Watch: Looking (Over Our Shoulders) at the Paranoid Thriller
What secret truths does the "paranoid thriller" in American cinema tell us about our culture?
As Travis Lee Ratcliff notes at the beginning of his latest video essay, "When people talk about 'paranoid' or 'conspiracy' thrillers, they tend to be referring to a specific moment in time," that being the mid-'70s, and classic films like All the President's Men and The Conversation. But, he argues, this paranoia has deep roots in American cinema that both predate the '70s, and continues to fascinate filmmakers today.
The golden age of paranoia
The paranoid thriller's moment was arguably the mid-1970s, and can be traced directly to the Watergate scandal and its cultural fallout. The hippy idealism of the 1960s had been replaced by a pervasive sense of dread—a feeling, as Ratcliff puts it, that "credible institutions might have been coöpted by forces outside the people's control." And indeed, this proved to be the case, as the break-ins at the Watergate Hotel brought down a president and seemed to confirm many young people's fears, fears that were duly reflected on the movie screen.
The film that was made about the investigation into Watergate, All the President's Men, is a classic thriller that makes the usual humdrum of journalism seem pretty darn exciting. In the clip above, paranoia is rendered in a masterfully cinematic way, as the camera reveals the circles within circles surrounding the two reporters as they trawl through an ocean of information.
Other paranoid classics made during this era (when, probably not coincidentally, young filmmakers and their kooky ideas were running the Hollywood asylum), include Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View (another Pakula film) and Francis Ford Coppola's super weird and great The Conversation, about a wiretapper's paranoid obsession with a seemingly innocuous piece of tape that he becomes convinced has deeper significance.
The roots of American paranoia
Paranoia and conspiracy in American film have been a mainstay for many decades, as this list of films makes clear. During the Cold War, many films catered to American anxiety about Communism. Ironically, for a man who would later come to represent the apotheosis of conspiracy culture, one of President Kennedy's favorite films was The Manchurian Candidate, a quintessential example of paranoia and conspiracy.
Other genres contained elements of the paranoid and conspiratorial, too, including "traditional" thrillers Hitchcock's Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much. And of course, there's the vastness of film noir, a paranoid and conspiracy-minded genre if ever there was one; while its conspiracies might tend to be more mundane and workaday, its paranoia looms just as large, and can be seen in the genre's ever-present lack of certainty, pessimism about human nature, and continual crossings and double-crossings that are mainstays of films like Double Indemnity, Pickup on South Street, and Billy Wilder's media-minded noir, Ace in the Hole.
"While the paranoid thriller is a constant, what changes is our relationship with our institutions."
The current conspiracy
As Ratcliff says, "While the paranoid thriller is a constant, what changes is our relationship with our institutions." He makes the case that in today's climate, we are in the midst of a renaissance of conspiracy fiction, pointing to shows like Mr. Robot as perhaps the finest example of the contemporary paranoid thriller. As Ratcliff points out, everything we see on the show is "constantly subverted" as each episode captures a very modern obsession with the "invisible powers of technologies to influence and shape our reality...that speaks to [a] totalizing sense of paranoia and powerlessness."
Ratcliff even sees movie-of-the-year Get Out as making novel use of tropes from the paranoid thriller genre, specifically to, "satirize and make concrete...the intrinsic paranoia of navigating a world shaped by racial inequities."
Ratcliff's wonderful essay covers far more ground than can be done justice to here. It should set you off down your own rabbit hole of cinematic exploration, where you're sure to find examples of the paranoid and conspiratorial everywhere around you. The paranoid style in American thought has long been a matter of debate, and it's important for every filmmaker (and citizen) to be as informed as possible about this part of the national psyche. And, nb, I didn't get even get to the X-Files, or Oliver Stone, but this interview the director did with Roger Ebert is pretty great.
So, in conclusion, America has a rich history of paranoia in film, the truth is out there, and under no circumstances should you ever trust anyone, ever, except me.