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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Conspiracy Movies, Part 1 (originally published 8/97)

I have this theory. I think that all the crackpot conspiracy theories we've been swamped with in recent years have been deliberately orchestrated by sinister men in high places for the purpose of distracting us from the real conspiracies taking place unnoticed right under our noses. That would qualify me, I suppose, as a contributor to the way-out newsletter printed by Mel Gibson's twitchy, paranoid character in "Conspiracy Theory," which is currently playing at your local multiplex.

In keeping with the current trends in ultraparanoia, "Conspiracy Theory" pushes the envelope of obsessive mistrust. To a lesser degree, however, moviemakers have long been basing their plots on conspiracies of one sort or another. Here are a few prime examples, each available on video.

"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962). When all the members of a Korean War platoon begin having recurring nightmares about their experiences as prisoners of war, their former commanding officer (Frank Sinatra) is assigned to find out what's going on. His investigation leads to a discovery as disturbing in its own way as any nightmare. It seems that each man in the platoon was expertly and thoroughly brainwashed by their Korean captors so that one of them (Laurence Harvey) could later be used as an unwitting political assassin in the United States.

"Z" (1969). Greek filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras has earned a reputation as one of world cinema's finest interpreters of political subject matter. "Z" retells the true story of the murder of liberal Greek politician Gregorios Lambrakis, with the names changed to allow Costa-Gavras some dramatic license. An examining magistrate is appointed by the corrupt right-wing government to whitewash the investigation of the murder, but he double crosses them by unexpectedly launching an honest inquiry into the conspiracy.

"The Parallax View" (1974). Warren Beatty stars as reporter Joe Frady, whose sense of reality begins to go south the day that he is approached by a terrified colleague who is convinced she's about to be killed. It seems that she had covered a political event at which a prominent politician was assassinated. Since then, witnesses to the shooting have turned up dead with alarming regularity, and she believes that she'll be next. When he subsequently learns of her "suicide," he decides to do some checking. Soon he finds himself in a political twilight zone, involved with an organization that apparently recruits assassins from among society's misfits in order to eliminate those who oppose their agenda. This is one of the most obstinately and pervasively paranoid films of the seventies, a true precursor of "Conspiracy Theory."

"Three Days of the Condor" (1975). Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is a CIA agent, but not the kind we normally think of. He doesn't carry a gun and kick down doors. He just reads books, doing research for the agency. By sheer luck, he is out of the office when everyone in it is killed in a sudden, bloody raid. When Joe subsequently realizes that his own agency ordered the hit, he becomes a man without a country, a fugitive from everyone. That, I suppose, is the one thing worse than paranoia - discovering that all your paranoid fantasies are absolutely true, that everyone really is out to get you. Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s script, by the way, was adapted from James Grady's novel, "Six Days of the Condor." Scriptwriters who adapt novels for the screen always have to pare them down, of course, but they are seldom so candid about it. Kudos to Semple for truth in advertising.

"Capricorn One" (1978). Here's a premise that Mel Gibson's character would have loved. The first manned flight to Mars is about to be launched amid much fanfare and self-congratulations, when suddenly the flight director (Hal Holbrook) discovers that the spacecraft isn't safe to fly. Rather than admit defeat and suffer a humiliating public relations fiasco, the crew is persuaded to fake the flight, sending phony television and radio transmissions from a mission simulator. Once the phony "mission" is completed, however, the crew members find that they have a problem. Having played their parts in the charade, they're now expendable.

They're everywhere, I'm telling you. Conspiracies everywhere you turn. And we've only begun to uncover them. Next week we'll look at even more conspiracy movies. Until then, watch your back.

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