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Political Thrillers, Continued
By Steve Goldstein

Taxi Driver

Assassination Paranoia

A year after Manchurian was released, President Kennedy was assassinated.

The killer was determined to be a misfit loser, possibly a Communist sympathizer, acting alone. The alleged killer was himself murdered within days of the president's assassination. In 1965, another charismatic leader, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City. Within the span of eight weeks in the spring of 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and leading Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated; in both of those cases misfit loners were convicted of the murders. In 1972, presidential challenger George Wallace, whose appeal to Southern Democrats might have enabled him to tilt a three-way race, was gunned down and paralyzed. His assailant was determined to be crazed loner. Too many American leaders were gunned down in too short a time, under similar circumstances, for suspicions not to be aroused.

In the meantime, a generation aware of (if not well versed in) the Beat literary movement of the 1950s, mobilized by the Free Speech Movement and emboldened by the booming economy and the unpopular war in Vietnam was embracing an anti-authoritarian stance, and was ripe for suspenseful entertainment that draped political leaders and institutions in sinister cloaks. Hollywood studios, badly out of touch through most of the '60s with a younger audience weaned on television, James Bond, Mad magazine, Marvel comics, pot and hallucinogenic drugs, finally responded with movies that fed on the suspicions and paranoia unleashed by JFK's assassination.

From the cinematic seed planted by Manchurian sprouted a string of political thrillers in the '70s, some dealing directly with the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, others alluding to them - and all informed by them. The low-budget, talky Executive Action (1973, n/a on DVD), written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by David Miller, was one of the first and, in some ways, boldest of the political assassination thrillers. There's no naïve hero at the center, just a cynical political fixer played by a mechanical Burt Lancaster, who sits in a wood-paneled den with Texan oil kings and calmly plots the assassination of JFK, whose latest policies the Texans believe will cut into their profits. The great Robert Ryan leads the group of oilmen and carries himself like the true center of political power in the U.S. The movie offers few thrills, and zero heroism. Offering no hope, it's no wonder few have seen it, outside of Oliver Stone, perhaps, and a few genre completists.

"Golden Age"

American political thrillers then entered a brief golden age with the release of Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (1974), Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1975) and Pakula's All the President's Men (1976). The Watergate scandal, which surfaced in a series of Washington Post articles touched off by the June 1972 break-in of Democratic Party headquarters by burglars with close ties to the Nixon White House and the CIA, widened the already growing market for Hollywood product that critiqued America's political institutions.

The Parallax View is the darkest of the three, and the closest in style to the chilling, sardonic tone of The Manchurian Candidate. Star Warren Beatty, who worked on Robert Kennedy's 1968 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, made his first cinematic statement about the Kennedy assassinations in Parallax (Bugsy and Bulworth could arguably be called the second and third). Beatty plays an emotionally alienated, angry journalist named Joe Frady who just misses witnessing the assassination of a Kennedyesque presidential candidate. Frady, like the central characters in many political thrillers, eventually awakens to the realization that the official story is a lie and a cover-up.

Frady, on the trail of the real assassins, learns about - or is led to - an organization called the Parallax Corporation that trains and deploys assassins. It may or may or may not be part of the federal government. Perhaps it's a fictional stand-in for the CIA. At the very least, the corporation works at the behest of shadowy political and corporate clients. Frady infiltrates Parallax as a potential hire, deliberately playing up any antisocial, violent traits he might already have. As he delves deeper into the organization, George Jenkins' production design and Gordon Willis' cinematography become more abstract and geometrical, far removed from the natural world seen in the first hour of the movie. The somber military-style music by Michael Small echoes David Amram's score from Manchurian. The entire last sequence in Parallax restages the final political convention sequence in Manchurian with a hollow, spiritually dead '70s vibe. The film is more downbeat than Manchurian; the search for truth in this case leads to a shadowy labyrinth from which there's no escape.

Three Days of the Condor hasn't aged as well as The Parallax View, mostly because Dave Grusin's slick Fender Rhodes-based funk-jazz score roots the film in its era and is at odds with the paranoid tale. But like other superb political thrillers, it has the power of prophesy, particularly in its ultimate revelation, as the low-level CIA reader/researcher played by Robert Redford uncovers the truth about a secret directive. In his job as a reader of internationally published texts, Redford's Joe Turner runs across a mystery novel that's been translated into an odd assortment of languages, including Arabic, and his discovery sets off a bloody chain of events.

What shocks the contemporary viewer here is Condor's prescient look at the CIA's role in furthering American economic interests abroad, and the American public's complicity in the CIA's actions. Three Days of the Condor makes this point offhandedly and convincingly, 30 years before the leaden Syriana preached the same lesson about the global ambitions of American multinational corporations and their virtual employment of the U.S. intelligence establishment.

Condor is a real thriller, and is Pollack's high watermark. He drops the jazz from the soundtrack for a fantastic, brutal fight between Turner and a CIA "mechanic" posing as a mailman, which lifts from the martial arts bout between Sinatra's Ben Marco and Henry Silva's Chunjin in Manchurian. Redford's two long, tense scenes with Max Von Sydow's urbane assassin Joubert are the best in the film and self-consciously wed Ingmar Bergman's character-based filmmaking (as personified by Bergman veteran Von Sydow) with the crisp narrative drive in the best American tradition.

Soon afterward, Redford appeared as real-life reporter Bob Woodward in All the President's Men, which reunited Parallax's creative team of Pakula, Willis and Jenkins. Woodward and fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, enter the same murky world of abstraction in which Beatty's Joe Frady lost himself in Parallax, as they courageously investigate the depth of the Nixon White House's involvement in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. The difference here is that All the President's Men is based on a true story, which has the odd effect of blurring the filmmakers' point of view. By telling a "true" story about living people - one that was, by the time of the film's release, accepted as the official story - Pakula and his actors seem straitjacketed and unable to rely on the go-for-broke imagination upon which the best political thrillers depend. As played by Redford and Hoffman, Woodward and Bernstein are more shadowy than most of the characters in the movie - more shadowy, even, than Deep Throat himself.

Undoubtedly this is deliberate, as the story of the breaking of the Watergate story is deemed more important than the reporters themselves. But that strategy has a whiff of dishonesty. The reporters are cast as heroic, ambitious seekers of truth, never as the pawns we all know the members of the press can sometimes be. Thirty years later, the one-dimensionality of the protagonists and the creative restrictions imposed by Woodward and Bernstein's story lend a certain kind of chill. Today, viewers can ask themselves: Who were these journalists, really? Who really brought down the Nixon White House? Since this is a true story, what truths did Woodward and Bernstein edit out of their reporting?


The mid-70s boom in political thrillers also produced at least one timeless bomb, The Day of the Dolphin (1973), directed by Mike Nichols and scripted by Nichols' frequent collaborator Buck Henry. George C. Scott plays a committed - or mad? - scientist trying to teach a dolphin to speak and understand English. His tropical Eden is threatened when he learns that the foundation funding his work has always intended to use Scott's dolphin as a political assassin. Were Nichols and Henry making an allegory about individualistic artists striking Faustian bargains with Hollywood studios? It hardly matters, because the movie is a snail-paced, predictable, unintentional parody of paranoid political thrillers, in spite of Henry's world-class performance as the voice Scott's beloved dolphin, Alpha.

Throughout the '70s, many significant American dramas and thrillers wove a political subtext into their scenarios without necessarily putting political subterfuge and power grabs up front. Coppola's The Conversation (1974), more a personal reimagining of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up than an out-and-out thriller, never mentions politics or politicians. But the corporate client that hires surveillance expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, might as well be a secretive federal agency that sends soldiers to do its dirty work, expecting only a job well done and no questions asked. On the surface a straight-ahead detective mystery, Chinatown (1974) traces the corrupt ties between business and political elements in prewar Los Angeles. Like Joe Frady in The Parallax View, private eye Jake Gittes finds there's little profit in the acquisition of secret knowledge.

John Schlesinger's spy yarn Marathon Man (1976), based on a novel and screenplay by William Goldman, pits a brainy, aging grad student played by Dustin Hoffman against a Nazi war criminal, played by Laurence Olivier, who has been conducting officially sanctioned business with a deadly CIA agent (Roy Scheider). Not a great movie by any stretch, Marathon Man does bear the earmarks of the era in its insinuation of close ties between the CIA and the most heinous international fiend imaginable.

Taxi Driver (1976), the classic study of urban alienation from Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader and star Robert De Niro, is not explicitly political and not structured like a thriller, but its escalating dread recalls The Manchurian Candidate. Travis Bickle has returned from a war obviously affected by something, although we're never shown what. In Manchurian, we see the results of Raymond Shaw's brainwashing but not the actual process itself. In both cases, the veterans have returned home and set off on a path to become a political assassin. After Bickle fails in his attempt to gun down Sen. Palantine, an aristocratic would-be man of the people, he sets his sights on a pimp. In Bickle's mind, Palantine's employment of Cybill Shepherd's campaign worker is no different than the pimp's employment of Jodie Foster's underage prostitute.

The classic cycle of political thrillers ended with William Richert's Winter Kills (1979), based, appropriately enough, on a novel by Richard Condon published in 1974. First-time feature director Richert took more liberties with Condon's novel than Frankenheimer took with The Manchurian Candidate, but remained faithful to the book's overall melancholy tone. Richert's vision is more kaleidoscopic and comedic than Condon's and, crucially, he makes the central character, Nick Kegan, about 10 years younger and more vulnerable than he is in the novel. Nick's tortured relationship with his kingpin father Thomas Kegan, played by John Huston, is at the heart of the movie.

Condon's novel serves as a companion piece to Manchurian Candidate. Both view family power relations and political power plays through the same savage lens. The earlier novel looks at a poisoned mother-son relationship and blurs the distinction between the American political far right and the KGB; Winter Kills examines a deadly cold father-son relationship and presents American political institutions as answerable to the whims of powerful corporate interests. The abuse of power remains Condon's obsession, but in the later novel the author's tone is sadder, more jaded, less hopeful. The visionary author who anticipated a wave of political assassinations, blew the lid on mind-control experiments and satirized media manipulation seems depressed by all that has happened since the release of the film version of Manchurian.

In both the novel and film Winter Kills, Nick Kegan, the half-brother of a slain, youthful, womanizing U.S. president, learns that there was more than one shooter in his brother's assassination, which contradicts the official story of a misfit lone gunman. With the help of his powerful father, Nick sets off on a crooked investigative trail. Along the way he stumbles across several now-familiar, contradictory Kennedyesque conspiracy theories that leave him spent and frustrated. Nick slowly comes to the sad conclusion that democratic institutions, along with the notions of personal liberty and the right to privacy, are illusory - packaged and sold concepts that have the same pacifying effect on the general populace as alcohol and TV. Worse still, Nick comes to believe that, beneath these vague notions liberty and democracy, Americans feel on a deep level that they are powerless. This sense of futility is itself a numbing weapon used to quell dissent.

In the novel, Condon relies on the conventions of the thriller, such as the steady support of a romantic love interest and the late reemergence of a trusted, knowing guide, whereas Richert is more interested in subverting those conventions. Richert, who also wrote the screenplay, drains the story of some of its suspense and narrative thrust by taking Condon's iconoclasm a step further and piling on the fantastical flourishes. His brilliant casting of Bridges and Huston, however, lends flesh and blood to Condon's chilling story. The two main characters live and breathe and add a Shakespearean dimension that's only hinted at by Condon. Bridges totally convinces as a befuddled, insulated rich man's son with an unformed sense of justice, forever trying to both break away from and impress his distant father. Huston lustily embodies Pa Kegan, a titan stomping through the 20th century who makes Noah Cross from Chinatown seem like an underachieving slacker.

By the time of Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981), the political culture had shifted to the right as Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. De Palma relegated the political assassination that motivates the film's action to the status of subplot, as the movie soundman played by John Travolta - following in the existential steps of The Conversation's Harry Caul and Blow-Up's fashion photographer Thomas - considers the consequences of taking action in life rather than merely recording it. De Palma's pessimism about politics and the common use of character assassination as a political tool provide mood and backdrop to his extravagant set pieces.

Europe

In the years following JFK's assassination, European filmmakers were creating their own kinds of political thrillers, with the politics in the fore, and the thrills subdued. The heroes, such as they were, were almost never wide-eyed innocents suddenly staggering about in the blinding light of truth. In these films, assassination and corruption are givens - everyone expects them. If there is any naïveté to be found, it's in the hope that power won't have the same corrupting effect on a presumably democratic movement should it be successful in removing whatever tyrannical despot happens to be holding sway.

Battle of Algiers

Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1964) re-creates the guerrilla warfare between native Algerians and the occupying French forces during the Algerians' fight for independence in the late 1950s. Using mostly non-actors, Pontecorvo shot the film in a documentary style that would be copied in Oliver Stone's Salvador, referenced by Coppola in The Godfather Part II and parodied by Woody Allen in Bananas. Pontecorvo lays out in cold detail the brutal tactics of both the French military and the Algerian resistance forces without heavy-handedly taking sides, although his heart is with the native Algerians, for the simple reason that it's their country by birthright. Throughout the film, Pontecorvo draws parallels to the struggles of the French resistance during the Nazis' occupation of France. If the French resistance fighters were heroes when they committed acts of sabotage against the occupying Germans, then what are the young women who carry bombs into busy cafés in Algiers? Pontecorvo shows us why they commit these terrible acts, but he also shows us the faces of the innocent French patrons as they sip their drinks and flirt and gossip, unaware that a time bomb is in their midst. When the explosions rip out, it all seems too real, too much in tune with contemporary life.

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