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