By Gary Dowell
The highly anticipated Captain America: The Winter Soldier is upon us, and part of its copious positive buzz centers on the old-school ‘70s political conspiracy-thriller vibe that it taps (hence the casting of Robert Redford in a significant role). We here at Movie Night are a paranoid bunch, and have a fondness for 70s-era film – the greatest decade for American film making. Here are some of our favorite ‘70s thrillers, as well as some important precursors and one latecomer. Remember: We may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean you’re not out to get us.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
John Frankenheimer’s chilling adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel has influenced conspiracy thrillers for decades. Frank Sinatra stars as a soldier who investigates a Medal of Honor winner and rising political star (Laurence Harvey) who may be a brainwashed communist assassin. An amazing blend of suspense and satire has kept it fresh for 50 years.
Seven Days in May (1964)
Frankenheimer also helmed this military thriller, shot from a script by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, based on the novel by by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. Burt Lancaster plays an Air Force general who leads the Joint Chiefs in an attempted coup d’etat over a controversial peace treaty; Kirk Douglas stars as the USMC colonel who uncovers the plot. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon did not want the film to be made, while President John F. Kennedy actively supported the production.
Greek director Costa-Gavras’ adaptation of Vassilis Vassilikos’ thinly-veiled satire of the assassination of an influential prodemocracy Greek politician. Released at time of global political activism and turmoil, it became the first film to be nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture as well as Best Foreign Language Film. (It won the latter.)
Executive Action (1973)
Written by blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Johnny Got His Gun), this controversial, fictionalized take on the Kennedy assassination centers on the conspirators and openly challenged the findings of the Warren Commission, pre-dating JFK by 20 years. It was pulled from theaters within two weeks, and didn’t surface on video until the 1990s.
The Conversation (1974)
Oft overshadowed by the Godfather films, this gem is easily one of Francis Ford Coppola’s best, as well as one of the greatest films of the 1970s in general. Gene Hackman stars as a privacy-obsessed surveillance expert tasked with a challenging assignment that hints at a conspiracy. An atmospheric character study soaked in paranoia.
The Parallax View (1974)
Part of Alan J. Pakula’s “Paranoia Trilogy,” starring Warren Beatty as a newspaper reporter who investigates the assassination of a presidential candidate and finds more than he expected. Dark and cynical, it is a chilling depiction of an America in which corporations muzzle citizens and manipulate the political process with impunity – far-fetched then, it’s now everyday life 40 years after the fact.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
The late, great Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of James Grady’s tense novel about a bookish CIA analyst unexpectedly thrust into a fight for his life with no idea as to how or why. Robert Redford stars opposite a fine cast that includes Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow, Cliff Roberts, and John Houseman. Its final scene has since proven to be eerily prophetic.
All the President’s Men (1976)
Pakula’s masterpiece, as well as arguably the film that defined the 1970s. Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in a stunning adaptation of their book of the events that led to Nixon’s fall from grace. A gripping look at the power of the press versus the corrupting effect of absolute power.
Marathon Man (1976)
William Goldman adapted his own novel for this classic about a Ph.D. student (Dustin Hoffman) whose secret agent brother (Roy Schieder) draws him into a plot involving a Nazi war criminal (Laurence Olivier) and stolen diamonds. An interesting exploration of Nazism and McCarthyism, usually remembered for its notorious torture scene.
Capricorn One (1978)
Written and directed by Peter Hyams (Outland) and starring James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson as three astronauts who partake in a faked Mars landing and find their lives in danger when the conspiracy goes awry. A cult classic, and a rarity that portrays NASA as the evil government agency.
The China Syndrome (1979)
Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas star as TV news reporters who investigate safety hazard cover-ups at a nuclear power plant after a near-meltdown is exposed by an employee (Jack Lemmon). Douglas served as producer on the film, which paved the way for Silkwood and others in the 1980s.
Also directed by Costa-Gavras, based on the true story of an American journalist who disappeared during the bloody, U.S.-backed Chilean coup of 1973, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek as grieving parents seeking the truth. Oddly – and rather tellingly – the film was banned in Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, even though neither Chile nor Pinochet are ever mentioned by name.