Movie Cycles: Conspiracy Features, 1971-1978

Movie Cycle: Conspiracy Films

Emanuel Levy

The 1970s cycle of conspiracy movies, which lasted about half a decade, was based on real and factual events, such as the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the Pentagon Papers, and the Watergate Scandal.  After the Watergate disclosure and Nixon’s resignation, Hollywood made many tales about conspiracy that were both critically and commercially successful, leaving strong impact on the collective consciousness.

Conspiracy films were made in almost each and every decade of American history, but they didn’t form a cycle, and didn’t appear as a thematic cluster; they were just individual films. My book discusses a cycle of conspiracy films that prevailed in a certain historical era, and were at once products and reflections of the prevailing zeitgeist. Thus, as noted before, focus is emphasized on the socio-historical-political climates of the 1970s, which were directly responsible for the emergence of this cycle.

Conspiracy Films (in chronological order):

1971: The French Connection; Klute

1972: The Candidate

1973: Serpico

1974: Chinatown; The Conversation; The Parallax View

1975: Nashville; Jaws; The Killer Elite; Marathon Man; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Shampoo

1976: All the President’s Men; Three Days of the Condor

1978: Coma

Conspiracy Films (in alphabetical order):

All the President’s Men, 1976

The Candidate, 1972

Chinatown, 1974

Coma, 1978

The Conversation, 1974

Jaws, 1975

The Killer Elite, 1975

Klute, 1971

Marathon Man, 1975

Nashville, 1976

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975

The Parallax View, 1974

Serpico, 1973

Shampoo, 1975

The Tamarind Seed, 1974

Three Days of the Condor, 1976

The movies of this cycle dealt with the fears and horrors of a hidden or latent conspiracy, which could turn up in the most varied and unlikely forms.  They showed that fears of excessively authoritarian government were not just a paranoid delusion.  The heart of darkness resided at the very top of the power elite.

Thematically, there was a significant move from individualism to collectivization of heroes, victims, and villains. There was no longer an individual hero or particular victim–everybody could be a suspect. No longer on individual villain but a whole omnipresent system.  No longer an individual detective or government agent with a specific task but a whole network.

The protagonist (usually a male) could be either a villain or hero; he could be killed at will and at any moment, or take the lead and fight the system  The hero is no longer a fearless man, but a more fragile individual, capable to show fears for his life, allowed to sweat with anxiety and embody vulnerability.

There was no longer clear distinction between heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists. The positions of detective, victim, and villain had systematically changed, or rotated, slowly conflating with one another. There was a tricky and complex intersection of a rather hidden social order and the individual protagonist.

The new cycle of conspiracy films borrowed some useful conventional patterns of the mystery and detective stories of Classic Hollywood Cinema, the familiar triangle of characters, formed by detective (hero/anti-hero), victim and villain.

The recurrent nightmare image that intensifies many of America’s strongest films, the image that Hollywood has tried to suppress and sentimentalize, was of a lone, perpetually anxious individual, who’s about to be erased, drowned out, or replicated by some superior collective form.

The movies showed the presence of superior collective forces, reigning over largely helpless individuals:

The CIA in “Three Days of the Condor”

The sinister “Jefferson Institute” in “Coma”

The Cabel behind the assassinations in “Parallax View”

The media machine that gulps down Bill McKay in “The Candidate”

The showbiz system that kills Barbara-Jean in “Nashville”

The unearthly virus that in “Dawn of Dead” turns Americans into a mass of wandering ghouls.

The alien presence that is hollowing out the whole human race in the remake of “Invasion of Body Snatchers”

The cycle suggested a particular collective illness, evident in strong distrust of formal authority, rigid bureaucracy and moral tradition. The cycle posited the rights of the individual versus the incredible influence of formal government and big business. The movies pitted lone individuals against destructive anti-social forces.

The movies of the cycle combined the nineteenth century myth of individual ingenuity and resourcefulness with the late twentieth century reality of the omnipresent power and ruthless judgment of the national, multinational, and transnational corporations.

The resolutions in these films did not take the usual pattern of happy endings. They were mostly cynical, and even when they were, they were never really satisfying due to the complexities of the situations they had described.  An extreme case was The Parallax View, which reflected a bleak paranoid vision and glib cynicism.  At the end of this picture, the conspirators kill the crusading reporter and camouflage the truth in a cunning way.

Conspiracy films reflected new syndromes in American culture, such as raised social consciousness and heightened subjectivity to the manipulation of individual freedom; threats to individual and group alternatives; escalation of alarming concern for such freedom; strong apocalyptic, almost pre-Holocaust anxiety

The films were characterized by the increasing invisibility of the enemy (often impossible to identify or name), the breakdown of civilized moral order in big urban cities, the distrust of one’s rational faculties, and the distrust of the loyalty of family and friends

The movies reflected the new, sophisticated technologies that became available in the 1970s, such as electronic bugging and thefts, character assassinations, vote fixing, blackmail of the mass media, including the news organizations.

Appendix: Individual Conspiracy Films in Later Decades (Not a Cycle)

Prince of the City


Enemy of the State

License to Kill (James Bond

Bourne Identity and its sequel

Fahrenheit 9/11

I, Robot

The Manchurian Candidate (2004, remake of the 1962 film)



Farber, Stephen. Movies That reflect Our Obsession with Conspiracy and Assassination.”  N.Y. Times, August 11, 1974