9 Nail-Biting Paranoid Thrillers

Great Conspiracy Movies from the 1960s and 1970s

A direct descendant of the film noirs from the 1940s and 1950s, the paranoid thriller was a subgenre that first began to emerge in the 1960s amidst the fear of Communism during the Cold War. But the paranoid thriller didn’t come into full bloom until the early 1970s when distrust in and fear of our own government was at an all-time high thanks to Watergate, Vietnam and the CIA. While such movies have waned in recent years, the paranoid thrillers made in the 1960s and 1970s remain popular.

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The Manchurian Candidate; 1962

The Manchurian Candidate
MGM Home Entertainment

Adapted from Richard Condon’s best-selling novel, The Manchurian Candidate tapped directly into the paranoia of Communist infiltration and kicked off the genre with one of its greatest examples. Directed by John Frankenheimer, the film starred Frank Sinatra as Captain Bennett Marco, a Korean War veteran who has returned home after being captured by the Chinese. Plagued by nightmares, Marco slowly comes to learn that he and his fellow soldiers – including heroic Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who save their lives in combat – were brainwashed during their confinement. In fact, Shaw was turned into a sleeper assassin who, along with his domineering mother (Angela Lansbury), plots to kill the next vice president of the United States. The Manchurian Candidate was a brilliant and tense thriller that was an unfortunate harbinger of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.

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Seven Days in May; 1964

Seven Days in May
Paramount Pictures

Another great one from Frankenheimer, Seven Days in May focused on the inner workings of a potential military coup of a president (Fredric March) considered weak in the face of America’s Communist enemies. Led by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a charismatic but radical Air Force general named James M. Scott (Burt Lancaster), the coup is only a whisper in the wind to President Lyman and the trustworthy Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), who struggle in vain to find evidence of such a plot. It’s only when the president directly confronts Scott with the charge that the house of cards crumbles and leads to the discovery of the coup in the form of a confession letter. Written by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame, Seven Days in May was starkly realistic enough that even President John F. Kenney – a big fan of Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II’s novel – thought such a plan was plausible.

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The Andromeda Strain; 1971

Andromeda Strain
Universal Pictures

Adapted from the first novel written by Michael Crichton under his real name, The Andromeda Strain combined the technology of science fiction with 1970s paranoia into a compelling, but occasionally slow-paced film directed by Robert Wise. Wise used a cast of unknowns for this film about a team of scientist that descend upon a small New Mexico town where a U.S. satellite has crashed and unleashed a deadly alien organism that kills the residents. Fueled by paranoia that an out of control government was intent on harming civilians – an irrational fear that has never gone away – The Andromeda Strain may have been a product of its time, drug-induced climax and all, but remains interesting viewing today.

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The Anderson Tapes; 1971

The Anderson Tapes Movie Poster
Columbia Pictures

Directed by Sidney Lumet, The Anderson Tapes was on its surface an elaborate heist movie, but underneath focused on the ever-increasing fear of people being watched in public. The film starred Sean Connery as career criminal Duke Anderson, a recently released convict who becomes involved with the mob when they finance the highly ambitious robbery of an East Side Manhattan apartment complex filled with wealthy inhabitants. Unbeknownst to Duke, however, is the police are monitoring his every move in hopes of finding the Mafiosos bankrolling the job. In hindsight, The Anderson Tapes appeared to presage the Watergate scandal, while at the time it was one of the first films to tackle the paranoia of public surveillance.

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The Parallax View; 1974

The Parallax View Movie Poster
Paramount Pictures

The second of director Alan J. Pakula’s famed paranoia trilogy,

The Parallax View The Parallax View

received a mixed response upon release and was too dark for even Watergate-plagued 1974, but has since grown in stature as one of the better examples of the genre.

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The Conversation; 1974

The Conversation Movie Poster
Lionsgate Films

In the same year he won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture with , Francis Ford Coppola directed an exquisite thriller about the creeping fear of audio surveillance that has since been hailed as a mini-masterpiece. The Conversation starred Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a secretive surveillance expert hired to follow a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) and tape their conversations in public. Assiduously private to the point of telling no one what he does, Harry slowly becomes more personally involved after unearthing a plot spearheaded by his employers to kill the young couple. While The Anderson Tapes covered the same ground three years earlier, The Conversation was undoubtedly fueled by the Watergate Scandal and earned Coppola his second Best Director nomination that year.

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Three Days of the Condor; 1975

Three Days of the Condor Movie Poster
Paramount Pictures

In my opinion, the best on the list, Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor has stood the test of time as one of the best films made in the 1970s. The film starred Robert Redford as Joe Turner, a CIA researcher who’s lucky enough to be out on lunch when his entire office is killed by faceless assassins. After discovering the carnage, Turner goes on the run and tries to come in from the cold, only to learn that he’s become a target by the very agency he works for. As he goes underground, Turner forces an innocent woman (Faye Dunaway) to help him stay on the move as he uncovers a vast conspiracy that involves everyone from the CIA to Big Oil. A non-stop thriller ride from the opening frames to the last, Three Days of the Condor was a big hit with both audiences and critics.

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All the Presidents Men; 1976

All the President's Men Movie Poster
Warner Bros.

The third and last film in Pakula’s paranoia trilogy was undeniably the best. While other thrillers of the era drew upon Watergate for inspiration, All the President’s Men was the first to tackle the infamous break-in directly. The film starred Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein, two diametrically opposed Washington Post reporters who join forces to investigate an apparent theft at the Democratic campaign headquarters and eventually uncover a wiretapping conspiracy involving aides of President Richard Nixon. With the help of the mysterious Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), Woodward and Bernstein follow the money all the way to the Oval Office and in effect help force his resignation. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, All the President’s Men won four including statuettes for Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards) and Best Adapted Screenplay (William Goldman).

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The China Syndrome; 1979

The China Syndrome Movie Poster
Sony Pictures

Yet another film that served as a harbinger of events to come,

The China Syndrome The China Syndrome

became a box office hit while its title became synonymous with the idea of a severe core meltdown.