Beginning in the 1960s with the shock of the new Hollywood, the waves of cultural sea change in the U.S. were reflected onscreen. The cinematic renderings of our fears and desires at this moment in time took on many shapes. But perhaps the best gift that moviemaking heyday gave us was the paranoid thriller, a genre that took on a life of its own in confronting political conspiracy, social alienation and self-deception.
So without further ado, here are six that any self-respecting film fan must see.
1. “The Conversation” Dir. Francis Ford Coppola (Netflix)
Though everyone says “The Godfather” is Coppola’s masterpiece, he was admittedly working for hire to make such smaller-scale art films as “The Conversation” two years later, a quiet study in alienation starring Gene Hackman as San Francisco surveillance expert Harry Caul. Hackman was the go-to man for urban paranoid thrillers in the 1970s — a real golden age for American movies — and his sad, fragile performance is a swan song of the soul. While on a contract job for a financial district mogul, Harry overhears what may or may not be an assassination plot spoken of in Union Square from the mouths of the businessman’s wife and another man. To tell or not tell. That’s the morally complex dilemma at the center of this carefully assembled thriller that disintegrates beautifully into a nightmare of mental collapse in its final hour. Coppola’s ode to “Blow Up,” “The Conversation” is a reminder why we need more films shot in San Francisco, that wondrous, cinematic city by the bay. Also be sure to check out Arthur Penn’s noir-tinged Hackman starrer “Night Moves” on Warner Archive Instant.
2. “The Tenant” Dir. Roman Polanski (Amazon, $9.99)
A tall order to be sure, but it’s worth shelling out for this hard-to-find Polanski puckish, creepy classic about loner Trelkovsky (Polanski) who, after the previous tenant crash lands (literally) in a coma, moves into a dank Parisian flat and steps into a Kafkaesque web of nosy neighbors and doppelgangers. The disenfranchised Polanski– pardon, Trelkovsky– is adrift in a world out to get him (Polanski shot the 1976 film after the murder of his wife and just before the 1977 sex scandal that brought his career to its knees). Isabelle Adjani, though sorely dubbed, makes a sexy cameo appearance as a desultory damsel.
3. “Silent Running” Dir. Douglass Trumbull (Netflix)
What an oddly brilliant, prescient misfire “Silent Running” is. Director Trumbull had his hand in the VFX of “2001,” “Close Encounters” and recently “The Tree of Life,” and here took to the director’s chair to film this mischievous yet never especially threatening apocalypse tale about the eradication of all plant life on Earth, and the conflicted astronaut (Bruce Dern) tasked with finishing the job. Dern brings his Method chops to the imperfect table of on-the-nose dialogue, cornball action sequences and an impressive ahead-of-its-time VFX design.
4. “The Parallax View” Dir. Alan J. Pakula (Netflix, Amazon Prime)
You can’t beat the view when you’re in the hands of Alan J. Pakula. Second in a troika of 70s paranoid classics between serial killer story “Klute” (1971) and whistleblower thriller “All the President’s Men” (1976), it’s probably the most dated of the three. But it holds up as a testament to Pakula’s mastery of the camera. His lens fixates on scoop-hungry reporter Joe (Warren Beatty) who won’t let sleeping dogs lie after a former lover and eyewitness to an assassination atop the Seattle Space Seattle warns him of a conspiracy. Once her corpse turns up, he starts chasing foreboding breadcrumbs that trace back to the highest levels of government. Widescreen urban panoramas convey the loneliness and confusion of living in a city where everyone is out to get you, and no one will believe you.
5. “World on a Wire” Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Hulu)
The Platonic dictum of “I think therefore I am” goes out the window in Fassbinder’s gloriously nutso, epic sci-fi miniseries from 1973. A kind of proto-“Matrix” Simulacron allows denizens of a dystopian future to plug in and out of a virtual reality indistinguishable from our own. But when one of the program’s founders dies, and people start vanishing in thin air (literally) mid-conversation, heir-to-the-throne Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) finds himself embroiled in a shadowy plot where no one, not even unctuous and alluring damsels, can be trusted. Fassbinder’s most colorful, formally brilliant film across an epic tapestry far out production design.
6. “The Face of Another” Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara (Hulu)
Surely David Lynch saw Teshigahara’s 1966 macabre dreamscape “The Face of Another” before making “Eraserhead.” Its head-splitting imagery, surrealism and dissection of the male id swims in a sea of paranoia and unnerving set pieces such as the recurring image of a sun dried chicken corpse later echoed in the form of dead fetal creatures in “Eraserhead.” “Face of Another” is really about a paranoia of oneself. An engineer suffers a horrific accident and afterward consents to an experimental plastic surgery in which the face of another man is grafted onto his own, monstrously disfigured one. But he soon starts acquiring the traits of that other man, seducing his own wife and tricking her into an affair. And it’s not long until no one, not even himself, knows who he is.