Welcome to The Paranoid Style in Cinema! This will be a (hopefully) weekly column chronicling the subgenre of ’70s conspiracy thrillers. We will begin, however, with their antecedents, focusing particularly on the best-known and probably most important.
We start with a dizzying montage: close-ups of military decorations, royal symbols, religious icons. All the emblems of reactionary order. Then we’re subjected to bizarre lectures by government officials, including a General (Pierre Dux) ranting about “mildew of the mind” and Communist agitation causing sunspots. “God casts no light on the Reds,” he comments, expounding on the need for society’s “antibodies” to combat leftists. The General’s audience seems as baffled as us, but no one contradicts him.
As if this weren’t jarring enough, next comes this title:
“Any resemblance to real events, or to people, alive or dead, is no coincidence. It is INTENTIONAL.”
Clearly, Z (1969) isn’t an ordinary thriller. Costa-Gavras’s film was a sensational hit, making over $14,000,000 internationally and winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It also inspired generations of conspiracy dramas, from The Parallax View through JFK. But Costa-Gavras two things Alan J. Pakula and Oliver Stone generally lack: grounding in historical reality, and a sense of humor.
Paranoia, of course, wasn’t unknown in Hollywood prior to the conspiracy boom of the 1970s. Conspiracies of one sort or another were commonplace in crime movies and especially films noir: villains were frequently crooked businessmen, corrupt politicians, dirty cops or some combination thereof. Movies like Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) did probe political corruption, but usually to highlight its destruction. James Stewart encounters a combine of businessmen, media tycoons and corrupt Senators; but through the sheer will of Democracy, he overcomes them. Conflicts are distilled to greed and lust for power, its characters archetypes rather than recognizable figures (even if Stewart’s character was loosely based on Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, an isolationist foe of Franklin Roosevelt). The overall air is a fable rather than a film reflecting real issues.
Overtly political thrillers were relatively rare, even those dealing with politics. Consider Lewis Allen’s Suddenly (1954), where Frank Sinatra plays a hired assassin stalking out the President of the United States. The movie doesn’t bother probing who hired Sinatra’s goons or why they want the President dead; suggesting that a man might want to kill a president, apparently, was enough to mark him as mad (Lee Harvey Oswald, it’s claimed, watched Suddenly shortly before shooting John F. Kennedy). Even something like Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962) shies away from addressing real issues; the System is rotten, true, but the worst it apparently can do is destroy a Senator’s career.
Nonetheless, a note of paranoia (born from the Cold War, the lingering affects of McCarthyism and the rise of far-right groups like the John Birch Society) started creeping into Hollywood cinema in the early ’60s. John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) provides the Ur-example of this genre. It depicts an American soldier (Laurence Harvey) becoming brainwashed by communists, including his domineering mother (Angela Lansbury) to help elevate a far-right Senator (James Gregory) to the Presidency. Frank Sinatra appears again, this time as Harvey’s comrade determined to foil the assassination.
Based on a Richard Condon novel, the movie’s as much a satire of McCarthyism as a serious thriller. From the surreal “brainwashing” scenes, where Harvey and his colleagues murder each other at a genteel garden party, to the McCarthy-inspired Senator Iselin naming 57 Communists after spying a Heinz Ketchup bottle, there’s a vein of black comedy that alternately complements and overwhelms the suspense. Certainly its specific “triggers” (playing cards) and improbable convolutions more resemble James Bond than John Le Carre. Still, the movie’s language and imagery of brainwashing, hidden conspirators and fathomless assassins eerily prefigured concerns that, following Kennedy’s murder, became the stuff of nightmares (even more to later generations, after the disclosure of CIA-sponsored mind control programs).
These films continued as New Frontier optimism faded. Frankenheimer’s next film, Seven Days in May (1964), lacked the comedic trappings of Candidate. Here, Burt Lancaster plays an unhinged general (modeled on Edwin Walker, who resigned from the Army to oppose desegregation, communist “appeasement” and liberalism generally) who plots the overthrow of a liberal President (Frederic March) for signing a treaty with the Soviet Union. Admittedly the movie hasn’t aged particularly well, ending with a civics lesson about the endurance of Democracy against extremism. Nonetheless, it shows that fears of malignant government conspirators opposing progress and subverting democracy were already entrenched in America’s consciousness.
Indeed, what became known as the “military-industrial complex” (an alliance of corporate, political and military malefactors) became the most common bugaboo of the conspiracy era. Prior to the Kennedy Assassination, this belief was largely the province of cranks (even though the phrase itself originated from Dwight Eisenhower). After Kennedy’s death, and especially as the Vietnam War descended into bloody stalemate, it became a catch-all explanation for political discontent. Augmented by riots, increasingly polarized politics and the assassinations, or attempted assassinations of figures both progressive (Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King) and reactionary (George Wallace, George Lincoln Rockwell), conspiracy seemed as good an explanation as any for the madness of the ’60s and ’70s.
Yet even here, Hollywood lagged behind European cinema, whose concerns about government conspiracies reflected reality more than paranoia. Francesco Rosi’s remarkable oeuvre, for instance, reflects the uncertainties of postwar Italy, still recovering from fascism and becoming an unwitting Cold War pawn. Salvatore Giuliano (1962) showcases the government’s murky dealings with a gangster-turned-Sicilian separatist; Hands Over the City (1963) features Rod Steiger as a corrupt slumlord with political ambitions; The Mattei Affair (1972) stars Gian Maria Volonte as Enrico Mattei, an oil magnate whose murder exposed corruption in Italy’s political and business communities. All of these films reflected a very European leftist critique of capitalism, fascism and the status quo genuinely foreign to classic Hollywood.
As America, and Hollywood, became more radicalized through the ’60s and ’70s, these attitudes became more commonplace. Once the province of American International Pictures and far-out indy directors, questioning not only the honesty of politicians but the very basis of American life and government became mainstream, particularly in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. Arguably, no one film anticipates this more than Costa-Gavras’s Z, a film which also draws on very real events.
From the 1930s onward, Greece endured Ioannis Metaxas’s dictatorship, Nazi occupation during World War II, a brutal civil war and fractious democracy. In May 1963 two thugs killed Grigoris Lambrakis, a left-wing Parliamentary leader, following a protest in Thessaloniki. It emerged that his assassins had ties with high-ranking military and police officials. The resulting scandal destroyed Konstantinos Karamanlis’s government and fanned opposition protests. But it also strengthened the extreme right, who ultimately seized power in 1967 and instituted a brutal regime that last for seven years.
These events inspired exiled novelist Vassilis Vassilikos to pen Z, its title reflecting the pro-Lambrakis protest phrase Zei (“he lives”). Naturally the junta suppressed the novel, alongside subversive writings, dress style and music. Greece’s most prominent composer, Mikis Theodorakis, founded the Lambrakis Democratic Youth and served in Greece’s parliament. The junta jailed him and outlawed his music, arresting shop-owners who sold his records. Theodorakis got some degree of revenge, penning Z‘s defiant score while exiled to the village of Zatouna.
Vassiliko’s novel reached Konstantinos Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker living in France. Costa-Gavras’s leftist father had been arrested following the Civil War (1945-1949), while Costa-Gavras himself was barred from university: “I was a victim of the Cold War,” he recalled, traveling to France to study and work. He’d made a few minor films before 1969, but Z made Costa-Gavras a household name.
Costa-Gavras’s oeuvre probes governmental corruption and oppression. “We can’t not be involved” in politics, he comments. “By not taking a position, you take a position.” Later films include The Confession (1971), critiquing Eastern Bloc Communism (a film not appreciated by his leftist followers); State of Siege (1972), dramatizing CIA involvement in South America; Missing (1982), set in Pinochet’s Chile; and Amen (2003), exploring Vatican complicity in the Holocaust. Yet even among this varied, socially aware filmography, Z‘s blend of humor and immediacy makes it stand out.
Z never explicitly identifies its setting, with French actors, Algerian locations and generic characters: Yves Montand is “The Deputy,” Pierre Dux “The General”, Jean-Louis Trintignant “The Magistrate.” Costa-Gavras acknowledges the silliness: one scene features a close-up on a portrait of Greece’s King Constantine, with his face cut out! But the setting couldn’t be anywhere but Greece – something we’re reminded of when Irene Papas materializes as The Deputy’s widow.
Throughout the movie, Z relishes humiliating its reactionary villains. The General rants about his “antibodies” purifying Greece through violence and intimidation. (If this seems overdone, compare to General Georgios Papadopolous comparing Greece to “a patient in a cast…We break the initial cast and…put another cast where is needed.”) At film’s end, he’s confronted by a reporter (Jacques Perrin) who compares him to Alfred Dreyfus. Incredulous, The General roars: “DREYFUS WAS GUILTY!” His reactionary rantings make Dr. Strangelove‘s General Ripper seem well-adjusted; yet like most things in the film, he seems both absurd and chillingly credible.
Reflecting the preoccupations of conspiracy theorists, American thrillers show a government with infinite resources to destroy evidence and silence witnesses. In contrast, Z‘s conspirators are remarkably crude: the Deputy’s murder is executed by two bumbling thugs Yago (Renato Salvatori) and Vago (Marcel Bozzuffi), who publicly club him. Later they try running a witness down in broad daylight; Vago sneaks into a hospital to finish someone off, even grinning cheekily when he’s caught! Rather than ubermensch or shadowy professionals, Greece’s New Order is built on violent, disaffected bozos.
Naturally, Z‘s more nuanced depicting its heroes. After the Deputy’s death, his aides debate how to react. Should they mourn him or exploit his passing? Will the Deputy’s death instill sympathy in the public or incite more violence? Greece’s youth spontaneously embraces the Deputy as a martyr: his death becomes an embarrassment for the government, who rush to cover up the truth. However, the opposition realizes they need overwhelming evidence to prove official complicity, or else theirs can be dismissed as a partisan conspiracy theory.
Enter the Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Bespectacled, clean-cut, son of a policeman, he’s reckoned an Establishment lackey who will abet the cover-up. Instead, he’s intrigued by inconsistent testimony (was the Deputy struck or did he hit the pavement?), insistent witnesses and everyone’s ties to an organization called CROC. At a key moment, he stops referring to the Deputy’s death as “the Incident” – now it’s “the murder.” And once
Modern viewers will recall Oliver Stone’s JFK (1992), which borrows the martyred politician, the prosecutor-hero and military conspirators – and, less defensibly, the demonic gay villains (Vago is a sleazy pederast) that reflect old-fashioned homophobia more than reality. But Costa-Gavras isn’t content with Stone’s hazy conjecture. The Magistrate’s real-world analogue, Christos Sartzetakis, is a conservative prosecutor who values law over politics. (Comparisons with special prosecutors in American history may come to mind.) Accordingly, Trintignant isn’t a crusader but an objective analyst who can’t be bought, bullied or intimidated.
Thus follows a brilliant conclusion. The General, assuming that his own actions are innately moral (after all, they serve the state), smugly appeals to the Magistrate’s conscience. Soon the Magistrate serves indictments on Greece’s military establishment, unmoved by their threats of suicide or retribution. Costa-Gavras builds to a gleeful crescendo: officials march into the Magistrate’s office, receive sentence, then flee inquisitive reporters. Theodorakis’s triumphant score swells as bigger fish (evinced by their increasingly outlandish decorations) until the General’s snared too. Funny and karmic, it’s the perfect climax.
Then comes the gut-punch. Perrin’s journalist reveals that the perpetrators were acquitted or given light sentences: soon democracy dissolves, witnesses killed or disappeared, others jailed, the junta seizes power. In the middle of the scene, Perrin’s replaced by another anchor who announces Perrin’s arrest! Finally, a list of things banned by the regime, from Sophocles to the Beatles to the letter Z. It’s a brilliant head-fake that crushes expectations and sours the audience. Exultation turns to disgust: the General’s mad pronouncements no longer seem funny. Now he’s in charge.
History vindicated Z‘s protagonists. After seven years of brutal rule, student unrest, international outcry and a disastrous war with Turkey finally toppled the Colonels. Prosecutor Christos Sartzetakis survived imprisonment and torture to become President in 1985. Nonetheless, Greece’s recent struggles with economic collapse and far-right politics suggest that the ghosts of the junta haven’t fully been laid to rest. And for Hollywood, exploring (and exploiting) conspiracy theories was just getting started.
Enjoyed this article? Consider donating to my Ko-Fi.
You must be logged in to post a comment.