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