Paranoia thrillers

All the Way to the Top: Why a trilogy of 1970s paranoid thrillers still resonates 50 years later

By Tyler Aquilina
June 27, 2021 at 09:00 AM EDT

Someone is always watching, listening, or following in director Alan J. Pakula's so-called Paranoia Trilogy. The very first thing we see in 1971's Klute, the first of that string of masterful thrillers, is a tape recorder, and the opening credits roll over more images of that device as it eerily emits intimate lines of dialogue. The credits sequence sets the mood for three films - the other two being The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976) - haunted by a sense of hidden menace, of some secretive, malicious force plotting sinister machinations.

By All the President's Men, the trilogy's final entry, the threat has escalated to the highest levels of society, as our heroes realize they're under surveillance by no less than the United States government. That film is the only one of the trilogy based on true events - the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon - but all three embody a Platonic pop-cultural ideal of "the 1970s": a decade defined by mistrust, cynicism, and crumbling faith in American institutions, brought on largely by Watergate and the Vietnam War.

These are three films very much of that time, nearly a half-century ago (Klute was first released in theaters on June 23, 1971), and yet they're three films - about a woman harassed and dehumanized by a patriarchal system, a man taking on a morally bankrupt corporation and losing, and two journalists struggling against a hostile, secretive government to expose the truth - that seem scarcely to have aged at all.

"If you look at the '70s, there was a lot of mistrust in systems, government, and corporations in society," Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, a Pakula devotee whose work is heavily influenced by the Paranoia Trilogy, tells EW. "Back then, Pakula started to just read the tea leaves as Watergate was unfolding, that there was an anxiety around whether or not people were really in control of their lives. And I think the same thing is happening right now. Post-Trump, and post-internet and internet misinformation, there's a lot of mistrust of the world around us, [wondering], 'Are we being manipulated behind the scenes?'"

And paranoia has persisted on screen well past the 1970s, from the 1998 Will Smith thriller Enemy of the State (which some have read as an unofficial sequel to the 1974 paranoia classic The Conversation), to the Bourne films, to such TV shows as 24 and Esmail's Mr. Robot and Homecoming, and even to films like 2020's The Invisible Man. The paranoid thriller genre has weaved its way through numerous decades and political climates, spurred on, as in the '70s, by events off screen. (See, for instance, the PATRIOT Act, Edward Snowden's revelations of NSA surveillance, and the privacy concerns surrounding tech companies.)

"Pakula saw the seeds of all of this in that era," says Jon Boorstin, who worked closely with the filmmaker as an all-purpose assistant on The Parallax View and All the President's Men. "This wasn't just Donald Trump. This is where we've been going for decades."

Paranoia thrillers
The opening titles of 'Klute' set the mood for director Alan J. Pakula's entire Paranoia Trilogy
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

It wasn't just Watergate and Vietnam, either. Paranoia has manifested in various forms throughout American history, and, accordingly, in American film. You can trace the roots of Pakula's work back to 1940s film noir, which Pakula himself cited as an influence on his paranoia films, and to the shifting tides of anxiety in the country across the Cold War era. It was in this environment that the first true paranoid thrillers emerged, films like Fail Safe, Seven Days in May, and the more satirical Dr. Strangelove (all released in 1964). All three depict government crises involving potential nuclear annihilation, fears that would have been all too real for viewers watching them at the time.

"Those movies started to combine Cold War paranoia, which is something that had definitely been in the movies of the 1950s, with a deeper cynicism about the way the upper reaches of government and the military-industrial complex worked," says film historian, author, and former EW editor Mark Harris.

As the 1960s wore on, that cynicism deepened further, and the '70s paranoid thriller soon emerged in full bloom. Pakula was far from the only filmmaker to work in the genre, but his thrillers stand apart for their mastery of craft (you can't talk about the films without talking about virtuoso cinematographer Gordon Willis, who shot all three), their palpable sense of anxiety and dread, and what now looks like eerie prescience in many of the director's choices.

Klute, for example, seems in hindsight to anticipate Watergate, and the anxieties around surveillance that would grow only more potent in the following decades. The story of a New York City prostitute (Jane Fonda) who believes she's being followed and a small-town detective (Donald Sutherland) who enlists her help in solving a missing-person case, Klute "has a lot to say about the way technology can fuel paranoia," Harris says, pointing to "the way it plays with tape recordings throughout." It was Pakula's idea to turn those recordings into a central motif; Sutherland's John Klute uses them to surveil Fonda's Bree, and the film's villain later uses them as a weapon of intimidation, playing Bree's own voice back to her over the phone, and playing a recording of his murder of her friend at the film's climax.

"There were news stories even before Watergate that started playing with the idea of tapes," Harris continues. "You could say it was a sort of Stone Age version of what would now be labeled paranoia about the surveillance state." (Nowadays, of course, "Because everybody's so reliant on tech and it's such a touchstone of everyone's life, it's an easy way to create paranoia within the audience," says Esmail.)

Paranoia thrillers
Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels in 'Klute'
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Klute also evokes fear around predatory men and a system that fails to protect women in ways that echo forward through the years. ("I don't consider myself a terrible man," villain Peter Cable says at the climax. "No more than others.") One can see shades of the film and Fonda's performance, intentional or not, in last year's Oscar-nominated thriller Promising Young Woman and star Carey Mulligan's work in that film. As EW's own Maureen Lee Lenker pointed out, "Both films thrive on paranoia, interrogations of sexual violence, and subverting expectations with a feminist bent."

"Klute feels modern in a way that other movies from that period don't," Harris says. "The idea of looking at the plight of a sex worker, who has a degree of frustration in their life but also a degree of autonomy, who isn't begging for someone to save her, that's an idea that you could viably play with in 2021."

Promising Young Woman, he adds, could be a blueprint for "a #MeToo paranoid thriller" down the line. "You say '#MeToo paranoid thriller' and you instinctively cringe, because the first thing you think is, 'Some guy's going to make something about being falsely accused,'" he says. "Promising Young Woman is a really great demonstration of how it doesn't have to be that at all."

As Pakula's trilogy continued, the filmmaker "zoomed out with every film," as Esmail puts it. The Parallax View grapples with post-JFK anxieties around assassination, starring Warren Beatty as a journalist investigating the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Beatty's character discovers a labyrinthine apparatus designed to execute assassinations and pin them on "lone gunman" scapegoats, a system that apparently goes, in paranoid parlance, all the way to the top. It all ends on a fittingly downbeat note: Beatty's journalist himself becomes a scapegoat for the Parallax Corporation and is killed, with another commission concluding that he acted alone.

"I hate to even use this analogy, but The Parallax View is almost Q-like in its idea that whatever is going on at the upper levels of government, it's not what you think," Harris says, referring to the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. "Because somebody is pulling the strings, and whatever the truth is, there's a whole system engineered to suppress it. That grows out of something that started to take hold after the Warren Commission report, that whatever the truth is, we're never going to know it."

Paranoia thrillers
A Warren Commission-esque committee depicted in 'The Parallax View'
| Credit: Paramount Pictures

"The Parallax View was so reflective of the mood of the time that people didn't even notice it," says Boorstin, Pakula's assistant. "It was catching something that everyone was feeling, and only now when you look back on it do you realize that that was such a dominant thing."

"One of the things in The Parallax View that I think really, really resonates today is this questioning of symbols of patriotism," says Elizabeth Pauker, who supervised the film's recent re-release by the Criterion Collection. "Pakula was pretty explicit that we have to keep in mind, 'It's not the symbol itself, it's the meaning behind these symbols, and beware of people that use them falsely, beware of people who do not have the intent that comes behind them.' That is very much a part of our current political moment: a lot of people appropriating the use of patriotic American symbols as a defense of their politics, regardless of whether their politics match up with what that symbol represents."

It's a theme that clearly remains potent: Another recent Oscar contender, Judas and the Black Messiah, returned to the political territory of '70s thrillers, becoming one of the first major studio films to deal with the FBI's COINTELPRO program. The Oscar-nominated film stars LaKeith Stanfield as an FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panthers, spying on chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who is eventually killed in what many historians now believe was an FBI-sponsored assassination.

Judas director Shaka King has spoken about how he approached the film through the lens of a thriller: "I recognized that the only way to get a movie like this made was to couch it in a genre," he told The Atlantic. "If you don't give a f--- about the Black Panthers, or any history, you could still be like, 'I kind of want to see that, though. Because I like The Departed.'"

"That movie has a lot of Pakula in it, I think," Boorstin says. "I think that's the movie that Alan would most have wanted to make, of the movies that were made this year. The psychology of the man who betrayed Hampton, and what makes you betray something, and the honesty of that, was very powerful, I thought."

But if The Parallax View "destroyed the American hero myth," Pakula said, "All the President's Men resurrects it… Film students have asked me how I could do one and then the other, and I say it's very simple: Parallax View represents my fear about what's happening in the world, and All the President's Men represents my hope. Like most of us, I'm balanced between the two."

Paranoia thrillers
Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) search for answers in 'All the President's Men'
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

All the President's Men, of course, dramatizes the real-life exposure of the Watergate scandal, as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) work doggedly to uncover the story. Still considered the quintessential film about journalism, All the President's Men is striking for the way it transforms the material into a gripping procedural thriller.

"In another director's hands, that would have been this prestigious Oscar-bait movie, with a moral at the end of it about how corrupt this country is," says Esmail. "I think one of the gifts of Pakula is that he always worked in genre or found a way through genre, because I think he felt that the number one priority was to entertain people and engage them."

The material certainly supports this approach: bugging, secret meetings in parking garages, political sabotage, treachery at the highest levels of government. Near the end of the film, when Woodward meets with his anonymous government source Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), he's told that the conspiracy is vaster than he could have imagined, that "it involves the entire U.S. intelligence community," and that his and Bernstein's lives are in danger. That it's all based in fact marks All the President's Men as the apotheosis of the '70s paranoid thriller.

All the President's Men "reflected the fact that Watergate was, in a way, a victory for people who had been paranoid," Harris says. "Anyone who, before Watergate, could have said, 'That kind of stuff is all in your imagination,' was not going to say it after Watergate."

Yet given what we now know about how the U.S. government operates, the film looks, in a way, almost quaint today. Says Boorstin, "I miss having the old clarity of values that these things were wrong, and you couldn't get away with it, and the general feeling that if you got the truth out, it made a difference, which is what we sort of felt at the time. I don't know if people can feel that way anymore."

He adds, "The idea that you can rewrite the narrative and shape reality to fit your purposes, which at that time was considered an awful, terrible thing that nobody should do, now is something that we take for granted. Everyone has become so much more cynical."

Paranoia thrillers
Hal Holbrook as the mysterious Deep Throat in 'All the President's Men'
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Perhaps that's why, as Esmail says, "paranoid conspiracy thrillers are coming back into vogue. Those kinds of stories were a way to not only engage and tap into what was going on, but also a weird form of escapism, even though it was rooted in our reality. I would attribute the rise of paranoid thrillers right now to what's gone on with the Trump administration, us being aware of the surveillance state, and the sort of sophisticated manipulation that social media can have on us."

The genre also seems to be evolving in expansive ways. One can view Get Out, for example, as part of the paranoid thriller tradition, with its secret cabal of would-be mind-controllers and sly leveraging of contemporary racial politics. "I would say that had [writer-director] Jordan Peele kept the original ending, where Daniel Kaluuya's character goes to jail, that would have checked every box of a classic '70s paranoid thriller," Esmail says. "Rights and identity have become a big factor in what shapes paranoia [on screen]."

"Maybe there's an argument to be made that African American filmmakers are the custodians of this [paranoid thriller] tradition right now," says Harris. "I certainly can't think of anybody else who is working that turf nearly as interestingly."

He also points to Kitty Green's chilling 2020 indie The Assistant, about an underling to a Weinstein-esque film executive: "I thought that movie did an excellent job of creating an unsettling mood that took you into the protagonist's head. Clearly, 2021 paranoid thrillers aren't going to look like the ones from the '70s. And if they're in the hands of Black filmmakers or a woman, they're gonna change in really interesting ways as a result of that. Straight white men are not going to be the ideal custodians of the paranoid thriller genre at a moment when they're widely seen as the thing that you should be paranoid about."

Whatever paranoia's future, history indicates that it will always infiltrate the screen in some form. "I think there's just too much out there for filmmakers not to grab onto," Esmail says. "And it's a therapeutic thing, I think, when you see [a paranoid thriller]. You come out of it with a sort of catharsis of understanding something that's been going on your lifetime a little bit more, through another person's point of view. That, to me, is the foundation of cinema, and for me, we've just scratched the surface."

And the films of Alan J. Pakula will always be there for future filmmakers, waiting to be watched, listened to, and followed.

Klute is currently streaming on HBO Max. The Parallax View is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. All the President's Men is available on digital platforms.

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