Secret Honor: Ten Conspiracy Thrillers from the '70s


Distrust of the government has been an amplifying theme of American culture since its revolutionary inception.  Cultural themes are constantly reflected in cinema, expressions of generations in distress, lost in the political machinations of the rich and powerful.  The 1970's is widely considered to be the most daring decade of American film.  Studios, not yet absorbed by theme park illusion, backed maverick auteurs and reputed madmen, allowing them to make passion projects and scathing refutations of the systems in which they labored.  From this creative miasma, the conspiracy thriller rose to prominence.  While Russia and the USA shadowboxed, citizens lived in fear of spies, communists, governments, and other media born nightmares and a rogue's gallery of directors emerged from the shadows to give those horrors celluloid life.  What follows is a collection of American films from that era and where to view them. 


Klute (1971)

The first of Alan Pakula's paranoia trilogy, Klute is a slow-paced thriller that eschews cliche' in favor of an organic love story that develops between the principals while a murderous conspiracy envelops them.  Jane Fonda gives one of the finest performances of all time as Bree, a high-priced call girl who may or may not hold the key to the disappearance of a chemical executive.  Donald Sutherland supports as the eponymous Klute, a detective who is hired to find the exec.  The absolute brilliance of this film, aside from Pakula's meticulous direction and Gordon Willis' bruised cinematography, is in how Fonda reinvents the concept of the "hooker with a heart of gold" while simultaneously beginning to become a political activist, challenging a system that routinely put women in the background.  

Availability: Criterion Blu-Ray, Criterion Channel, Digital Rental


The Conversation (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola's masterwork is a quiet nightmare built on the foundation of privacy and perception.  Gene Hackman gives the performance of his career as Caul, a surveillance specialist who happens upon what he believes to be dangerous information.  Haunted by demons from his past, Caul descends into a labyrinth of paranoia and delusion as he attempts to stop an impending calamity. The result is a shocking, white knuckle character piece that exposes the rawness of a country still reeling from Presidential corruption and the terrors of the Vietnam War.  

Availability: Digital Rental, Showtime 

The Parallax View (1974)

The second installment in Pakula's trilogy, The Parallax View is one of the greatest unconventional American horror films ever created.  A presidential candidate is assassinated and the lone gunman is killed shortly thereafter.  In the following years, several witnesses to the event die under what appears to be mundane and tragic circumstances.  Drawn into the investigation is Warren Beatty's Joe Frady, an investigative reporter.  As he begins to delve into the deaths, he discovers an unthinkable conspiracy that not only controls virtually every aspect of government, it also grooms psychotic assassins to dispose of anyone or anything that stands in opposition.  The final result is a pitch-black descent into the shadows that continue to haunt the United States to this day.  

Availability: Amazon Prime, Criterion Collection Blu-Ray 

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Legendary Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor is perhaps the most straight forward espionage film included in this list.  The story involves a CIA analyst who returns from getting lunch for his team to find them all murdered by assassins.  As he attempts to flee New York City, he is pursued by a shadowy killer (an unforgettable Max Von Sydow) and the very government he serves.   It is Pollack's well machined control and taught editing that ups the anxiety.  From virtually the first scene, Redford's vulnerability, the essence of mortality makes him a relatable hero, a surrogate for the viewer faced with an unthinkable situation.  

All the President's Men (1976)

The final installment of the paranoia trilogy, Pakula continued his string of masterworks with a film that focused on the Watergate scandal that would eventually undo Richard Nixon's presidency.  Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as reporters Woodward and Bernstein, but is it Jason Robards as their dedicated editor and the recently deceased Hal Halbrook as "Deep Throat" who steal the limelight.  Despite this being a layered conspiracy story, what allows it to truly resonate is in how fair and measured the examination of journalism ethics is explored.  Seeing a credible media take down the most powerful person in the world is a thing to behold.


Availability: HBO Max, Digital Rental 

Marathon Man (1976)

John Schlesinger's (Midnight Cowboy) storied filmography includes this contemporary Nazi-Revenge piece.  What begins as a government co-opt with an infamous Nazi dentist transforms into an extended cat and mouse game.  Dustin Hoffman stars a Babe, a PHD student whose brother (Roy Schneider) is embroiled in a business relationship with Szell, portrayed by film icon Laurence Olivier.  Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award for his absolutely chilling performance, particularly during a torture sequence involving teeth that is in the climax.   Unforgettable from start to finish, Marathon Man is emblematic of the maverick years of Hollywood with its brutality and design.

Availability: Digital Rental 

Network (1976)

Sidney Lumet's apocalyptic takedown of America media and entertainment; Network, is one of the greatest American films ever made.  When Howard Beale learns he is being let go from his network, he threatens on camera to shoot himself in the head.  What follows is an existential firestorm that obliterates any sense of civility with respect to what we see and hear every day.  Lumet and his impressive cast attack the subject matter with humor and unexpected spurts of humanity, grounding the almost dreamlike concepts to the material plane where they reveal themselves to be nightmares that are alive and well in every American household.  Companies with impossible resources determine every aspect of the entertained lives', but even god will not help you if your ratings begin to slip...


Availability: Digital Rental 

Capricorn One (1978)

The great Peter Hyams helmed this thriller that moves the conspiracy to space...sort of.  After an equipment malfunction, a Mars expedition is abandoned, and the astronauts are coerced into faking the mission to ensure NASA and its various shady contractors continue to get funding.  Hal Halbrook is the menacing NASA admin while Sam Waterston, James Brolin, and O.J. Simpson portray the astronauts.  The wonderful Elliot Gould (The Long Goodbye) returns to a detective role as an investigative reporter who begins to connect the dots.  Aside from thrilling chase sequences, the entire final act which takes place in the desert is both beautifully shot and horrifically realized. 

Availability: Digital Rental, HBO Max 

The Boys from Brazil (1979)

Laurence Olivier reversed roles from Marathon Man and plays a Nazi Hunter in Franklin Schaffner's (Patton) The Boys From Brazil.  This is a meticulously crafted, quasi-science fiction thriller in which concepts of cloning, free will, genetic manipulation, and nature vs. nurture are all flirted with, but not fully developed. The idea of multiple Hitlers walking the Earth isn't even the most terrifying aspect, it is the fundamental understanding that a cult like devotion to one of the evillest human beings in history continues to flourish, even today.  While the ending a is a bit of a cop out, the premise is thrilling and with Gregory Peck facing off with Olivier, it's almost impossible to go wrong.

Availability: Vudu, Tubi w/ Ads, Digital Rental 


The China Syndrome (1979)

Jack Lemmon gives the performance of his career as a shift supervisor in a nuclear power plant that may be on the verge of a meltdown.  He's supported by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas as the journalists trying to bring his truth to the people.  This is a fascinating film because not only is the acting incomparable, the parallels with reality are bone chilling, presenting a scenario that could happen at virtually any time.  The conspiracy elements involve the administration of the plant wanting a restart at any cost, echoing the anti-capitalist threads that weave through many of the films from this era. 

Availability: The Criterion Channel, Digital Rental 

--Kyle Jonathan