Whatever Happened To The Paranoia Thriller?

Once upon a time, if you’d believe it, there were directors that not only were most recognized for their work in a genre that’s as good as dead today, but they made their entire career out of it. Directors like John Frankenheimer and Alan J. Pakula made some of the most defining films of the 1960’s and 70’s, films that captured the paranoia and cynicism of a culture that felt they were at the brink of Nuclear War. Films like The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men.

Like the Western or the Slasher genre, the Paranoia Thriller hasn’t disappeared entirely. Just as Hollywood and others will keep pumping out the occasional 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit, they’ll keep pumping out Syriana and Michael Clayton. But while these films don’t seem to have too hard a battle to win themselves a couple of deserved awards, they don’t seem to stick to the culture like the genre once did. Back in 1976 there wasn’t a more appropriate film for the Zeitgeist than one like All the President’s Men.

But why’s that the case? All the President’s Men, for those unfamiliar, tells the story of the Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein investigating the Watergate Scandal that lead to Richard Nixon’s resignation as President. It was the final entry in the loose thematic “paranoia” trilogy by director Alan J. Pakula, following 1971’s Klute and 1974’s The Parallax View. Considering the current POTUS’s potential collusion with Russia during the election, no one needs reminding what it feels like to have a potentially criminal President.

With the Vietnam War and connected protests, the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis and the wider Cold War, not only did it seem like the fingers were only an inch away from entering the Nuclear Launch Codes but it was becoming harder and harder to be patriotic. All of a sudden, we had governments we no longer felt we could trust, we had police shooting protesters like the four dead in Ohio, we had masked terrorists breaking into the Munich Olympic Village and killing 11 Israeli athletes, we had weapons that had the power to destroy the world and our enemies had them too, we had more close calls than we had fingers on each hand. It felt like you weren’t able to place your trust in anyone anymore and perhaps, as The Manchurian Candidate questioned, that included yourself.

So where are we at today that’s so much different to then? Those feelings never seemed to disappear entirely, always simmering in the background waiting for something to tip the scales again and in 2001 we got it. Since 9/11 we’ve swapped what was once World War III paranoia for the fear that one day, who knows where or when, another group of ideological terrorists will carry out an attack we could never see coming. The paranoia is back, and with all the wide reaching social consequences that the old one had, we’ve got what looks like it could turn out to be a modern-day Watergate scandal in the Trump Campaign’s Russian conspirators, we’ve got dodgy Wall Street investments leading to global financial collapse and the promise that all of it might happen again very soon.

While, all the way back in the 60’s and 70’s when the vast majority of these films were made, they were considered to be timely and of the era they’ve never really dated. The climate today is perfect for the genre to have a renaissance, and we have the writers and the directors to make it happen. Who wouldn’t want to see John Hillcoat, or Andrew Dominik, or David Michôd, or Denis Villeneuve, or David Fincher tackle a genre like this?

Written by Tom May
Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and columnist with a vast knowledge of film, BBQ and Paul Thomas Anderson.