Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 17, 2011
In Hollywood during the 1930s, political movies dealt with corruption strictly on a small scale. Whether it’s the corrupt politicians following the orders of their political bosses in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or a local joe, frustrated and angry with his luckless existence, signing up with a radical hate group in Black Legion, Hollywood kept the corruption local, so to speak. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Senator Paine’s (Claude Rains) corrupt schemes affect the bank accounts of political bosses like Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) but don’t threaten or affect the world economy in any measurable way. Likewise, in Black Legion, Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) joins a hate group whose activities affect the lives of those in a small town, although it’s implied their plans are much larger (here’s the real group the movie group was based on). When it came to far-reaching conspiracies, it was always some international group, and some other country, doing the dirty work (Foreign Correspondent, for instance). But then, slowly, the net widened and, seemingly out of nowhere, in a one/two punch of extraordinary power, director John Frankenheimer blew the whole thing wide open.
John Frankenheimer, with The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, followed by his criminally underrated Seven Days in May in 1964, exploded political corruption in the movies from small potato grafting into foreign powers working within the United States to defeat it and zealous Generals in our own military looking to overthrow it. What followed, through the seventies, was a period of extreme political paranoia served up as entertainment by some of the finest filmmakers in Hollywood, and some not so fine. When it was done, the political drama/thriller would be redefined and no one would ever be surprised again to walk into a political movie and see nothing less than the world at stake in the political games of fanatics, plunderers and madmen.
The Manchurian Candidate is, by far, the more famous of the two Frankenheimer films and certainly deserves all the praise it gets. Telling a story of Communist boogeymen hypnotizing our soldiers, controlling members of our political class and creating assassins in order to install their own puppets into positions of ultimate power, the story works both as thriller and satire. It contains scenes of subversive humor alongside scenes of chilling brutality that jar the viewer into disorientation. Can anyone forget the first time they saw the scene where the Flower Club ladies becomes the Communist leaders in Manchuria watching coldly as Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) shoots one of his own men? Or the scene on the train where Rose (Janet Leigh) has the bizarre conversation with Marco (Frank Sinatra) – “Maryland is a beautiful state.’” “We’re not in Maryland.” “Nevertheless, Maryland is a beautiful state.” - that maybe, possibly, indicates that there’s some counter-hypnosis control going on with our side for the good guys?
The main thing, though, was that it didn’t shy away from a plot implicating a U.S. Senator in the hands of, not just some political boss working the system, but a foreign power intent on U.S. domination. It wasn’t long before television followed suit, and in less than a year, an episode of The Outer Limits, entitled The Hundred Days of the Dragon, had a nebulous Asian government (though the episode title clearly implicates China) installing a lookalike into the Oval Office itself with plans to kill off the entire cabinet and substitute lookalikes for each one. When Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released, there were complaints that it shed too bad a light on Washington and made us all look bad. By the time of The Manchurian Candidate, in the wake of Klaus Fuchs, The Pumpkin Papers and Senator Joseph McCarthy, anything seemed possible and no subject taboo.
In 1964, Frankenheimer took it a step further and placed the enemy squarely within. Seven Days in May, based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, and written for the screen by Rod Serling, tells the story of an attempted military coup in the United States of America. Seemingly impossible, the film is handled deftly enough by the acting, writing and direction to make the impossible seem, if not probable, entirely possible. Eschewing any sense of satire or wry wit, Seven Days in May tells its story in the straightforward fashion of an unabashed thriller. Having last seen it years ago, I watched it again recently and was surprised by just how good a thriller it is. The slow build works beautifully as Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas), assistant to General Scott (Burt Lancaster), begins to piece together a plot that he, as a Marine Colonel, doesn’t want to believe is true until so many pieces fall into place that he has no other choice but to believe the unthinkable: His direct supervisor is planning to overthrow the United States Government. Coming on the heels of The Manchurian Candidate probably placed Seven Days in May in an unfair competition with its predecessor but it’s a film that deserves a lot more attention and a film to which many modern thrillers owe a debt of gratitude for many of the templates it set up that are still used today.
In between The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. In the coming years his brother, Robert Kennedy, as well as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and George Wallace would all be shot, with only Wallace surviving. It seemed anyone, from any end of the political spectrum, from a civil rights leader to an unrepentant segregationist, was a target. By the 1970s, the paranoid political thriller had hit full stride and even the events surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination, barely less than ten years removed, were the subject of their own paranoid thriller, Executive Action. Once again starring Burt Lancaster (he made kind of a late career out of this, appearing in yet another, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, just four years later), it surmised a powerful group of wealthy financiers plotting, planning and carrying out the assassination. It may have been more interesting had it been directed with more energy and style than a dogfood commercial but director David Miller is no John Frankenheimer and the movie falls flat. And it gets little to no help from Dalton Trumbo’s script (yes, Dalton Trumbo!) which is nothing more than a series of scenes designed to impart necessary plot points to the audience. There are no characters here, just mouthpieces for the plot, and they’re not even interesting as that.
But that’s okay because soon, the 1970s would produce the triumvirate of paranoid conspiracy thrillers that would define the genre for the decade: Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and Marathon Man. From secret government agencies controlling the oil market and wiping out anyone who catches on to trained assassins manipulating the U.S. political scene to subdivisions of U.S. intelligence working with former Nazis, those three had it all. They even provide the viewer with three different outcomes so that every taste is satisfied: Hero “wins” (Marathon Man), hero loses (Parallax View), hero’s outcome unsure (Three Days of the Condor). All three are excellent, but Parallax View, with its stunning Gordon Willis cinematography and that incredible Parallax Corporation test film, is my favorite. More importantly, it’s the film Executive Action wanted to be and should have been.
The Parallax View opens with an assassination in which the viewer of the film, but no character within the film, can see that a second gunman was present. It then cuts to a commission panel (obviously a completely unveiled reference to the Warren Commission) chastising anyone for thinking that it could be the work of anything other than a lone gunman. Director Alan J. Pakula and writers David Giler, Lorezo Semple, Jr and Robert Towne (uncredited), keep the action generic enough but tense enough to make the whole “assassination conspiracy” story work without falling into the rabbit hole of “everybody’s involved” that sinks so many others. It’s much easier in a thriller to accept a crazy loner, or two, being recruited and ordered to go shoot someone by a company looking to control the power elite for the benefit of its bottom line than believe that 8,427 members of the government, the Dow Jones Industrial 40, the mafia and the sitting board of Coca-Cola have all conspired to bring down the president. It’s also easier to follow, quite frankly, which works in its favor as well. The Parallax View succeeds because it keeps the story fictional, allowing it be much more inventive and imaginative than trying to pigeonhole reality into the plot of a thriller (although, another Pakula thriller, All the President’s Men, took a real event and made it work quite well so it’s not impossible).
There were plenty of other paranoid thrillers and dramas in the seventies, from the great The Conversation and Chinatown to the decidedly sillier but fun to watch Capricorn One and The Stepford Wives, but Hollywood began to tone it back down and by 1981, Brian De Palma’s excellent Blow Out would once again make the conspiracy small scale; no coup d’etat, no foreign agents controlling our senators, no shadowy corporation controlling the process. No, it was a dirty trick gone wrong and a murderous cover-up that followed. And it was extremely well done. Blow Out marks the end of the great period of paranoid thrillers that The Manchurian Candidate set off and Seven Days in May cemented. Oh, they still happen and have even gotten big again. Big, as in “everyone’s involved and the security of the world is at stake.” Thrillers like The Constant Gardener, Syrianna and Ghostwriter have writ large the conspiracy once again but nothing can bring back the urgency and rawness they felt from 1962 to 1981, the year Ronald Reagan became the last President to be shot, when the paranoid thriller felt like a catharsis for the world we were just discovering we lived in. Nowadays, it seems like everyone almost expects there to be dirty work behind every public action, so the thrillers are no longer shocking or revelatory. It doesn’t mean they’re not as good, just that they no longer feel like an event. Maybe they never were important in the grand scheme of things but, somehow, they felt necessary as an antidote to troubled times. Maybe that feeling will return. Maybe it already has. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.
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