Long Seventies Conspiracy Cinema: An Introduction

By Madeline Lane-McKinley |

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy.” – ‘Howard Beale,’ Network (1976)

Conspiracy – as a phenomenon both predating yet particular to seventies cinema – is a genre deeply engaged with the ‘postmodern sublime,’ described by Jean-Francois Lyotard as that which “puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself.”[1] Paranoia, the counterpart of conspiracy, is the representational logic of postmodernity, structured by the totality of non-representation.

Written in 1979, Lyotard’s account of postmodernity is thoroughly conspiratorial. For Lyotard, what marks the ‘postmodern’ as a historical juncture is the outmoding of narrative knowledge — yet knowledge cannot not be narrativized. In his epistemological critique of grand narratives, he anticipates what Francis Fukuyama would pronounce as the “end of history” nearly a decade later – marked by the culmination of the Cold War era, and the global ascendance of liberal democracy and the free market. By the seventies, Lyotard saw this decline of narrative “as an effect of the blossoming of techniques and technologies since the Second World War, which has shifted emphasis from the ends of action to its means,” while adding that it could also be seen as:

… an effect of the redeployment of advanced liberal capitalism after its retreat under the protection of Keynesianism during the period 1930-60, a renewal that has eliminated the communist alternative and valorized the individual enjoyment of goods and services. [2]

Seventies paranoid cinema takes this decline of narrative as its central focus — elaborating the problem of representation by searching for “new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.” [3] While to an extent merely modifying conventions of the detective narrative, as I will continue to discuss here, the conspiracy genre otherwise uproots and re-politicizes the general tendencies of crime fiction through the paranoid structure of feeling.

As a genealogy of paranoid cinema and a collection of different collaborator’s essays, this series works from a distinction between the conspiracy film and the conspiracy theory – the latter defined as “a fictional structure” that converts, as Samuel Chase Coale suggests, “a cosmos of contingency and chance into a more rational realm of devious plot and secretive performance, thereby attempting to ground the mysteries and ambiguities of postmodernism in some kind of recognizable framework.” [4] Of the conspiracy theory, Kathleen Stewart explains that “the details create the need for a plot,” in the sense that “it’s not that for conspiracy theory everything is always already a rigid, all too clear plot, but rather that the founding practice of conspiratorial thinking is the search for the missing plot.” [5] In this general sense, the conspiracy “whether actual or theoretical, provides an antidote to postmodernism: everything becomes a sign, a clue, a piece of a larger puzzle,” according to Coale. [6] This is not the case, however, for many examples of paranoid cinema in the seventies that will be discussed in this series.

As a canonical film of the genre, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) defies this antidotal conception of conspiracy in postmodernism. The Conversation is a primary example of what Catherine Zimmer takes up as surveillance cinema — “narratively-oriented allegories of totality” for which:

…surveillance technologies and practices attempt to organize the global such that the world system and images of that system appear now so completely aligned that the distance between the literal and the figurative becomes difficult to conceptualize. [7]

In its inquisitive portrait of surveillance expert Harry Caul, the film engenders a paranoid effect through the unfolding of Caul’s psychic demise. Caul’s profession entails invading the privacy of others, but he obsessively maintains the possibility for privacy in his own life, to the point of desperation. His apartment is bolted with numerous locks. His girlfriend lives in a separate apartment, to which only he has the keys. Yet by the end of the film, Caul becomes certain that his own privacy has been violated – just as his sense of guilt consumes him with the discovery that a conversation he was commissioned to record resulted in numerous murders. It is in this sense that the film “[inverts] the conventions of the detective genre,” Vera Dika argues, such that Caul cannot ultimately escape his own postmodern interiority. [8] To this extent, Fredric Jameson suggests, distance has been abolished by the spatial imagination of postmodernism, in which “we are submerged in its henceforth filled and suffused volumes to the point where our new postmodern bodies are bereft of spatial coordinates and practically [incapable] of distantiation.” [9] By the final scene, Caul destroys his increasingly fortified apartment, in search of recording devices. He ends imprisoned by the claustrophobia of an emergent social totality – a world in which all elements of life become subsumed by the map of postmodernity. In Caul’s self-destruction, postmodernity can be understood through its panoptic effect – in this case, extending from visual to auditory – which, as Michel Foucault argues, “[induces] a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” [10]


The conspiracy of postmodernism is late capitalism. Throughout the paranoid genre, these elements of indeterminacy and non-narrativity offer modes for thinking and perceiving late capitalism as the emergent global social totality of the long seventies. For many of these films, late capitalism can be read as the all-encompassing conspiracy – the postmodern sublime, articulating the inarticulability of this totality.

In his critique of the detective genre, Ernest Mandel argues that the “reduction of crime, if not of human problems themselves, to ‘mysteries’ that can be solved is symbolic of a behavioural and ideological trend typical of capitalism.” [11] The paranoid tendency in long seventies cinema, however, re-negotiates the conventions of this genre. Postmodern sublimity, in other words, expresses the unrepresentability of capitalism, such that the mystery is not reducible to an individual criminal and particular set of crimes, but can only be made comprehendible in relation to the irresolvability of a systemic conspiracy. Whereas historically, as Mandel demonstrates, crime fiction reflects this tendency toward narrative closure – precisely by individuating the terms of conspiracy – paranoid cinema grapples with the problem of resolving the mystery, without resorting to the higher power of the state. While many of the films of this genre entail corporate conspiracy, the state is always already complicit, never ensuring the closure so essential to previous paradigms of the detective narrative.

In The Conversation as well as films like Klute (1971), The China Syndrome (1979), and Network (1976), the corporation is the focal point of a conspiratorial web that extends to a point of irresolvability, rendering the barrier between the corporation and state power ultimately indecipherable. The corporate executive becomes a critical figure to consolidate the threat of what Timothy Melley calls the “empire of conspiracy,” for which the corporation marks “the ultimate monolithic collective actor,” so frequently imagined to possess:

…an extraordinary internal unity and frightening, godlike power. [Corporations] seem less like systems comprised of human decision makers with limited knowledge and more like self-motivated agencies, repositories of secret intentions, with the capacity for astonishing control of consumers and workers. [12]

The multinational corporation makes coherent what is otherwise incoherent about the state’s subordinance to capital. On the other hand, in The Andromeda Strain (1971), Three Days of Condor (1975), and Le Secret (1974), the state is the main conspirator. As a whole, the genre does not so much present a set of consistent animosities, but illustrates the more general affective structures of disillusionment and suspicion toward the impotence or corruption of the state.


Out of the nebulous discontinuities of corporate conspiracy and state power, the Nazi conspiracy is a trope explored in both Marathon Man (1976) and The Boys From Brazil (1978) — each of which focus on the re-emergence of an exiled Nazi leader, and on the innocence of a young Jewish American. In The Boys From Brazil, Barry Kohler, played by Steve Guttenberg, gets entangled in the Third Reich underground of Paraguay. Gregory Peck plays the Auschwitz doctor in hiding who orders the murder of nearly a hundred ex-Nazis living in Europe and the United States. Marathon Man features Laurence Olivier as a Nazi dentist who tortures Thomas Levy, a history graduate student played by Dustin Hoffman, in an effort to retrieve an inheritance of diamonds his family collected from wealthy Jews seeking to buy an escape from the concentration camps. Unlike in many other films of the genre, the state is not so much complicit in the conspiracy as being altogether futile in resolving it. Early into Marathon Man, the Nazis kill Thomas’s older brother, Henry, a government agent who fails to stop their collection of the diamonds, and who ultimately endangers his younger brother. Here, the state withers away completely – after his teeth are pulled for the purpose of torture, Thomas survives through sheer ingenuity, without any notion of a higher authority. As a marathon runner, he is uniquely equipped not only to withstand torture, but to escape and ultimately defeat his torturers. In both films, the figure of the Nazi reflects a nostalgia for a previous paradigm of evil – one which no longer accounts for the anxieties of a capitalist future, but rather reaches back toward a narrative logic for which innocence is a conceivable possibility.

Fredric Jameson has described conspiracy as “the degraded attempt… to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system.” [13] That conspiracy fails to represent capitalist totality, however, is not a political problem in itself, but poses a set of aesthetic problems about non-representationality. In postmodernism, Jameson deciphers a “new situation” that poses “tremendous and crippling problems for a work of art,” adding that:

[It] is as an attempt to square this circle and to invent new and elaborate formal strategies for overcoming this dilemma that modernism, or perhaps better, various modernisms as such emerge: in forms that inscribe a new sense of the absent global colonial system on the very syntax of poetic language itself. [14]

Taking up cognitive mapping as an emergent aesthetic of this historical juncture, Jameson proposes a mode of spatial representation that “need not be some uplifting socialist realist drama of revolutionary triumph but may be equally inscribed in a narrative of defeat,” which sometimes, he continues, even more effectively, causes “the whole architectonic of postmodern global space to rise up in a ghostly profile behind itself, as some ultimate dialectical barrier or invisible limit.” Long seventies conspiracy cinema can be understood, in this sense, as this inscription of social totality onto narratives of defeat.

For Jameson, narrative remains the imperative cognitive process for spatial representation – the interpretation and production of metanarratives which “[make] an explicit appeal to some grand narrative,” as he suggests in his 1984 foreword to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition. [15] Defining postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” Jameson argues that the narrative function is losing “its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements – narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on.” [16] In 1981, Jameson writes of the task of restructuring “the problematics of ideology, of the unconscious and of desire, of representation, of history, and of cultural production, around the all-informing process of narrative,” which he takes to be “the central function or instance of the human mind.” [17] While providing a useful set of hermeneutics for decoding the political unconscious of cultural production, Jameson’s conception of narrative – formed out by the political stakes of postmodernism – subsumes the problem of representation so integral to paranoid cinema.

Non-narrativity imposes the ultimate conspiratorial force in postmodernism, and the epistemological underpinning of paranoid cinema in the long seventies. The question of interpretation is then how conspiracy becomes thinkable – how the totality of late capitalism raises this problem of representation.


Periodizing Conspiracy

“The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously.” – Henry Kissinger

As a genre, the paranoid conspiracy thriller gains continuity in the Cold War era. While reconceiving the conventions of crime fiction, through a modification of the detective figure, the genre takes form in relation to the conspiratorial imaginary of Cold War espionage. “A cluster of films from the mid-fifties demonstrates,” David Seed argues, “a consistent paradigm of. . . invasion as conspiracy where the battle for the nation’s mind is played out in Smalltown USA.” [18] Explored in a range of genres, though most predominantly science fiction, this motif of invasion as conspiracy develops into what would be explored twenty years later in the paranoid thrillers of the mid-seventies. Early into the Cold War era, as Cynthia Hendershot explains, American films “were mired in imagining supernatural threats as historically specific ones related to fear of the Soviet Union and rapid technological advance.” [19] In this regard, “communism [stood] not as a historically specific political system but as an embodiment of mythological evil” – the conspiracy as supernatural.


Soviet conspiracy is a generative trope for this genre by the early sixties. Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb (1964) represents a primary example of the subversiveness pivotal to this genealogy as a satire of the international communist conspiracy of the period. “Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenzo once said about war?” asks General Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden. “He said war was too important to be left to the Generals. When he said that, fifty years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to the politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought,” he argues, famously continuing that “I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” [20] Ripper – who goes rogue, ordering an air strike against the Soviets against the wishes of the President – at once stands for the utter farce of the “international communist conspiracy” and the very real threat of nuclear catastrophe at the hands of U.S. imperialism. His fixation on the fluoride conspiracy of water contamination does this work of satirizing conspiratorial thinking while bringing legibility to the actually existing conspiracy of contemporary technologies of war. While grounded in the bipolar geo-politics and cultural imagination of the Cold War, Strangelove mocks the atmosphere of panic and reaction surrounding the impending possibility of global nuclear catastrophe. In no way unserious about the threat of this possibility, the film critically projects onto a future that has stopped worrying and learned to love apocalyptic certainty.

Alongside the cultural dominance of conspiracy in the Cold War paradigm, the paranoid effect is also a key feature of the sixties counterculture, as I will continue to discuss. In various ways, the genre delineates this historical convergence between the geopolitical imaginary of a communist alternative and the cultural imagination of sixties radicalism. The conspiratorial shift in Cold War cinema can be understood, more specifically, as a response to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which, “combined with the endemic secrecy of the national security state,” as Ray Pratt explains, “led to the creation of a number of films having fear, suspicion, and paranoia as their major themes.” [21] The genre becomes politicized, however, by the growing disillusionment with the Vietnam War, which Pratt explains, “proved to be a major accelerator for this resistance subculture” in American cinema.

In the ‘long seventies,’ we encounter the politics of paranoid cinema through a constellation of historical processes at once: the post-sixties, the fluctuations of Cold War geopolitics, the congealment of neoliberalism, the hegemony of postmodernism, as I have discussed so far. It . The ‘long seventies’ does not begin in 1970, nor does it end in 1979. It describes a conjuncture in the paranoid structure of feeling, comprising these historical tendencies of the Cold War and the end of sixties paradigm. With this end of the sixties, as Stephen Paul Miller characterizes, the “post-sixties lives tougher with seemingly uncontested, international capitalism.” [22] Further elaborating the elasticity of the ‘long seventies,’ Andreas Killen conceives of the seventies as the “decade that refuses to end – despite the fact that, for a long time, they barely counted as a decade, so completely were they obscured by the long shadows cast by both the sixties and the eighties.” [23] Calling the seventies the “decade of nightmares,” Philip Jenkins develops two microperiodizations of the seventies, between the “mainstreaming of the sixties” in the early seventies, and the post-1975 era of the “anti-sixties.” [24] The long seventies, more concisely, delineates this shift in the historical imagination, mapping the displacement of Cold War panic onto the emergent world system of global capital.

“In the widespread paralysis of the collective or social imaginary, to which ‘nothing occurs’ (Karl Kraus) when confronted with the ambitious program of fantasizing an economic system on the scale of the globe itself,” as Jameson describes the historical situation of postmodernism, “the older motif of conspiracy knows a fresh lease on life.” [25] For Jameson, conspiracy operates as an “imperfect mediatory and allegorical structure,” which symptomatically emerges with the postmodern crisis of narrativity – “capable of reuniting the minimal basic components [of] a potentially infinite network, along with a plausible explanation of its invisibility; or, in other words: the collective and the epistemological.” [26] It seems critical, however, to not only extend Jameson’s conception of narrative as the political unconscious to other forms of representation, but to historicize his particular turn to narrative epistemology in the context of the debates on postmodernism. Of the long seventies, Jameson poses a “deeper paradox rehearsed by the periodizing or totalizing abstraction which for the moment bears the name of postmodernism,” which lies in the “seeming contradiction between the attempt to unify a field and to posit the hidden identities that course through it and the logic of the very impulses of this field.” [27]

richard nixon 2.png

The Watergate scandal is a decisive point in the paranoiac long seventies, through which many films reflect a Nixonian landscape of conspiratorialism. “In a seventies film,” writes Jonathan Kirshner, “it is usually easy to spot the Nixon; after a while, it becomes impossible not to see him everywhere.” [28]

All the President’s Men (1976) is the emblematic Watergate conspiracy film – in which Nixon remains the absent center. The film, instead, fixates on the shadows, as it pieces together the discontinuities of a vast network of political secrets. As Woodward’s secret informant Deep Throat explains, “in a conspiracy like this, you build from the outer edges and go step by step. If you shoot too high and miss, everybody feels more secure.” [29] While Woodward “follows the money” to the president’s office, Nixon is nowhere to be found in the narrative world of the film. Yet in the spirit of the larger phenomenon of Watergate conspiracy, All the President’s Men offers a nostalgic take on the paranoid genre – in which both heroism and resolution persist as possibilities. As an element of this nostalgia, the heroism of Woodward and Bernstein “remains irresistible,” as Mark Feeney suggests, but “what’s so charismatic about journalism here isn’t its practitioners… it’s the idea of journalism.” [30] The journalist, in this sense, does not stray far from the detective figure of crime fiction, while the historicity of the heroic journalist can be understood as a revealing trope of the cultural moment of postmodern incredulity. In All the President’s Men, journalism expresses a nostalgia for narrativity distinct to the cultural politics of the long seventies.

This nostalgia effect can be found in the films organized by another long seventies conspiracy, the Kennedy assassination. The assassination plot is dominant within the conspiracy genre, as in The Parallax View (1974), The Day of the Jackal (1973), Day of the Dolphin (1973), and The Eiger Sanction (1975). However, Executive Action (1973) is rare in its direct engagement with the Kennedy assassination. By the mid-seventies, the assassination plot became a key feature of conspiratorial narration, focusing not only on politicians but on everyday people – innocent witnesses of conspiracy, whose anonymity no longer permits any illusion of privacy. The political assassination itself becomes a nostalgic fixation, in the sense that it is an individuable conspiracy – distinct from the collective conspiracy of postmodern capital.


These nostalgic tendencies of paranoid long seventies cinema diverge from some of the speculative work that is also done in this genre. The long seventies periodization can be considered alongside post-1973 crisis cinema, as in Rollover (1981). Starring Jane Fonda and Kris Kristofferson, Rollover is yet another example of Allan Pakula’s extensive contribution to the genre, as a dramatization of impending financial crisis. In the film, “capitalism ‘itself’ speaks through the [voice of] an earnest financier, in monologues at once delirious and realist,” as Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle write, “it tells us that our notions of agency, nationality, and responsibility are entirely obsolescent, and that in the end the world is controlled by an impersonal force of which it is deluded to think we can arrest.” [31] The film captures a world for which there is “no kind of collective agency,” and which rather “imagine[s] the effects of economic cataclysm.” Hume Cronyn plays Maxwell Emery, who channels, as Toscano and Kinkle argue, the “automatic, unstoppable abstract force of capital,” as when he explains to Hubbell – the Kristofferson character – that “Money, capital, has a life of its own. It’s a force of nature like gravity, like the oceans, it flows where it wants to flow,” and that “the only question is whether you wanna let it go like an unguided missile and raise hell or whether you wanna keep it in the hands of responsible people… keep it quiet.” [32] As in Dr. Strangelove, and countless other paranoid films of this genealogy, conspiracy refutes nostalgia, and rather plunges into speculation. Rollover ends with “a bankrupt world” that “seems to be teetering on the very edge of anarchy,” as a news anchor reports in the closing sequence. With the collapse of the market, global riots ensue. The crisis unites the U.S. with the Soviet Union, culminating the dissolution of Cold War era nostalgia.

Between speculation and nostalgia, we find competing conceptions of conspiracy that outline the ways in which the genre’s politics can vacillate so dramatically. While the paranoiac long seventies features many incisive anti-capitalist films, the genre stimulated some of the most varied and contradictory political narratives of this period. As the cinematic mode of the “unending decade,” conspiracies of the long seventies can be understood in terms of the likewise endless process of ending the revolutionary energies of an anti-global sixties. As Jameson writes, the sixties correspond with “a moment when the enlargement of capitalism on a global scale simultaneously produced an immense freeing or unbinding of social energies.” [33] With the end of the sixties and the world economic crisis, he argued in 1984, “all the old infrastructural bills then slowly come due once more,” positing that the eighties “will be characterized by an effort, on a world scale, to proletarianize all those unbound social forces that gave the [sixties] their energy… into the farthest reaches of the globe.” [34] The task of periodizing the long seventies, by extension, must be understood in relation to this neoliberal process of recuperating the sixties. The long seventies provides a counter-periodization through which to locate the various dominant, residual, and emergent forces, to borrow from Raymond Williams’s useful triad.

Working with the elasticity of this periodization, the 1992 film Sneakers can be read as part of this genealogy of long seventies paranoid cinema. The film stars Robert Redford as a hacker named Martin, who goes underground after his best friend and collaborator Cosmo is arrested for hacking with university equipment in 1968. By the early 1990s, Martin has established a private practice with fellow outlaws and misfits, working for mostly banks and corporations. Cosmo, presumed dead, reappears to steal the ultimate code-cracking machine, and threatens to update Martin’s FBI records – with the hope that Martin will instead join him in his plans to collapse the global economy. Between these characters, there are competing visions of the post-sixties. Cosmo, played by Ben Kingsley, is the return of the sixties with a vengeance. He wants to incite a financial crisis, taking down the stock market, currency market, and commodities market: “I might even be able to crash the whole damn system,” he explains to Martin, “Destroy all records of ownership. Think of it, Marty – no more rich people, no more poor people, everybody’s the same. Isn’t that what we said we always wanted?” [35] Martin is instead a figure of reconciliation and reformism, operating primarily out of self-interest, as when he and his business partners essentially bargain their retirement plans with the NSA in the closing scene. As the postscript implies, Martin’s retirement includes re-allocating funds from the Republican National Committee to organizations like GreenPeace. In eclipsing Cosmo’s vision of a world without money, Sneakers exhibits both an amnesia for the sixties and a totalizing recuperation of the counterculture, as distinct reactionary tendencies of the long seventies, central to paranoid cinema.


Paranoia and White Masculinity

“Against a background of emotional exaltation (pride, jealousy) and of psychological hyperactivity, a systematized, coherent delusion, without hallucination,” the paranoid structure “is seen to develop, crystallizing in a pseudological unity of themes of grandeur, persecution, and revenge,” according to Michel Foucault. [36] The paranoiac figure carries forth certain historical antagonisms in the post-sixties recuperation of civil rights and sexual liberation movements, which can be understood in Foucault’s terms of grandeur, persecution, and revenge. RD Laing describes the paranoid as both preoccupied and tormented, demonstrating the contradictory nature of the paranoid’s sense of persecution: “He is persecuted by being the centre of everyone else’s world,” Laing writes, and yet “he is preoccupied with the thought that he never occupies first place in anyone’s attention… Unable to experience himself as significant for another, he develops a delusionally significant place for himself in the world of others. Others see him as living in a world of his own.” [37] Ironically, as Laing suggests, this is both “true and not true.” This irony is only heightened by the figure of the paranoiac in these films.


The trope of the white male paranoiac is consistent through much of the conspiracy genre. These men are mostly journalists, students, photographers, analysts, translators. They are often seemingly mild-mannered amateurs. Sometimes, they are cops or government agents, but much of the time they are everyday variations on the detective – men who observe, interpret, and de-code the object-world of late capitalism. The paranoiac figure is innocent, a witness to the conspiracy who remains rational while the irrationalities of the world encroach on their psyche. “The paranoid stands as a parodic image of the autonomous rational individual to which modernity aspires,” as Kenneth Paradis writes, “an uncanny reflection that foregrounds the potential for violence in that subject’s capacity for intellectual self-deception and moral self-justification.” [38] The trope is not distinct to the conspiracy genre, and can be traced through the post-WWII emergence of film noir. At the center of these long seventies films, David Greven argues, is a “crisis in masculinity […]. Not just registering this crisis, [films of this period] strove to make sense of the shifting, unstable masculinity in the decade,” in part, by using “Hitchcock’s anxious representation of masculinity in the Cold War era as a template for their own investigations.” [39] It is precisely through the trope of the paranoiac that much of the conspiracy genre of the long seventies can be read as an homage to this earlier male archetype.

One way the long seventies conspiracies take up the typologies of noir is through the femme fatale, as an organizing principle for the heterosexual male anxiety and sexual longing. Yet the seventies femme fatale is instead encountered as a reaction to contemporary feminism – as a source of panic over female sexual liberation. Nowhere is this clearer, perhaps, than in Night Moves (1975). Calling the film a “declaration that the ideological struggles of the sixties are over and an announcement of the withdrawal and paranoia of the seventies,” Robert Phillip Kolker describes Night Moves as a “strong and bitter film, whose bitterness emerges from its anxiety and from a loneliness that exists as a given, rather than a loneliness fought against.” [40] The film follows a retired professional football player, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), whose second career has been as a private investigator in Los Angeles. Moseby is hired to find and retrieve a 16-year old girl (Delly, played by the young Melanie Griffith) for her mother, a divorcée who relies on her daughter’s trust-fund. Moseby follows Delly to Florida, where the teenager has become involved in a ‘free love’ enclave. As a femme fatale, Delly is an unwitting conspirator – in the tradition of noir, women are integrated into the object-world of conspiracy, complicit to whatever extent they have agency. Delly can only be understood “as a character whose complex sexuality has more to do with what the hero represses than with actual, empirical women who lead nontraditional lives,” as Jennifer Fay and Justus Nieland argue of the femme fatale archetype. [41] Motivated by repressed desires, Moseby solves the mystery of her disappearance, only to peak his sexual anxieties.


Chinatown (1974) is another example of this convergence of noir and masculinist fantasies. However, in this case, while the femme fatale motivates the private investigator’s detective work, the mystery is ultimately the conspiracy of patriarchy – a network of power that extends everywhere, down to the very water in our pipes. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) traces the conspiracy to Noah Cross, a corrupt tycoon at the bottom of a water shortage, who intends to buy up and re-irrigate the San Fernando Valley by staging a water shortage and agricultural crisis that will persuade the LA Water & Power Company to build a dam and reservoir. By the end, Gittes discovers that Cross is not only the mastermind of systematic illegal water dumping, intimidation of farm-workers, and political corruption, but both the father and grandfather of Katherine, the teenage girl of Gittes’s initial investigation. The mystery of Evelyn, the femme fatale with whom Gittes has become infatuated, is that she was raped by her father – that Katherine is “both” her daughter and her sister. While a critique of Cross’s power, the film leaves us with a world in which nothing is untouched by his patriarchy, to the extent of distorting his daughter’s structural agency as either femme fatale or mother figure.

As an early iteration of these problems, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) imagines a matriarchal conspiracy, while taking up the mother figure as a displacement of the femme fatale. Just as the femme fatale uses her sexuality, the mother figure uses her maternalism to conspire against the innocence of her adult son. As a version of Cold War paranoia in its vision of a communist conspiracy, The Manchurian Candidate is fundamentally an Oedipal conspiracy – this recognition comes when the mother figure, Eleanor Iselin, is revealed to be a communist agent. A senator’s wife, Iselin has brainwashed her son, Raymond, to become a political assassin. Raymond is controlled by his mother’s mind-control tactics, which involve a queen of diamonds playing card. At stake in the film’s conception of the mother-figure, as Barbara Straumann argues, “is the notion of a strong maternal attachment that prevents sons from growing into responsible citizens and, as a result, makes them susceptible to foreign – speak Communist and hence un-American – influences and activities.” [42] In the figure of the ‘mama’s boy,’ Roel van den Oever locates dynamics of both homophobia and ‘momism’ in post-WWII American culture. In these dynamics of ‘momism,’ Oever foregrounds the motivating factors of “misogyny, the attack on working mothers, [and] the belief that the survival of the nation is at stake.” [43] Nowhere besides Psycho is this fantasy more deeply explored in films of this period in the early sixties, yet the particular slippage between the mother figure and the absent Other of communism seems a deeply engrained motif of the conspiratorial genre’s currency in the Cold War paradigm.

While the conspiratorial mother figure and the femme fatale can be traced throughout the paranoid cinema of the long seventies, there are also, throughout the genre, significant transgressions. Locating certain breaks in the masculinist logics of the genre can help us to develop different contemporary feminist readings of these films. This can also give us insight into the ways in which the paranoiac can be re-gendered.


“Female paranoia,” Judith Halberstam argues, “manifests [as] an almost rational response to masculinist systems of sex and gender,” elaborating that the “female case of paranoia uncannily produces a metaphoric series which represents female fear as a conspiracy of desire[,] time[,] and the fear of being watched.” [44] These themes are eloquently explored in Klute (1971), which is a film obsessively engaged with female paranoia as the structural counterpart of the male gaze – between what Laura Mulvey describes as the dichotomy of “woman as image” and “man as bearer of the look.” [45] Throughout Klute, Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) is a sex-worker who vacillates between paranoia and control, while being stalked by a suspected murderer. In a therapy session, Bree describes a sense of control she feels in her work – yet this control is violated, as she begins to wonder whether the fortress of her apartment remains private. The film plays with her perspective, but also her agency in ways that the femme fatale – often an unwitting vessel of conspiracy – does not reflect in the conventions of previous noir films.

In Three Days of the Condor (1975), the problem of female agency is further explored in the motif of the female hostage (Faye Dunaway), with whom the paranoiac falls in love. Joe Turner, played by Robert Redford, forces Kathy Hale – a woman he spots in a ski shop – to bring him to her apartment while he is being followed by the CIA. As an elegant, single woman, she is distinguished from unsafety of the masculinist world of conspiracy that builds up around him. “I just need some safe, quiet time,” he tells her, and forces her to lay down beside him, with her hands twisted behind her back. “No, please,” she begs him. “Now you listen to me,” he says, “I am tired, I’ve got to close my eyes for a while, I can’t think straight. If you try to move or try to climb off the bed, I’ll know it – I’ll feel it. And I promise you I’ll hurt you.” [46] While in this sense a fantasy of female disempowerment, the film also brings to the surface the contradictions at work in her subject position as his hostage. When he later asks for her help, she replies – raising the question of her capacity to consent to love in the first place – “Have I ever denied you anything?” It is Kathy’s ability to reflect back this scenario to Joe that gives her power against him. “That guns gives you the right to rough me up,” she tells him, “Have I roughed you up?… Have I raped you?” he asks, to which she coldly responds, “The night is young.”

It is no coincidence, in contrast to Joe’s anxieties over being watched, that Kathy is a photographer – as she explains, “Sometimes I take a picture that isn’t like me.” Within the confines of the genre, the character renegotiates the gendering of spectatorship. In fact, at many points, it is her gaze that becomes the camera’s primary fixation. This trope of the female photographer is explored in other conspiracy films of the period, such as The Stepford Wives (1975).

The white male paranoiac figure of these films is feminized, subordinated by the totalizing vantage of the conspirator as spectator. This trope provides a way of exploring the race politics of the genre, as predominantly a sustained inquiry into the crisis of white masculinity during this period. In this shift from “bearer of the look” to “image,” the white paranoiac figure inhabits the experience of a marked body. As Donna Haraway writes, “From the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the great historical constructions of gender, race, and class were embedded in the organically marked bodies of woman, the colonized or enslaved, and the worker. Those inhabiting these marked bodies have been symbolically other to the fictive rational self of universal, and so unmarked, species man, a coherent subject.” [47] In marking the unmarked body, in other words, these films put into crisis “the place of white men in post-sixties American culture,” as Sally Robinson suggests, by producing “images of a physically wounded and emotionally traumatized white masculinity.” [48]

The volatility of this trope comes to a fore in Falling Down (1993), a film that looks back on the generic conventions of this long seventies cultural phenomenon, while inverting the heroism of the central white male paranoiac figure. Whereas throughout the long seventies, this figure is the solitary source of rationality in a conspiratorial world, Falling Down examines the paranoiac through his delusions of privilege and entitlement. The film follows William Foster, a former defense engineer who was recently both fired and divorced. While situated as an emotionally traumatized white male, Foster soon comes to conspire against himself in a sequence of self-sabotaging events that lead the Los Angeles police department to chase him to his death. Foster is a perversion of the Odysseus figure, who leaves his car (with the vanity plate “D-FENS”) in the middle of a traffic jam and endeavors to walk the unwalkable terrain of the inner city, in order to return to his ex-wife against her wishes for their daughter’s birthday party. The economic recession of the early nineties is an invisible yet compelling force in the narrative: laid off from his job, Foster imagines himself an innocent victim, who proceeds to attack a Korean convenience store owner and two black youths. What drives Foster’s decline is his inability to see his own conspiracy as capitalism. After beating up the owner with a baseball bat, Foster still pays for a Coca-Cola before leaving the store. Ultimately, when a white supremacist gives him sanctuary in the back room of a military surplus store, Foster is disgusted by the racist’s identification and solidarity with him. Whereas the military surplus store owner’s racism appears to Foster as ideological, his own repressed racism is illegible due to his sense that society has failed him. “I’m the bad guy?” he asks the LAPD officer who finally catches him, “How’d that happen? I did everything they told me to. Did you know I built missiles? I helped to protect America? You should be rewarded for that. Instead they give it to the plastic surgeons. They lied to me.” [49]

In the post-sixties era of sexual and racial politics, the trope of the paranoiac gains currency precisely through this problematic positioning of the white, heterosexual male as a site of persecution and innocence. In contrast with the feminized hysteric, the paranoiac emerges as a hero figure, who brings coherence to a narrative world of conspiracy as an unquestioned rational being. What remains consistent throughout paranoid cinema is this fidelity to the paranoiac’s rationality – the extent to which, at least diegetically, this white male trope remains exempt from the scrutiny and skepticism otherwise demanded of the viewer.


‘Long Seventies Conspiracies’: Our Collection

In the upcoming months, Blind Field will feature a series of essays, working together as part of a shared attempt to historicize the dominance of paranoid cinema in the long seventies, but also to disrupt a more canonical articulation of this genre. The authors of this series expand, modify, or break from the generic conventions of conspiracy thrillers. Our study led us to think beyond the limits of genre as well as nation, in taking up the globalization of conspiracy in terms of international films — exploring conspiracy as a mode of US imperialism. In addition to making several critical interventions to the discourse around paranoid cinema in the long seventies, this series will develop a sustained set of readings, locating continuities and developing insights into this cultural imaginary that help us to develop alongside it a history of the present period.


Works Cited

[1] Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print. 81

[2] Ibid. 37-38

[3] Ibid. 81

[4] Coale, Samuel Chase. Paradigms of Paranoia: The Culture of Conspiracy in Contemporary American Fiction. Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 2006. Print. 6

[5] Stewart, Kathleen. “Conspiracy Theory’s Worlds,” Paranoid Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation. Ed. George E. Marcus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print. 16

[6] Ibid. 4

[7] Zimmer, Catherine. Surveillance Cinema. New York: New York University Press, 2015. Print. 125

[8] Dika, Vera. Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film: The Uses of Nostalgia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print. 17

[9] Jameson, Fredric. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print. 48-49

[10] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print. 201

[11] Mandel, Ernest. Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print. 16

[12] Melley, Timothy. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Print. 187-188.

[13] Jameson, Fredric. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print. 38

[14] Jameson, Fredric. “Cognitive Mapping,” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, University of Illinois Press. Print. 360.

[15] Jameson, Fredric. “Foreword,” The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Jean-Francois Lyotard. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print. xxiii

[16] Ibid. xxiv

[17] Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981. Print. 13

[18] Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. Print. 132

[19] Hendershot, Cynthia. I Was a Cold War Monster: Horror Films, Eroticism, and the Cold War Imagination. Bowling Green : Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2001. Print. 54

[20] Kubrick, Stanley (dir.) Dr. Strangelove, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

[21] Pratt, Ray. Projecting Paranoia: Conspiratorial Visions in American Film. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001. Print. 88

[22] Miller, Stephen Paul. The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. Print. 17

[23] Killen, Andreas. 1973 Nervous Breakdown. London: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

[24] Jenkins, Philip. The Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print. 24

[25] Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print. 9

[26] Ibid.

[27] Jameson, Fredric. “Marxism and Postmodernism,” The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. London: Verso, 1999. Print. 36

[28] Kirshner, Joanathan. Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. Print. 134

[29] Pakula, Alan (dir.) All the President’s Men (1976)

[30] Feeney, Mark. Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Print. 262

[31] Toscano, Alberto and Jeff Kinkle. Cartographies of the Absolute. Alresford: Zero Books, 2014. Print.

[32] Pakula, Allan (dir.) Rollover (1981)

[33] Jameson, Fredric. “Periodizing the 60s,” Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986, Volume 2: Synatx of History. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1988. Print. 208

[34] Ibid.

[35] Robinson, Phil Alden (dir.) Sneakers (1992)

[36] Foucault, Michel. Madness: The Invention of an Idea. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. Print. 8

[37] Laing, RD. Selected Works of RD Laing: Self & Other, Volume 2. London and New York: Routledge Press, 2013. Print. 97

[38] Paradis, Kenneth. Sex, Paranoia, and Modern Masculinity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Print. 23

[39] Greven, David. Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. Print. 11

[40] Kolker, Robert Phillip. A Cinema of Loneliness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print. 21

[41] Fay, Jennier and Justus Nieland. Film Noir: Hard-boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization. London: Routledge, 2009. Print. 82

[42] Straumann, Barbara. Figurations of Exile in Hitchcock and Nabokov. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. Print. 121

[43] Oever, Roel van den. Mama’s Boy: Momism and Homophobia in Postwar American Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print. 21

[44] Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print. 125

[45] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975. Print. 6-18

[46] Pollack, Sydney (dir.) Three Days of the Condor (1975)

[47] Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print. 210

[48] Robinson, Sally. Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print. 6

[49] Schumacher, Joel (dir.) Falling Down (1993)


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