There's a sub-genre of film called the conspiracy thriller. I thought I made it up just now, but there's actually a Wikipedia entry on it: here's a list of films. There's even a detailed essay on Conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, by Jay Millikan, a film writer and critic
Like Millikan, I believe its heyday was in the 1970s, a by-product of the string of political assassinations in the 1960s, plus the belated realisation that the president himself (Nixon) was just as venal and just as capable of conspiracy as the most cynical and heinous of puppetmasters. Of course, a byproduct of that era is the inculcation of cynicism in the general population, to the point that we're no longer surprised by villainy from the top: we're surprised by its absence. Is it just a twist in the plot of life itself that we have to go back as far as the 70s to find a fully ethical president (Carter)? Or does the one follow the other axiomatically?
Alan J Pakula had a relatively brief career as a director. Frequently producing his own films, his c.v. is quite liberally sprinkled with this genre.
I'm writing about The Parallax View mainly for its hidden gem, detailed below - because I’m not convinced it’s one of the best conspiracy thrillers. The number of loose ends left dangling may be a good reflection of reality, but it's usually less satisfying as a filmic experience. There are also several points where the irrelevant holds too much sway or the relevant - the keys - are fogged. Again, Pakula could be mirroring conspired reality, where we never know - really know - the full story. However, the plot privatises conspiracy. As against most works of the genre where evil is driven from within the system, this film - as far as I can make out - places the answers with a guns-for-hire firm. You can wonder who's doing the hiring, but that seems to be relegated to an afterthought. Still, I have to give Pakula credit for his vision, as detailed at top.
I can forgive this film my personal niggles - including Warren Beatty's irritatingly pervasive 70s haircut - and accept that Pakula has his story to tell, in his way. The gem in this film is where Beatty, undercover, is tested to find out if he has what it takes to be an assassin - a paranoiac disregard for his fellow human. He - and the viewer - is exposed to a prolonged sequence of images set to emotive, manipulative music, which pulls the subject through an emotional rollercoaster. Family, apple pie, love, suffering, killing, wastage, patriotism, sharing, right-thinking, etc, etc. This goes on for some time, and might appear trite on paper - but it works, and it's powerful, and you can feel the manipulation even as it's leading you. It must be quite impressive on the big screen.
Credit must also be given for the non-hollywood ending – ie Beatty as doomed patsy. The remake of Manchurian Candidate – powerful as it was – couldn’t secure such an ending. These days, hollywood films just cost too much.
(end spoiler warning)
And the final cut for Pakula was that he was killed - in 1998 - when a pipe on the road was flicked through the windscreen of his car by the car ahead. Irony or conspiracy?