Ten years after Richard Hofstadter coined the phrase “the paranoid style” (in a lecture he delivered just days before JFK was assassinated), the national traumas of Vietnam and Watergate were in full swing. Hofstadter’s point was that “they” weren’t out to get you at all — you really were being paranoid. But by the early ’70s, this paradigm had been shattered. The point now was that they really were out to get you, whether you knew it or not, and generally you didn’t until it was too late.
This dark mood of suspicion and disillusionment was reflected at the time in a glorious run of movies — including Alan J. Pakula’s great troika Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men; Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor; and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. In an almost fetishized landscape of impersonal architecture and encroaching technology (with taut, dread-laden scores, usually by Michael Small or David Shire), these movies chart the gradual alienation and disempowerment of the individual in modern society, the stripping away of privacy, and the growing influence of shadowy power structures.
Although very different from these, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (sun-drenched 1930s L.A., unforgettable noir score by Jerry Goldsmith) is perhaps the greatest of them all. That moment at the end when Lieutenant Lou Escobar instructs Loach to handcuff J.J. Gittes to the wheel of a car, thus rendering him powerless to determine the outcome of events, was a major psychological turning point in American cinema, and it mirrored the greater shift going on outside the movie theater. It was like a changing of the guard. Here, suddenly, were serious, challenging stories where the individual had no moral compass anymore and could casually be crushed by malign, unknown forces.
But it didn’t take very long for paranoia to go baroque. It started before the decade was even up, with the weird and surreal Winter Kills — though perhaps where conspiracy is concerned it’s really humor that kills. The last gasp of the form might have been Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1991, especially that long section of the movie where Donald Sutherland’s Mr. X pulls back the curtain in such a comprehensive and spectacular fashion for Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison. It was no giant leap then to go from Mr. X to The X-Files, from the Smoking Gun to the Smoking Man. Before you knew it, government and corporate conspiracies were being derided as crackpot, the tropes of the form as clichéd and tired. Today, paranoia and conspiracy thrillers are dismissesd as “voodoo histories” and pretty much seen as a debased form of entertainment.
All of which might lead you to believe that things have changed for the better since the ’70s, that today’s government no longer spies on, or keeps things from, its citizens, that today’s corporations no longer put the profit motive before any moral consideration of their actions, or that Deep Throat’s exhortation in that underground parking garage all those years ago to “follow the money,” somehow, happily, doesn’t apply anymore. This, of course, would be to ignore the truth (undeniably out there), i.e., that since the ’70s there has been an utterly astonishing increase — exponential, Moore’s Law–like — in every form of electronic surveillance, in the influence, reach, and wealth of transnational corporations, and in the sinister privatization of the military-intelligence complex generally.
But isn’t this the stuff we were only starting to worry about back then? So, now, what, it’s OK? We don’t need to worry anymore? A proportional response is not required? Really? Perhaps what’s different today is that we’re no longer shocked by any of it. Maybe we even expect it. But surely the sheer scale of all this is something that at the very least requires our imaginative engagement. In terms of style and aesthetics, we clearly can’t go back to the golden age of conspiracy thrillers, but it seems to me that in one form or another these are stories we need to keep telling ourselves.
There are encouraging signs, though. Historical interest in the 1960s and early ’70s continues unabated — albeit tending toward the baroque (even the rococo). Giuseppe Genna’s recent and labyrinthine In the Name of Ishmael explores, among other things, the case of Enrico Mattei, a politician who challenged the oligopoly of the international oil markets in the early ’60s and then died in a mysterious plane crash. James Ellroy’s Underworld Trilogy makes us relive the entire period (practically in real time) as a lucid dream, but he strips it of all innocence and illusion. And in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, set in California in 1970, private eye Doc Sportello shows us the frontiers of consciousness expanding, but also contracting, or being subtly co-opted, as the very “public eye” of the nascent Internet looms on the horizon.
Closer in tone and execution to some of the original conspiracy thrillers, but with more contemporary settings, are works such as Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton and Peter Temple’s latest novel, Truth. In each of these complex thrillers, believable, sympathetic individuals struggle to survive in a web of corporate, political, or institutional corruption. Also, as the stories unfold, the protagonists’ knotty emotional lives are shown to be inextricable from the wider moral context. In these respects, both Michael Clayton and Truth take their nod from the golden age, and that’s a good thing. Because at no time over the past thirty or forty years has that ’70s sensibility seemed more relevant or, indeed, more necessary.
Alan Glynn is the author of two novels, The Dark Fields, which has just been filmed starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro and will be reissued by Picador in December, and Winterland, which was published earlier this year by Minotaur and Faber & Faber. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.