy theories. In 1993, when the Fox television network launched Chris Carter’s celebrated series The X-Files, American culture was awash in conspiracy theories covering a wide range of topics. Doubts about the official story of John Kennedy’s death may not have created that situation, but widespread skepticism about the government’s version of events on that fateful day in 1963 surely played a part.

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TO MARK THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BOOK CONSPIRACY THEORY IN FILM, TELEVISION, AND POLITICS, I ‘M SUGGESTING A DIFFERENT CLASSIC FILM WITH A CONSPIRACY OR POLITICAL PARANOIA THEME EVERY WEEK THIS SUMMER. THINK OF IT AS A DO-IT-YOURSELF PARANOID SUMMER FILM FESTIVAL.

Classic conspiracy movies for summer viewing, week 4

CLASSIC CONSPIRACY MOVIE PICK OF THE WEEK

Corporate America is often implicated in American conspiracy theories. With many people suspicious that big business doesn’t always have the best interests of its customers at heart, conspiracy theories often portray corporate America as not only callous but potentially downright evil. It’s a theme you can find in movies across many genres. Still, few movies portray corporations as wicked and conspiratorial as The Parallax View, director Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 film that’s the pick-of-the-week for a classic political paranoia movie.

In The Parallax View, Warren Beatty stars as a reporter investigating a murder mystery. The clues seem to lead to the fictional Parallax Corporation.  Unlike some other evil corporations of filmdom, the Parallax Corporation doesn’t make money selling some seedy product and then resort to murder to cover its tracks. No, for the Parallax Corporation, murder is not a side activity — it’s the company’s main product. Indeed, in a twist with metaphorical implications and irony, what Parallax sells is assassination. 

Of the many films Paula directed, The Parallax View and two others — Klute (1971) and All the President’s Men (1976) — are loosely tied together with conspiracy themes. Neither of these others possesses the deep cynicism of The Parallax View, however. Coming after a decade in which Americans were losing faith in the society’s major institutions, it’s imbued with a sense of foreboding that may remind some viewers of The X-Files from some years later. 

The Parallax View is not as well known as many other movies with a similar theme. However,  it’s an interesting comment on American attitudes in the mid-1970s, as well as an important part of the conspiracy movie canon. More than that, it’s an expertly crafted film that manages to cover some familiar territory in a new way.  

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TO MARK THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BOOK CONSPIRACY THEORY IN FILM, TELEVISION, AND POLITICS, I ‘M SUGGESTING A DIFFERENT CLASSIC FILM WITH A CONSPIRACY OR POLITICAL PARANOIA THEME EVERY WEEK THIS SUMMER. THINK OF IT AS A DO-IT-YOURSELF PARANOID SUMMER FILM FESTIVAL.

Classic conspiracy movies for summer viewing, week 3

CLASSIC CONSPIRACY MOVIE PICK OF THE WEEK

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is this week’s pick for a classic movie with a conspiracy theme. Although often classified as a thriller, this classic Alfred Hitchcock film has conspiracy and political intrigue at its heart and is a worthy addition to the conspiracy-film repertoire. And we can safely surmise that Hitchcock himself thought highly of it. He made the film ― first in Britain, where Hitchcock made a version of the film in 1934 with star Peter Lorre, and later in the US, where a better-known version with James Stewart and Doris Day was issued in 1956. Although serious film buff will want to experience both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, even casual movie fans should add the 1956 version to their list of films to watch. That version is our pick of the week.

By the time the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much arrived in theaters, television was already eroding the traditional audiences for Hollywood films. Hitchcock was an established top-tier director, but he realized the industry would have to reckon with the new, small-screen technology. Even as he continued to make high-profile movies, he also launched a television series, which he hosted and produced. (Alfred Hitchcock Presents was a staple on the CBS network from 1955 until 1965.)   

The new version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was released during this time.  Hollywood was trying desperately to differentiate the experience viewers had in theaters from the more intimate viewing experiences they had watching television in their living rooms.  The Man Who Knew Too Much surely provided such an opportunity. With its wide-screen format and with images bathed in the lavish color palette of 1950s Technicolor, it was a visual feast compared to anything television was capable of offering at the time. 

The format was ideal for Hitchcock’s transcontinental storyline, in which James Stewart — a Hitchcock regular — plays an ordinary man placed in extraordinary situations beyond his control. Indeed, the film starts out as though it is a travelogue. McKenna, an American doctor, is vacationing in Morrocco with his wife Jo (played by Doris Day) and young son Hank. It all seems innocent enough, though modern viewers will likely note the dismissiveness — characteristic of the era — that the film shows to non-Western cultures.

Playing an optimistic American everyman, Stewart’s character stumbles into intrigue after witnessing a murder in broad daylight. Soon, son Hank is placed in danger, and the story then follows efforts to secure the boy’s safety.  As the action moves forward and shifts to London, it becomes clear that this is no simple crime story. Instead, Ben and Jo McKenna have become pawns in a complicated assassination conspiracy with international consequences.

The conspiracy angles to the proceedings have many of the hallmarks that continue to appear in more recent conspiracy movies. Played to melodramatic perfection by Stewart, the McKenna character is both worldly and naive. The more he is out of his element, the more prone to panic he becomes. Meanwhile, viewers — like McKenna — are left trying to figure out which characters can be trusted and what is actually going on. It’s the classic stuff of the conspiracy film.

Hitchcock seems to have had a complicated relationship with female actors, to put it mildly. His relationship with the female characters in his films is no less complicated or straightforward. Modern viewers may note the manner in which Ben McKenna, the solid family man with strong Midwestern values, treats his wife Jo as the story unfolds. Jo, the story tells us, was a successful stage performer and surely more well-known than her husband.  Ben McKenna seems to adore her, but his adoration hardly seems to be one between equals. When young Hank is placed in danger, Ben McKenna decides that his wife is not strong enough to bear the news, so he insists that she take powerful prescription sedatives before he will explain the situation to her.  It’s hard to know exactly what Hitchcock had in mind with this scene (apart from the obvious sexism), and I think many viewers today will find it jarring. In any case, to modern eyes, the scene seems to show Ben McKenna, rather than Jo McKenna, as the weaker character.

I doubt many viewers would expect to find Doris Day’s famous song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)as a key element in a conspiracy film, but in The Man Who Knew Too Much, it has a special importance.  Is that realistic? Probably not. But then again, The Man Who Knew Too Much doesn’t succeed by aiming for realism. In fact, it’s a highly mannered film, with many elements that in the hands of a less capable director would seem preposterous and ordinary. But, like a skilled conspirator, Hitchcock excels at manipulation. Off-screen, that may not have been a good thing. On-screen, however, it allows him to put together compelling cinematic works that add up to more than the sum of their parts.

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To mark the 10th anniversary of the book Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics, I ‘m suggesting a different classic film with a conspiracy or political paranoia theme every week this summer. Think of it as a do-it-yourself Paranoid Summer Film Festival. 

Classic conspiracy movies for summer viewing, week 2…

CLASSIC CONSPIRACY MOVIE PICK OF THE WEEK

This week, I’m recommending the 1964 movie Seven Days in May, the other politically paranoid film from the 1960s by director John Frankenheimer. (He also directed The Manchurian Candidateone of the best-known films in this category.)

The plot of Seven Days in May revolves around a deep-cover government conspiracy. It’s not an unfamiliar idea now, but it probably seemed hopelessly implausible in the early 1960s. That’s because the whole thing revolves around a conspiracy among high-ranking Pentagon officials to overthrow a politically unpopular US president. The plan seems extreme but necessary to the officials involved because they think the president is selling the country out by appeasing America’s enemies in a treaty. So, in the view of the conspirators, a military coup d’état is seen not only as acceptable under the circumstances; to do any less would amount to a betrayal of the values they hold so dear.

The film is dated in some ways, as most productions from that era are. However, its story is quite interesting and its general questions remain relevant. Could anyone imagine circumstances in which people would favor a military intervention in US democracy? In today’s volatile and dysfunctional political world, that question may not seem as impossible as it once may have.

Based on a New York Times #1 bestseller of the same name by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel, the script for Seven Days in May was written by Rod Serling. Although known today as the mastermind of the Twilight Zone TV series that originally ran from 1959 to 1964 (and has aired endlessly in re-runs), Serling made a name for himself earlier in the 1950s an award-winning writer with credits that included works for Studio One, General Electric Theater, Ford Television Theatre, Kraft Theater, and many others. One of the hallmarks of Serling’s work was a tendency to deal with important social or political themes, often cloaked in metaphor or hiding in fantasy or science fiction. The conspiracy theme in Seven Days in May was well-suited to the kinds of ideas that Serling excelled in dealing with.

Regardless of its political paranoia, Seven Days in May is a worthy film on many other levels. Frankenheimer’s direction is crisp and engaging. More than that, the pairing of friends Kirk Douglas, who plays the hero, and Burt Lancaster, who is his opposite, makes for a wonderful opportunity to see two masters of acting in the waning days of Old Hollywood. Lancaster, especially, is in great form in this film. I’m a huge admirer of his work, and I think this performance, in which he plays a conspirator with sneering self-confidence, is one of his best. Too often, viewers are shown villain-as-villain and never get any sense of the character as a person. Here, Lancaster gives us a complete person. You may not like the character, but you won’t think you don’t really know him.  In fact, he may seem all too familiar as a type.

According to one of Lancaster’s biographers, the decision to make of film from the novel was not very popular with some elements in the Pentagon. It was, after all, near a high point in the Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis very close in the rear-view mirror.  The idea of showing the US military as anything less than 100% patriotic in the fully Constitution-compliant way was at odds with how most Americans saw their military. Yet, according to Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life, when Lancaster bumped into John F. Kennedy at a Washington dinner party before the film went into production, Kennedy — who seems to have known the book — reportedly said it would make a good film.

JFK was right.  Seven Days in May did make the basis for a good movie. Unfortunately, Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet before the finished film was released. And in fact, to distance the movie and its political conspiracy theme from the real-world tragedy of Kennedy’s death, the premiere was delayed for several weeks. It finally opened on February 12, 1964.  As the result of JFK’s murder, it was by then a very different world from the one in which the movie was filmed some months earlier. In fact, Kennedy’s assassination would mark the beginning of an upward trend in conspiracism in American culture.

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To mark the 10th anniversary of the book Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics, I ‘m suggesting a different classic film with a conspiracy or political paranoia theme every week this summer. Think of it as a do-it-yourself Paranoid Summer Film Festival. 

 

 

 

Classic conspiracy movies for summer viewing…

Ever since the publication of Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics, I’ve often been asked to recommend movies with a conspiracy theme. To mark the 10th anniversary of the book, this summer I’m offering weekly suggestions of classic conspiracy-themed films.  All of the movies on the list have a lot of offer. Yes, they have the conspiracy element, but they also have unique qualities as movies. They also tell us a lot about American society–where it’s head is at, how it has and hasn’t changed, and more. 

To get things started and launch this weekly selection of film suggestions — what we could call a do-it-yourself Paranoid Summer Film Festival — the first recommendation is a conspiracy classic from the 1970s: Three Days of the Condor.

Week 1

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975)

Director Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor does something that seems unremarkable now, but it was a very different take on conspiracies and the U.S. government when it was released.  To say more would take us into spoiler territory, but this angle — which you’ll recognize immediately upon viewing it — represented a new direction in mainstream conspiracy movies. 

For movie buff with an interest in such things, an intriguing film that Three Days of the Condor could be compared to is Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, North by Northwest (1959). Even though Hitchcock dealt with similar themes and the two films are only separated by 16 years, they are light years apart in terms of tone and substance.  Surprisingly, Hitchcock’s movie will likely strike many viewers as the more optimistic of the two films. But then again, Hitchcock often looked to simply upset the apple cart for an hour or two. Despite the drama and suspense, the world Hitchcock depicted was mostly one of relative calm. Three Days of the Condor is a different story, however.  It suggests a darkness that is far more pervasive and implies that maybe things have changed — and changed dramatically — in terrifying ways we haven’t noticed.

Not long after Three Days of the Condor was released, the media journal Jump Cut published a wide-ranging interview with Pollack that was largely about the film. Pollack wanted to dispel some theories about the movie itself, it seems, but he covers a lot of ground. (You can read the interview here.) 

Three Days of the Condor stars Robert Redford (who would go on to star in a true-life conspiracy film, All the President’s Men, the following year), along with Faye Dunaway, Cliff Roberston, and other luminaries. It has all the essential elements for an effective conspiracy thriller. An appearance by Max von Sydow adds an appropriate aura of menace to the proceedings.

If you’re looking to dive into classic conspiracy movies, Three Days of the Condor will put you in the middle of a decades-long Hollywood tradition.  An interesting side note: Sydney Pollack’s movie Three Days of the Condor is based on a popular novel named Six Days of the Condor. (That’s right six — not three.)  That novel, by James Grady, is also the basis for a new series on AT&T’s Audience network. (The new series is simply called Condorso at least viewers won’t be confused about how many days are involved.)

Next week, we’ll go back to an earlier conspiracy movie and see what develops.

If you want to comment about the movie and share your reactions or insights, head on over to Twitter @garnold360 and join the conversation there.

 

Now booking…

I’m now scheduling book talks and speaking engagements for the 2018-2019 academic year. 

I’m always pleased to visit institutions and media outlets to talk about the history of movies generally and about their role in American culture and politics. If you’d like to explore a visit to your library, school, or other institution, please be in touch by visiting the Contact page here. Thanks!

-Gordon Arnold

BOOKS

by Gordon B. Arnold
Praeger, 2016   (ISBN 978-1440833595)

Animation and the American Imagination: A Brief History presents a concise, unified picture that brings together divergent strands of the story so readers can make sense of the flow of animation history in the United States. The book emphasizes the overall shape of animation history by identifying how key developments emerged from what came before and from the culture at large. It covers the major persons and studios of the various eras; identifies important social factors, including the Great Depression, World War II, the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, and the struggles for civil rights and women’s rights; addresses the critical role of technological and aesthetic changes; and discusses major works of animation and the responses to them.

“Arnold presents readers with a comprehensive examination of the ways in which animated cartoons … have informed the imagination of the American people. ”  —Book News Reviews 

“Top Community College Resource”  — Choice (June 2017)

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Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics
by Gordon B. Arnold
Praeger, 2008  (ISBN 978-0-275-99462-4)

Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the narratives of motion pictures and television productions have often reflected the idea that conspiracies shape many events, hide others, and generally dictate much of the course of modern life, often to the disadvantage of the average person. Since that time, conspiracy theories have developed into a potent undercurrent in American politics, as well, so that it is not unusual to find conspiracies used as explanations for a wide range of political events that would otherwise seem to have ordinary explanations.

Author Gordon Arnold examines the evolution of this cultural climate in the United States. Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics examines the intersection of film and television productions in the context of unfolding political developments. The chapters follow this story chronologically, showing how screen media have both reflected and shaped the cultural milieu in which traumatic events and political controversies have been interpreted with increasing cynicism. The work also reviews the original contexts in which film, television, and political manifestations of conspiracy ideas first appeared.

Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics provides a strong historical overview of conspiracy theory offering examples and explanations of how conspiracy theory explanations have penetrated mainstream American thought. From the evolution of social and political events nurturing popular ideas of various conspiracy theories to how conspiracies were interpreted in film, TV and politics, this is an excellent in-depth survey suitable for any college-level library strong in social issues.”—The Midwest Book Review

“Arnold … places seeming conspiracies in the context of the histories of the social and political cultures that harbor them or invoke them as explanations of otherwise inexplicable events.… Recommended.” — Choice

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The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam
by Gordon Arnold
McFarland Publishing, 2006  (ISBN 978-0-7864-2761-1)

The fall of Saigon in 1975 signaled the end of America’s longest war. Yet in many ways,the conflict was far from over. Although the actual fighting ended, the struggle to find political justification and historical vindication for the Vietnam War still lingered in the American consciousness. A plethora of images from America’s first “televised war” has kept the conflict all too fresh in the memories of those who lived through it, while creating a confusing picture for a younger generation. The political process of attaching meaning to historical events has ultimately failed due to the lack of consensus—then and now—regarding events surrounding the Vietnam War.

Reviewing the record of American politics, film, and television, this volume provides a brief overview of the war’s appearance in American popular culture. It examines the ways in which this conflict has consistently resurfaced in social and political life, especially in the arena of contemporary world events such as the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the Gulf War and the 2004 presidential campaign. To this end, the work explores the contexts and uses of the Vietnam War as a recurring subject. The circumstances and symbolism used in the rhetoric of the political elite and the news media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek, are discussed. Emphasis is also placed on the role of film and television as the book examines movies such as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now and TV series such as M*A*S*H. In weaving together the political and screen appearances of the Vietnam War, the book reexamines the influence of a major episode in American history.

“In The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam, Gordon Arnold traces the many incarnations of the war in American popular culture, deftly demonstrating that retellings of the conflict are often intertwined with political rhetoric…. In his chapter on the echoes of Vietnam in a post-September 11 world, Arnold shows how recent political and historical events shape audience reception of contemporary films about Vietnam.” — Film Quarterly
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by Gordon B. Arnold
Praeger, 2013   (ISBN 978-0-313-38563-6)

This provocative book reveals how Hollywood films reflect our deepest fears and anxieties as a country, often recording our political beliefs and cultural conditions while underscoring the darker side of the American way of life.

Long before the war in Iraq and the economic crises of the early 21st century, Hollywood has depicted a grim view of life in the United States, one that belies the prosperity and abundance of the so-called American Dream. While the country emerged from World War II as a world power, collectively our sense of security had been threatened. The result is a cinematic body of work that has America’s decline and ruin as a central theme. The author draws from popular films across all genres and six decades to illustrate how the political climate of the times influenced their creation.

Projecting the End of the American Dream: Hollywood’s Visions of U.S. Decline combines film history, social history, and political history to reveal important themes in the unfolding American narrative. Discussions focus on a wide variety of films, including RamboPlanet of the Apes, and Easy Rider.

“Written free of jargon and pretension . . . Arnold adeptly manages to capture the most influential films representing each decade. . . . Recommended.” —Choice