My Ten Favorite Conspiracy Films

749px-JFK_limousine

Friday is the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of JFK.  If you were alive back then, and old enough to remember this day, it’s one you never forgot from  the moment you first heard the news. For me, I was in New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, in a music class, when a member of the school staff came into the classroom and whispered something to our teacher. The teacher then announced to the class that the President had been shot. Most of us were shocked, probably not able to completely comprehend what had happened or what it truly meant. One wise-ass kid yelled out, “Nixon got him,” referring to Kennedy’s Republican opponent in the 1960 Presidential election. A few uncomfortable laughs were quickly silenced when the teacher began chastising the entire class for the actions of a couple of kids who were being so casually flippant, not recognizing the enormity of the moment.

We were sent home soon after and during the next four days the world slowly changed. That Sunday, my father and I, after church, went to visit my grandmother, a weekly ritual. While we were there the TV was on and we witnessed Lee Harvey Oswald being shot live on TV by Jack Ruby. Monday, schools were closed and we watched the entire procession from the Rotunda to Arlington.

As has been said by so many commentators in countless books, documentaries and TV shows about this time in our history, this was the day, the moment when America lost its innocence. It all seemed so impossible that this could happen, but it did.

The Warren Report was released in September 1964 claiming Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the President. Almost immediately afterward, skeptics began to question the Report’s findings. Theories abound, some seemed credible others just plain ludicrous.

Other events followed as the 60’s wore on. Other questions began to be asked. Why were we in Vietnam? Who really killed RFK and Martin Luther King? There were spooks under everyone’s bed or so it seemed.

As the Buffalo Springfield sang in “For What it’s Worth,” “Paranoia runs deep…” and it began to run very deep in American cinema as the events of the 1960’s unfolded.  There have always been films with conspiracies as part of the storyline, Fritz Lang’s “Ministry of Fear,”  Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” and John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate” to name a few. However, by the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s, a golden age of paranoia, we hit the jackpot. The films listed are in no particular order other than their release date.

BLOW-UP (1966)

blow

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film, David Hemmings’ photographer becomes obsessive about what he sees or does not see in a photograph he took of two lovers in a park one afternoon.  The film was released during the heyday of London’s Swingin’s 60’s. Today, it still lures you in with its Carnaby Street look; the mod sexy girls, the music (The Yardbirds). But as our anti-hero begins to dig deeper into the photographs he took that day he finds himself caught up in a murder mystery or maybe not.

Serpico (1973)

serpico

Based on the life of New York City cop, Frank Serpico, who won’t take gifts or extort money as favors from local criminals. Frank’s honesty makes him a pariah on the force with no cop willing to partner with him. The honest cop can’t be trusted and becomes isolated from his fellow cops especially after agreeing to blow the whistle on the rampant corruption in the police department. Superb performance by Pacino.

The Conversation (1974)

The-Conversation-1974Francis Ford Coppola’s tale of a paranoid surveillance expert who finds out he may be responsible for the murder of innocent people. Stark, claustrophobic, cerebral, Coppola’s anti-hero Harry Caul is paranoia personified. He lives alone, does not let anyone into his apartment nor does he let anyone get close to him emotionally.

The Parallax View (1974)parallax

 Mix in one investigative reporter, a Presidential candidate who is assassinated and a secretive corporation hiring assassins and you have an intelligent conspiracy theorist paradise. Starring Warren Beatty the film today remains a smart, tense and effective work. Directed by Alan J. Pakula.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

CondorRobert Redford is a CIA researcher, his job is to read novels and other publications that make reference to the CIA. He finds himself on the run from his own agency with no one he can trust after coming back to his office one afternoon with lunch and finding all his co-workers dead. His superiors want him to come in from the cold but can they be trusted?

Marathon Man (1976) 

marathon-manFormer Nazis, diamonds, a rouge government agent, and a dentist scene that still brings nightmares each night before I have a dental appointment. Based on William Goldman’s best-selling novel, John Schlesinger’s film version is not perfect but it’s a great thrilling ride. After watching this  film you never want to hear your dentist say, “Is it safe?”

All the President’s Men (1976)

PresidentsTrue life paranoia as Washington Post investigative reporters, Woodard and Bernstein, uncover the sneaky, shadowy administration of Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal that led to his resignation. To this day Richard Nixon still goes down as the most paranoid of our Presidents.

Blow Out (1981)

Blow Out Year: 1981 Director: Brian De Palma John TravoltaA Brian DePalma film that deserves more attention than it gets. John Travolta, in one of his best performances, is a sound effects man who one night is out by a bridge recording background noises when he witnesses a car going off the bridge. He jumps in the water managing to save the young woman (Nancy Allen). The man, a Senator and Presidential candidate (again) dies. Pressured to lie to the press about the woman being in the car, Travolta turns to his tapes for clues as to why the cover-up. Was it an accident or murder?

JFK (1991)

JFK-posterWhether you like Oliver Stone’s film or not and whether you believe Stone’s theories or not, JFK is a fascinating film to watch. True, Stone seems to accuse everyone from Castro, the CIA, the FBI, the Military Industrial Complex, the former Soviet Union and I think even my grandfather, a foreigner from Italy but the film is fascinating. My biggest problem with it is many young people today get their history from movies and Stone tosses around so many misconceptions here that they will “read” this film as absolute truth. No film based on any historical incident is the truth. There are always element of make believe.

Hey, wait a minute there are only nine films! Yes I know, and the title says ten. Well, I will leave that last one, or more, up to the reader. Add in your own favorite conspiracy film or films. There are plenty to choose from…

Advertisements

24 comments on “My Ten Favorite Conspiracy Films

  1. Lawlor Wm.Lee says:

    Maybe number ten was John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate? I can’t imagine a more wonderfully convaluted bunch of paranoia conspiracies then we have in this one. The cast is superb and Frankenheimer’s pacing is top notch.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      The Manchurian Candidate was definitely on my short list and probably would have been #10 had I not decided to go with nine and leave an open spot. A great film to say the least.

      Like

  2. dlhartzog says:

    Excellent choices. I, too, would add The Manchurian Candidate, and Chinatown.

    Like

  3. John Greco says:

    Chinatown was definitely in the running and fit in with the times of many of the films (1970’s) on the list.

    Like

  4. Martin Stumacher says:

    These are excellent choices but I have a two that stand out in my mind, The House on 92nd Street and the original Manchurian Candidate.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Martin, Thanks for the input. Yep, THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET is a nice early example and as I mentioned in a previous comment THE MANCHRUIAN CANDIDATE was definitely on my short list and would have probably filled the last remaining spot had I not decided to go with nine.

      Like

  5. Jay says:

    John,
    You missed one ‘Executive Action’ with Burt Lancaster.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Jaym I did not miss it as much as it is a film I still have not seen. I am going to have break down and order it from Amazon. Thanks for adding this to the conversation.

      Like

  6. Tom Maldiner says:

    Bill,

    This wouldn’t open.

    D

    Like

  7. plwinkler says:

    Winter Kills, based on Richard Condon’s novel — Condon wrote the novel The Manchurian Candidate — is a remarkable black comedy about the younger brother (Jeff Brides) of assassinated President Keegan (read: Kennedy), who is goaded by his their father (John Huston, giving a deliciously evil performance) and family patriarch, to investigate the assassination. The great cast also includes Richard Boone, Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, Anthony Perkins, Ralph Meeker, and Elizabeth Taylor in a cameo role. The movie is available on DVD.

    Like

  8. Rick says:

    Clever idea for a post, John. My fave of the ones you listed is THE CONVERSATION. I heartily second MANCHURIAN and add the most excellent DAY OF THE JACKAL.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      MANCHURIAN is a great film. Part of the reason I left it off the list is that I was looking at it from a post Kennedy assassination POV. JACKAL is a good one and another I need to take another look at. It’s been a long time. Thanks!

      Like

  9. doriantb says:

    John, your countdown of conspiracy films are all utterly spot-on; indeed, several of them are among my favorite thrillers. Here’s a couple off the beaten path: PI (1998; not to be confused with the film LIFE OF PI :-)), and LAST EMBRACE (1979) — which reminds me that I have a better version of it that I should revamp for a future post! 🙂 Great job!

    Like

  10. The Lady Eve says:

    John, Love this post – a really insightful reflection on the devastating impact of JFK’s assassination on the U.S. and how the country’s mood darkened and changed dramatically. Of the films you list, I remember “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor” as very paranoia-inducing (or enhancing, depending on one’s own state of mind at the time). One of my favorite movies of all time qualifies as a conspiracy film – and that’s Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.”

    I have a big problem with Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” even though it is interesting, filled with fine performances and very watchable, because Stone – for some unfathomable reason – threw everything including the kitchen sink in terms of “crackpot conspiracy theories” into it. And, as you mention, younger generations now believe his version to be the truth.

    I’m wondering if you watched PBS’s 2-part “American Experience” special on JFK. It was quite good. I also watched a segment of PBS’s “Nova” called “Cold Case JFK, also very well done, but I never want to see even one frame of the Zapruder film again.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Eve, CHINATOWN should be on my list. It made my short list but I somehow decided to go with the nine I did. Yeah, Stone’s flm goes overoboard. Just about everyone else did it except Oswald.

      I have not seen the two shows you mention but I will check PBS, hopefully they will rebroadcast them. I did watch a couple of other shows. THE DAY KENNEDY DIED on the Smithsoian channel and 48 HOURS: AS IT HAPPENED, I am also recording tonight the TCM showing of FOUR DAYS IN NOVEMBER, a doc. from 1964.

      Like

  11. Sam Juliano says:

    “For me, I was in New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, in a music class, when a member of the school staff came into the classroom and whispered something to our teacher.”

    I was in the fourth grade in the very Fairview School system I now teach in, John. The teacher’s name was Celeste Zematies (now deceased but forever remembered as a lovely teacher, the person who tearfully gave us the unconscionable news of JFK’s assassination, and the educator who read us E.B. White’s beloved “Charlotte’s Web” for the very first time. I have never forgotten that moments, and remember some of the subsequent events of that fateful day. This is one of your great posts John, and I’d be hard pressed to contest any of your conspiracy-themed film choices on your superlative list. “The Conversation,” “JFK” and “All the Presidents Men” would surely make my top five, though THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is an exceptional choice.

    Others to consider:

    North by Northwest
    Z
    The Insider
    Army of Shadows
    The Boys from Brazil
    L.A. Confidential

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam and your additions to the list are definitely all worthy. I particularly like NBNW, ARMY OF SHADOWS, Z and LA CONFIDENTIAL. Yep, most people old enough all remember where they where on the sad day. There unfortunately have been a few others, too many, since. Thanks!

      Like

  12. Terrific list. I would add “The Manchurian Candidate”, too, because it’s one of my fave films, period.

    I am KICKING myself for not recording “The Conversation” when it was on TCM the other week. Can’t believe I forgot! And now I see it on your list… Alas, I hope they’ll air it again.

    Also, great idea for a post. Very good reading.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      SS – Thanks!!! As I mentioned with others THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was on my short list but I ultimately left it off because I was leaning toward films after the assassination of JFK. CANIDATE is a great film that I admire quite a bit.

      Like

  13. Jay K says:

    John, You had mentioned that you missed the film ‘Executive Action’ in your reply. This film will be on T.C.M. on April 19th at 4am This is a must for the Kennedy assassination. Enjoy,Jay

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s