Playlist: 3 Conspiracy Thrillers to Watch

October 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Our Playlist feature will post each Sunday with a short list of recommended movies to watch for an afternoon’s indulgence. We’ll do our best to stick to available titles and tell you how to get hold of them – with perhaps a bonus every so often for the more adventurous viewers out there.

1. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (Jonathan Demme, 2004)

The conspiracy thriller has long been a favorite film genre of mine, largely for what I consider to be its comforting qualities. The notion of a wide-ranging conspiracy, while presented as sinister and evil onscreen to motivate great suspense scenes, becomes something different in the context of a film than in our world. These movies present familiar images to us and suggest that not all is as it seems, that a grand design works just out of sight. Perhaps it’s my religious side, taking pleasure in the possibility of the unknowable. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, both the original by John Frankenheimer and Jonathan Demme’s remake, explain their conspiracy quite clearly. Unlike other iterations of the genre, it has a clearly resolved ending, if not an entirely upbeat one. I list Demme’s remake here not because Frankenheimer’s has aged badly – it hasn’t, and remains among the best American thrillers. But Demme’s update pulls off the dangerously tricky challenge of updating the political attitudes of the Cold War to the post-9/11, Iraq War era, and does so with his typically sensitive ear for the plights of the underprivileged, in this case war veterans like the suffering Major Ben Marco (played here by Denzel Washington). The remake presciently imagines a futuristic, media-saturated world where campaign commercials stream everywhere like holograms and ticker tape, and political concerns are inescapable. Marco’s shell-shocked condition gives Demme room to humanize the concerns of this world, which are at once the stuff of vivid speculative fiction and applicable to the everyday lives of his audience. The proof of this version’s success lies in its climax, practically identical to the original but suffused with real hope and the sense that, for its characters, a temporary solution has been found.

Available on DVD and streaming on Amazon.

2. THE PARALLAX VIEW (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)

As with his greatest performance as the titular John “Pudgy” McCabe in Robert Altman’s MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, Warren Beatty plays an outsider character who talks a big game but ultimately doesn’t know as much about the ways of the world as he thinks. In THE PARALLAX VIEW, Alan Pakula (director of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN) casts him as Joe Frady, a reporter who investigates a string of mysterious deaths of witnesses to a political assassination. Frady’s motivated by guilt, since an old girlfriend of his who sought his help lies among the departed, but his sense of superiority overrides all and makes him a less-than-sympathetic figure even as he begins to grasp the truth of the Parallax organization. Pakula, aided by legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis, constructs his picture as a surreal travelogue, beginning with a memorable assassination scene atop the Space Needle before following Brady to middle America and to various metropoles. Travel takes on a perilous tint as fatal sequences play out in cars, at sea and in the air. Most memorable of all is the incendiary video played to Parallax recruits, which makes the organization’s purpose abundantly clear. Frady watches it alone, seated in the middle of a pitch-black chamber, the darkness sprawling around him on all side. The film peaks here, and the scene works as its summation: it’s enough to drive you mad.

Available on DVD, streaming on Netflix Instant, and streaming free on Amazon Prime.

3. WINTER KILLS (William Richert, 1979)

Some of cinema’s greatest actors assemble together as a truly stacked cast that basically amounts to a gallery of cartoon characters in WINTER KILLS. Adapted from a book by Richard Condon, author of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE’s source novel, this picture by first-time director William Richert shows just how extreme different interpretations of a particular literary can be. Jeff Bridges stars as Nick Kegan, son of a Kennedyesque family, investigating the death of his brother, the late President Kegan. The solution to the mystery is somewhat predictable and altogether confusing at the same time, but most importantly it arrives at the end of a movie in which Anthony Perkins gets multiple scenes as a surveillance expert confined to a high-tech underground bunker, Sterling Hayden plays a lunatic in a tank, and the legendary Toshiro Mifune (SEVEN SAMURAI) appears in the thankless role of family butler. Mifune, who didn’t speak English, learned his lines phonetically. Not to mention John Huston as the lewd, raving patriarch. The film’s jigsaw plot might actually be more believable than the story of its production, which includes mafia producers, drug smuggling, and a scheme to pull the movie out of debt by making another Jeff Bridges movie in the middle of filming. If nothing else, WINTER KILLS is the story of America, inside and out.

Available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. – Brendan

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