Techno-paranoia has become the norm in our post-Snowden world, and hit shows like Person of Interest play on our fears of being watched. But the high-tech conspiracy tale has its roots in the 1970s, which saw a great wave of movies about assassins, surveillance, secret governments, and corporate cabals. The result was a decade’s worth of paranoid thrillers, many of them extremely entertaining. Here are the ten you must watch.
Between the Watergate scandal and a series of ugly revelations about the CIA, the FBI, and other federal agencies, the public was more receptive to stories where the country’s leaders were the villains. And with the rise of the so-called New Hollywood, a younger, more countercultural group of filmmakers was ready to deliver them.
These aren’t the best ’70s conspiracy thrillers—a couple of them aren’t all that good, though they’re worth watching for other reasons. They’re just the essential ones: necessary stops on any extended tour of the genre. In chronological order:
1. Executive Action (1973)
Not just the first on the list, but the worst on the list—a movie far more dull than the step-by-step story of a bunch of oligarchs plotting the execution of John F. Kennedy ought to be. But it’s fascinating to watch anyway, if only because it somehow manages to be both deeply cynical and incredibly innocent at the same time, as though the filmmakers couldn’t imagine an evil elite without also making the plotters’ target improbably pure. On one hand, a character can casually declare that the secret purpose of the Vietnam War is to bring down the Third World population. On the other hand, there’s the moment when a reluctant conspirator asks, “There ought to be a better way of settling things like this. Have you researched [Kennedy’s] private history?” The unlikely reply: “If we could find a way to discredit him, believe me, we would have done it by now.”
2. The Paralax View (1974)
The ideal introduction to the ’70s conspiracy cycle. It’s got a series of political assassinations, a compromised federal investigation, a hidden cabal that’s behind it all, and the best brainwashing sequence this side of A Clockwork Orange.
3. The Conversation (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola’s tale of a surveillance expert forced to confront the consequences of his work was written in the 1960s, and in some ways it has more in common with paranoid ’60s pictures like Mickey One than with the other movies on this list: The story hinges on an internal conflict within an anonymous corporation, not a broader plot against the public good. But it appeared as the Watergate scandal was cresting, and suddenly everything in the film seemed to take on a more directly political meaning.