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Categories: Features

Remember, it’s only paranoia when they’re not really watching you.

We count down the best, brightest and darkest films that have sated our appetite for stories of nefarious conspiracies, sinister cabals and shadowy organisations out to steal our souls.

#20 The Ghost Writer (A.K.A. The Ghost)

This latter-day slow burn thriller of post-Iraq, Bush and Blair era, political conspiracy from Roman Polanski is only made all the more disquieting by the director’s personal experience with flights from justice, media storms, house arrest and dark secrets. As Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer struggles to get the truth out of exiled Prime Minister Pierce Brosnan for his autobiography, following the mysterious death of the previous ghost writer, it becomes increasingly apparent that the wounds of a dubious war in the Middle East may have had more shadowy beginnings than previously thought.

 

#19 Jacob’s Ladder

Adrian Lyne’s hugely influential paranoid horror film sees Vietnam vet Tim Robbins haunted by ghouls throughout the typically Lyne-esque steamy streets of New York as he tries to unravel the mystery of a hellish event during the war and the demonic conspiracy claiming the lives of his fellow platoon members. Its innovative creature design, inspired in part by the work of Francis Bacon, has gone on to inspire media phenomenons like the Silent Hill game series.

 

#18 Total Recall

Total Recall was one of those films that went through so many different forms of development with so many different directors and producers that the end result was always going to be an absolute mess and nobody can make as glorious, and over-the-top, a mess as Paul Verhoeven. The Schwarzenegger machismo mixed with the grandiose gore of Verhoeven, and sprinkled with a little leftover David Cronenberg weirdness from an earlier draft, makes for a ridiculously memorable cocktail. Is it real, is it a dream? You’re having too much fun to care.   

 

#17 Bug

Before William Friedkin and Tracy Letts ruined fried chicken for an entire generation they collaborated, for the first time, to adapt his intimate psychodrama Bug; the story of Ashley Judd’s battered and haunted housewife shacking up with, pre-career-explosion, Michael Shannon’s schizophrenic drifter. Bug is a story of how the energy of trauma and abuse can transform and transfer into paranoid delusion. As Judd’s character becomes enthralled and attached to Shannon’s she begins to share in his increasingly horrifying paranoid fantasies of dark government experiments. It’s a small scale story that gets right under your skin and, while it may not be Friedkin’s best work, the trifecta of its screenplay and its two lead actors is too strong to ignore. Seek it out and let it freak you out.   

 

#16 Captain America: The Winter Soldier

It’s been a joy to watch Marvel Studios progress as a company and their 2014 hit may have been the best of their so-called “Phase Two”. Like most of what they make it’s a very impressive action movie but it’s that added shot of 70s political conspiracy that really makes it sing (it can’t be a coincidence that Robert Redford’s character works in a building that’s very reminiscent of the Watergate hotel). Marvel’s relatively short production schedules allowed them to also put out one the first post-Snowden conspiracy films, adding an element of surveillance commentary that struck a chord with an older audience that they were trying to secure.

 

#15 The 39 Steps

Not knowing who to trust had never been this fun before. Hitchcock followed up the success of fellow conspiracy romp The Man Who Knew Too Much with this thoroughly British adventure of spy rings and double agents as Robert Donat goes on the run throughout some of Hitchcock’s most satisfyingly picturesque backdrops, dragging a patently unamused Madeleine Carroll along for the ride. A classic mismatch made through circumstance and certainly a huge inspiration for the odd relationship in our next film…..

 

#14 Three Days of the Condor

When Robert Redford’s glorified CIA librarian comes back from lunch to find his entire office gunned down he’s catapulted into a world of espionage and assassination in which nobody can be trusted, save the poor Faye Dunaway who’s forcefully drafted into his madness, and where he’ll have to learn how to use the tricks of the system he’s worked for against it in order to survive. Sydney Pollack’s ice cold thriller finds a way to make a young Redford, one of the most beloved and charismatic leading men of his day, completely alone, with nowhere to hide, in one of the most populated and built-up cities in the world.  

 

#13 Side Effects

A year before David Fincher and Gillian Flynn made our modern anxieties over sexuality and media manipulation into blockbusting success with Gone Girl, Steven Soderbergh was already on top of it. Side Effects was, at the time, Soderbergh’s final theatrical release before retirement and also his third time directing a script from Scott Z. Burns. What makes Burns’ Soderbergh scripts so interesting (each of them containing themes of conspiracy) is his radical idea that people in positions of authority are actually the good guys and maybe institutions exist to help people. What starts out as a commentary on US pharmaceutical culture transforms into an old-fashioned noir about how easy it is to manipulate people into believing, and playing along with, a narrative.   

 

#12 Cutter’s Way

Ivan Passer’s paranoid post-Vietnam thriller was knocked around so badly by United Artists that its limited run almost instantly secured its place as a cult classic. Back before he was just “the dad from Home Alone”, John Heard managed to deliver one truly showstopping performance as Alex Cutter, a psychologically and physically maimed veteran, obsessed with the invisible patriarchal powers that sent him to war for a capitalist agenda. The murder of a young girl embroils his friend Dr Richard Bone, played by Jeff Bridges, as the two embark on a paranoid journey of outlandish speculation that becomes more and more plausible to the skeptical Bone. Cutter’s Way is a unique detective conspiracy and a dreamlike examination of the indelible scars left by a brutal war upon the psychology of modern culture.  

 

#11 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Robert Weine’s groundbreaking film gave birth to arguably the first wave of genre filmmaking, it is also generally regarded as the first horror film ever made and it can just as easily be called the first conspiracy film ever made. It’s also an impressionist triumph that acts as a damning indictment of Weimar Germany and the budding military-industrial complex that aims to brainwash men into becoming murderers. Its beautifully designed descent into the mind of madness has inspired more than one entry on this list.  

 

#10 They Live

John Carpenter’s satirical sci-fi take on 80s consumerism has become the conspiracy theorist’s Citizen Kane. It’s a gun-totin’, bubblegum-chewin’, machismo-in’ masterpiece about the world of new understanding that lies just beyond our line of sight. Some say it’s about the New World Order and the lizard people, some say it’s about the mind-altering potential of LSD. One thing’s for sure, it’s not about right wing anti-semitic nonsense as Carpenter was forced to explicitly point out recently. He, himself, has called it a film about “yuppies and unrestrained capitalism” that’s more of a “documentary” about the Reaganomics and monstrous greed culture of the time.

 

#9 Ministry of Fear

Nazis! Nazis everywhere! They’re a huge part of paranoid conspiracy fiction and for good reason. Fritz Lang, a man who had fled his native country after being ordered to make propaganda for the Third Reich, strikes back with his mid-war tale of madness and maddeningly intricate Nazi spy rings lurking in genteel Britain. Lang was a filmmaker decades ahead of his time and Ministry of Fear is one of the films where it really shows. From Twilight Zone surrealism to pitch-perfect Hitchcockian adventure, Lang displays himself as a master of every style and tone all the way back in 1944. He delivers nail-biting tension with a tongue cheek humour only the time could give, the glorious last line of the film “CAKE!?” is an underrated gem within an underrated gem; and speaking of Nazis….

 

#8 Marathon Man

John Schlesinger may not have been the most technically minded director but he was the perfect man for the job if you wanted to get the best out of your actors, and that he most certainly did. Dustin Hoffman’s introverted history student becomes entangled in the bloody conspiracy involving his secret agent older brother, Laurence Olivier’s angel of death and Nazi diamonds. It’s a film drenched in sweat and dread, steeped in cultural fears and hatred; and you can read the story on their faces. Hoffman’s titular marathon runner finds himself unable to outrun the horrors of the past, forcing him to a chilling and violent confrontation that you’re not likely to ever forget.

 

#7 Les Diaboliques

A conspiracy between a school teacher’s wife and his mistress to murder him and make it look like an accident goes awry when the body mysteriously vanishes. Are supernatural forces at work, or something even more sinister? It’s hard to solve a paranormal crime while trying to cover up your own. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s tale of foul deeds and unbearable paranoia is a masterclass in suspense, perhaps surpassed only by his previous film The Wages of Fear. The heartstopping bathtub finale, rightly, lives in horror movie infamy.

 

#6 Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick’s final film was arguably the most controversial and divisive entry in a controversial and divisive career but, like most of his films, it’s been looked back on in an increasingly fonder light. Kubrick’s painstaking eye for detail, and self-imposed exile, resulted in its New York location being precisely reconstructed in Pinewood Studios, giving Kubrick his desired level of control over almost everything you see. You can see a lot of themes working beneath its veneer of psycho-sexual drama. Paranoia over inadequacy and shame constantly writhing beneath a beautiful surface of conflicting blues and reds. It’s a film about the fear of being discovered. Was Kubrick trying to say something by casting two lead actors who were rumoured to be in a sham marriage? We couldn’t speculate….

 

#5 Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s Dennis Lehane adaptation was warmly received upon release but also generally regarded as a potboiler effort from the usually personal Scorsese. This may be true but his more straightforward pictures are often some of his best. Much like his remake of Cape Fear, Shutter Island is brimming with the kind of subtext that mainstream Hollywood rarely ever deems necessary. Uncomplicated, yet vastly intricate, it’s a film that you can approach from a dozen different angles and feel completely satisfied.

 

#4 Sicario

Sicario is a film not so much about deception as it is about the distortion of information. The brilliance of the script lies in the fact that, while this is a film about a far-reaching government conspiracy, nobody involved ever lies; they simply omit information. Sicario’s true genius, however, is rooted in Roger Deakins’ outstanding cinematography, and for photography work from one of cinema’s most reliably great cinematographers to stand out it has to be pretty spectacular. The film is filled with tricky mirror shots and distorted, murky, viewpoints. We are mostly only ever seeing a reflection of the characters, rarely ever their true selves. The most famous shot from the film, where a group of soldiers embarking on an ethically bankrupt mission literally descend into pitch black darkness, exemplifies Sicario’s clear sense of aesthetic. Denis Villeneuve’s tense directing style makes you feel enough pressure to start cracking, setting you up for Johan Johannson’s pounding score to break you to pieces.    

 

#3 The Parallax View

He may not have secured the top spot on our list but Alan J. Pakula is the undisputed king of the paranoid conspiracy film and The Parallax View is his crowning achievement. You can easily see why people have become so obsessed with it over the years. It throws a lot of different ideas up against the wall and almost all of them stick. It’s caught somewhere between the most enveloping conspiracy film ever made and the weirdest action film ever made and it’s defined the sub-genre over the past 40 years. From its oddly upbeat score to the seminal slideshow from hell and the tensest napkin scene ever, it’s hard to peg The Parallax View. Is it satire, comedy, commentary or horror? Like most conspiracy films of its decade it’s heavily influenced by both Watergate and the assassination of the Kennedys but its relevance hasn’t diminished in the slightest since its release. The targeting of the disenfranchised and the aggressively anti-social by shady corporations for politically motivated action is something that rings very true today. The current political climate seems as surreal as it must have done in 1974.

 

#2 Blow Out

When John Travolta’s B-movie soundman accidentally records what he suspects is a political assassination he’s thrown into a conspiracy involving Nancy Allen’s endearingly ditzy call-girl and John Lithgow’s unforgettably chilling psycho. From Brian De Palma’s comedic cynicism and boundlessly energetic style to Vilmos Zsigmond’s incredible camerawork and complex blending of colours, Blow Out is a cinematic joy. It’s also a heavily metacinematic experience rooted in the mechanical satisfaction of deconstructing an event through the magic of analogue cinema.

Whilst very much a conspiracy film of its era (the premise bears a striking resemblance to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne during the so-called “Chappaquiddick incident”), it’s a little too much fun to be called properly paranoid and it owes a tremendous amount of dues to not just Blow-Up, to which Blow Out serves as somewhat of a remake, but to the, also audio obsessed, number one film on our list….

 

#1 The Conversation

Francis Ford Coppola’s timeless masterpiece feels as brand new today as it did on its release well over 40 years ago. As with every post-Watergate conspiracy film, it’s obsessed with tape recordings and, much like Blow Out, serves as one of the many adaptations of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Purloined Letter inspired Blow-Up (where the answers are right under your nose the whole time). It’s also another metacinematic examination of the fixation found in the technically minded (particularly sound engineers). But beyond that it’s a stunning portrait of anxiety in the age of surveillance and information gathering. It’s a film about that unshakable feeling that everyone around you knows everything about you, even before you know it yourself.

Gene Hackman gives a career defining performance as Harry Caul, the sleuthing expert who’s mastered his field, and is the envy of all his peers, but finds human relationships elusive. “I don’t have anything personal, nothing of value, nothing personal except my keys” he says to his landlady in an unwitting admission about his solitary and empty lifestyle. He’s mastered the art of surveillance, but knowledge has only proven itself a burden in his life. He knows how readily secrets are kept and how easily they can be discovered. When he’s tasked with deciphering his masterpiece, a single conversation unknowingly recorded from multiple sources, he descends into a nightmarish corporate conspiracy that ends up feeling like a battle for his very soul. The Conversation is an unquestionable masterpiece for which Coppola took home the Palme d’Or, but not Best Picture at the Oscars. Don’t worry though, he lost it to himself for The Godfather: Part II.   

 

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, and lifelong cinephile, who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University of London. You can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

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Posted on Mar 5, 2017

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