Johannes Patzig (München)
Crisis of Americanism in
Hollywood's Paranoia Films of the 1970s:
Ein ungeklärter Präsidentenmord, ein Krieg, der eine Kluft zwischen dem hohen moralischen Anspruch und den tatsächlichen Handlungen westlicher Selbstgerechtigkeit riß, ein Präsident, der die konstituierenden Grundrechte einer Demokratie verletzte und deren Institutionen missbrauchte, erweckten die Angst vor einem Faschismus von innen, durch die Unüberschaubarkeit des Systems zur Paranoia gesteigert. Die eigentlichen Akte der Machtausübung schienen im Verborgenen stattzufinden, Geheimorganisationen wie die Geheimdienste das eigentliche Zentrum der Macht zu sein, denen es sogar möglich war, die Medien zu manipulieren. (Naziri 2003: 25–26)
Naziri further describes the implications of this paranoia as a motor for the countercultural movement and countercultural thinking: "Die staatliche Autorität, die gesamte soziale Struktur, das Patriarchat und Institutionen wie Ehe und Familie standen auf dem Prüfstand. Traditionelle Wertvorstellungen wurden neu überdacht " (2003: 26).
Evil conspiracies were now increasingly suspected within American society itself. Knight argues that conspiracy theories in earlier years had been used to define a traditional American identity and its values, by identifying and battling the danger of subversive elements from outside the homeland, like soviet communism. Now the evil is found within the heart of Americanism itself and thus what it means to be American is called into question. (Knight 2002: 6–7) "If earlier outbursts of political demonology denounced occasional interruptions of the national destiny and the normal order of things by a conspiracy of 'un-American' influences, then post-1960s conspiracy culture has often seen the American way of life as itself a permanent conspiracy against many of its citizens. " (7) The crisis of agency as well as the crisis of interpretation dramatically gained momentum by the undeniable evidence of corruption and immorality in the nation's centers of power. Never before had agency panic been as vibrant as it was in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate: Pratt (2001) cites national opinion surveys that were designed to elicit feelings of political powerlessness. The percentage of people agreeing with the statement "People like me don't have anything to say about what the government does", rose from 28 percent in 1957 to 40 percent in 1972 and 42 percent in 1976. (Pratt 2001: 12) "Such data from national surveys provides substantial evidence of a trend toward increasing degrees of public perceptions of powerlessness, which is particularly in evidence since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the onset of the Vietnam War. " (12) Paranoia as agency panic had become a pervasive cultural and social trend. It was driven by the political scandals and the subsequent loss of trust in the nation's authorities. It was connected to a radical questioning of traditional American beliefs and value systems. And nothing has reflected this trend better than the films of the New Hollywood movement.
1.3 Paranoia and the New Hollywood's post-traumatic cycle
The term "New Hollywood" signifies a period in American film history that lasted roughly eight years, from the late sixties to the mid-seventies. It was born out of the countercultural revolution of the 60s and came into being as a result of Hollywood's financial crisis in that decade. Since family audiences were increasingly avoiding movie theatres, studios sought to attract new, younger audiences.
As a consequence, a new generation of young filmmakers that sympathized with countercultural ideas, was given the freedom to realize their film projects that radically broke with traditional filmmaking standards as well as traditional value systems.
In his essay "Trapped in the Affection Image", Christian Keathley dedicates his attention to a group of pessimistic New Hollywood films from the first half of the 1970s that he dubbed the "post-traumatic cycle" (Keathley 2004: 293). Among others, Keathley lists Midnight Cowboy, Five Easy Pieces, Mean Streets, The Parallax View, Chinatown and The Conversation (293). These films, as he sees it, represent "in a displaced fashion, the Vietnam War's defining experience: the onset of trauma resulting from a realization of powerlessness in […] a world whose systems of organization – both moral and political – have broken down. " (293) The films are born out of a sense of crisis that was triggered by the war: By the early 1970s the trauma suffered by soldiers in Vietnam, then by the whole nation, was mirrored in these films, "whose heroes, like the heroes of Vietnam are manipulated, exploited and left paralysed by the realisation of their powerlessness in the face of a corrupt system " (296).
Elaborating his claim, Keathley refers to the film theory of Gilles Deleuze, who divided a shot sequence in traditional mainstream cinema into three components: the perception image (e.g. a person looking), the affection image (e.g. his or her reaction) and the action image (e.g. the reaction prompts the person to take action) (293–294). The protagonists of the films of the post-traumatic-cycle are thus trapped in the affection image, paralyzed at the evil and the corruption they encounter, and unable to have this realisation result in meaningful action (293–302). These films "often leave their protagonists not dead, but rather wounded and helpless, disconnected from their surroundings, often muttering to themselves in a catatonic, traumatised state. " (297)
Thus, Keathley identifies the same cultural trend of a felt powerlessness in the films of the post-Vietnam-era that Melley identified in his account of "agency panic". The entrapment in the affection image was Hollywood's way of dealing with the state of crisis and trauma it identified in the American nation. The New Hollywood filmmakers were intrigued by the consequences of agency panic: paralysis and apathy, the inability to take meaningful action. Keathley's post-traumatic cycle does, however, not just include films that deal explicitly with the phenomenon of political paranoia. Paranoia thrillers that directly allude to actual political conspiracies to him are only one part of the bigger picture – a cinematic representation of a universal break-down of the American value-system and a fundamental sense of powerlessness and disorientation. Political paranoia here is regarded as one symptom of the crisis, a pathological reaction to the collective trauma.
2 The paranoia films
This study shall focus on the category of 1970s "paranoia films". The chosen films belong to this category since they explicitly deal with conspiracy and corruption in political and economic centers of power. They all contain references to the 1970s political climate. However, all three movies, despite their classification as paranoia films, belong to different genres: The Conversation could with reason be called a character study, Chinatown a Neo-Noir film and Three Days of the Condor a mainstream action-thriller. They have been chosen, since they are emblematic for taking conspiracy-minded plots as starting points to delve into the broader cultural trend of paranoia as a crisis of action and of total disorientation in a society that has lost its value system and trustworthy authorities. Thus they function as indicators of the deconstruction of what it means to be American.
The first two movies illuminate the two essential aspects of this deconstruction: The Conversation deals with the psychological implications of the crisis for the individual. Chinatown illustrates the erosion of traditional myths about American society and history. The third movie, Three Days of the Condor, has not been mentioned by Keathley as part of the post-traumatic cycle – for good reason: Despite its negative vision of society that is equal in its bleakness to the post-traumatic movies, the film introduces a hero who is able to overcome the crisis of agency and re-discover the action-image.
2.1 "I don't know what's real" – The Conversation
The Conversation hit the movie theaters in 1974, at the climax of the Watergate crisis, the year that Richard Nixon was forced to resign. The film's topic of wiretapping and the paranoia resulting from such operations couldn't possibly have been more up to date and politically pungent. Thus it is rather astonishing that Coppola claims to have had the idea for the movie as early as 1967, long before the scandal took place. And in fact the shooting was well under way, when the full extent of the affair became publicly known. (Johnson 1977: 129–130) Coppola himself was not exactly happy about the coincidence: He assumed that the American people might have grown tired of the topic by the time The Conversation hit the screens. And when the movie did not yield the anticipated box-office success, Coppola attributed the failure to the people's growing annoyance about anything related to the White House scandal. (Chown 1988: 86) Nevertheless, Coppola did include some allusions to the political events in the picture: When Harry Caul hides under the bed-sheets in the Jagtar hotel, in order not to be forced to overhear the murderous activities next door, there is a report about Nixon on TV. Moreover, the surveillance expert Hal Lipset is briefly mentioned in the movie as one of the attenders of a security technicians' convention.
Lipset in fact is the real name of the audio-technician who had been assigned to analyze the famous "smoking-gun tape" that was used as evidence against Nixon (Naziri 2003: 74).
Still, as several critics have noted, The Conversation is not primarily a political statement ( See for instance Weyand 2000: 86, Naziri 2003: 119). Although the film does not ignore the (then) current events, it is much more concerned with the emotional turmoil of its main character, Harry Caul, and the implications of his paranoia for himself and his surroundings. Caul's anxieties are certainly linked to what many Americans may have felt at the realisation of the Nixon administration's crimes, but a single event like Watergate is not sufficient to explain the extent of Caul's pathological, self-destructive paranoia. The Conversation is a more general statement about the state of the individual in a complex, postmodern society. Through the study of Caul's character, it captures the atmosphere of insecurity in 1970s' America in the face of not just one scandal but rather a fundamental decline of confidence in authorities.
2.1.1 The archetypal loner
Peter Cowie describes Harry Caul as "the archetypal loner" (Cowie 1990: 87), and in many ways he is in fact the epitome of the isolated, anonymous, modern individual. He is a surveillance expert, a bugger, whose job it is to intrude into the private lives of others. At the same time, he is pathologically afraid that somebody might disturb his own privacy, or even learn anything about his private life. Caul lives his paranoia to the extreme: He has built up defences against any kind of human, social contact (Johnson 1977: 135). He lets no one get close to him or share his feelings. The door to Caul's apartment is bolted with three heavy-duty locks. He gets very upset when he discovers that his landlady, Mrs. Evangelista, was able to enter, although her innocent intention was to bring him a birthday present. What seems to trouble him even more is the fact that the landlady knew his date of birth. The apartment itself, with its white and brownish colors and the sparse furniture, has been described by many authors as sterile and impersonal ( see for instance Weyand 2000: 77–78, Naziri 2003: 84). This impression is further enhanced when Caul rather defensively tells Mrs. Evangelista: "I have no personal items." The tiny and somewhat pathetic Christmas tree that Caul has put up in his living room emphasizes his loneliness and isolation, since Christmas is generally associated with family and togetherness. The fact that Caul would put up a Christmas tree is also a first hint that he might, despite his intentional isolation, be secretly longing for some kind of human contact. (Naziri 2003: 85)
His distrust in anyone who comes close to him is so deep that he is unable to open up the least bit even in his relationship to his girlfriend Amy. When he visits her at night and she begins to ask him the most harmless personal questions, he refuses to answer, or lies. After a while he gets upset and leaves. Before he walks out the door, however, he leaves Amy some money for the rent. Naziri has interpreted this scene as an illustration of Caul's true, hidden longings. Amy is someone he can take care of. It is not sex he desires, it is human warmth. But at the same time he treats Amy like a pet that is not supposed to ask questions or have any claims of her own. (Naziri 2003: 95)
Caul's isolated and alienated state is best symbolized by the transparent plastic raincoat that he is wearing in every scene. It is wrapped around him like a "cocoon of loneliness and anonymity" (Cowie 1990: 87–88), like a shield against any real human interaction. He does not even take it off when he slips into Amy's bed. And in fact the word "caul" is the term for a part of the embryonic membrane which sometimes covers the head of a fetus at birth (Johnson 1977: 135). This, combined with Naziri's observation that Caul's cowering under the sink in the Jagtar hotel resembles the embryonal pose (2003: 106), points to what Caul is really longing for: A retreat from the world he is alienated from and a return to the safety and comfort of motherly protection and – in a more psychoanalytical approach – of the womb. This is also evident in the scene where the prostitute Meredith caresses Caul in his workshop. The tape on which he has recorded the conversation of the young couple, Ann and Mark – as was his assignment – is running, and we can hear Ann say: "He was once somebody's baby boy." We know she was referring to a homeless man but in this context, the sentence takes on a new meaning, now referring to Caul and his longing for motherly care that he is trying to receive from Meredith. (Naziri 2003: 117–118) For once he trusts somebody, even shares some personal thoughts about his relationship to Amy with her. Ironically, this time his social paranoia would actually have been justified, since Meredith betrays him by stealing the tapes (100).
The reason for Caul's alienation and paranoia lies in his failure to come to terms with the enigma of the world that surrounds him and the moral implications of his actions in this world. He is a wiretapper and thus professionally dedicated to conspiracies and shadowy activities. His work provides him with a glimpse of an immensely corrupt world in which people are spied on, private lives are intruded and crimes are secretly committed in high places, involving powerful people. He is part of this world and its corruption, he is in fact guilty of it. He knows that his recordings are often used for criminal purposes – one of his earlier assignments in San Francisco led to the death of three people. But he is never more than a mere handyman. Not only does Caul not know what his current client's goal is when the latter hires him to tape the conversation of the couple, he also does not even know who the client is. He is known to Caul only as "the director".
One suspects that this is the way it is with most of Caul's assignments. He has a vague idea of the evil that is going on, that he partakes of, but he fails to grasp the bigger picture: He is way off the power-centers that plot the major conspiracies. His own lack of power as well as his lack of knowledge and insight are responsible for his paranoia – a paradigmatic case of agency panic.
And for the most part of his life Caul has desperately tried not to care about that bigger picture. As a faithful Catholic, he believes in Christian values and the authority of the church. His conservative Catholicism is evident when he scolds his assistant Stan for using expressions like "Jesus" or "for Christ's sake" in casual conversation. His wish to adhere to traditional moral principles, however, stands in blatant contrast to his suspicion that his work might be involved in essentially immoral activities. The dishonesty of his clients and his trade deeply trouble Caul and pangs of conscience haunt him. When he goes to confession he desperately claims not to be responsible for what happens to the people he spies on. But the fact that he confesses, and his obvious emotional turmoil, betray that he deems himself in an essentially guilty, sinful state. In order to solve the incompatibility of his trade with his moral standards, he has resorted to a state of apathetic passivity. "I don't care what they're talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording", he says to Stan when the latter shows curiosity in the dialogue of the couple. Caul's professional distance becomes his means to repress feelings of remorse and guilt (Johnson 1977: 134). His choice to ignore the consequences of his work in fact signifies the choice of a life of cold, nihilistic professionalism, devoid of any moral or ideological foundation. It appears to him to be the best way, maybe the only way, to come to terms with his life and his environment. But he is not capable of leading such a life. His longing for human contact, feelings of guilt and sympathy haunt him and – eventually – destroy him.
2.1.2 Paralysis in an enigmatic world
The movie presents Harry Caul at a turning point in his life: After taping the conversation of Ann and Mark, he is no longer able to keep his professional distance, nor maintain his apathy. He suspects that his client, the director of a huge, presumably multinational company, might indeed plot to murder the couple. Caul comes to believe that his tapes would provide the client with a reason for the crime. He starts to fear for Ann and Mark and his conscience finally gets the better of him. Caul resolves to act: He refuses to give the director the tapes. Caul's attempt at taking moral action becomes not only a quest for redemption from his guilt, but also an attempt at breaking out of his isolation and regaining his humanity. In short: To become a moral individual with an intact self. This far, the plot of the The Conversation could be a conventional Hollywood story.
As Naziri has remarked: "Er [Coppola] tarnt seine Geschichte als Bildungsfabel, in der die Hauptfigur ein Persönlichkeitsproblem besitzt, das es zu überwinden gilt " (2003: 100). The film would then be about an isolated and inert person that would eventually overcome these flaws and gain salvation by saving the couple. But on the contrary, Caul's attempt at taking meaningful action is revealed not only to be vain but also to bring about his destruction.
The reason for Caul's failure is his inability to make sense of the world that confronts him: the meaning of the human interaction he is dealing with and the power structures he is railing against. Caul is able to perfectly operate the high-tech machinery that he uses to produce audio recordings. But while he is master at improving the intelligibility of words on tape, he is unable to correctly interpret the actual meaning of what is said. (Johnson 1977: 138) The pivotal sentence of the recorded conversation is the one that Caul understands most tragically wrong. While Caul hears: "He'd kill us if he got the chance", and concludes that the couple is in danger of being murdered by the director, the real emphasis is different: "He'd kill us, if he got the chance", thus revealing that the couple is plotting to kill the director. Coppola is making a statement here about the dangers of modern technology in the hands of people who are incapable of interpreting its results (Chown 1988: 91).
But human communication is not the only thing Caul fails to comprehend. He is also trying to fight an obscure system that he cannot see through. The mysteriousness of the company is signified by the fact that – in a kafkaesque manner – its name as well as the name of the director remain unknown (Pratt 2001: 125). The firm – as an example of corporate America – represents a giant, complex bureaucratic power structure that is opaque and inscrutable for an individual like Caul. He utterly fails to understand the relationships between the conspirators Ann, Mark and Martin Stett, the director's assistant, within the firm. Neither does Caul, or the audience for that matter, obtain any sense of how far the conspiracy reaches and who else might be involved. Even Stett's involvement can only be vaguely suspected. Caul senses that Stett cannot be trusted – he refuses to hand him the tapes – but he fails to get behind Stett's motives or figure out whose side the assistant is on. The goals and motives of everyone in the company remain a mystery to Caul. On the other hand, the company tricks and manipulates Caul at will. In spite of his paranoia and general suspiciousness he is an easy victim for Meredith, who seduces him and steals the tapes in Stett's service. The conspiratorial forces inside the firm are not only able to find out his private telephone number, which he never tells anyone, but also – the most frightening display of power and superiority – to wiretap Caul, the surveillance expert, who is unable to detect the bug even though he thoroughly – in fact frantically – searches for it.
Thus Caul's attempt at taking meaningful action is bound to fail. Despite his efforts to withhold the tapes from Stett, they eventually end up in the villain's possession. In the Jagtar hotel, Caul can only shy away and hide from the gruesome activities in the adjacent room. When he hurries back to the company building after the murder, he does not even get past the staircase, security guards bar him from entrance to the offices. When Caul in the end realizes his complete misinterpretation of the events – it is really Ann and Mark who have murdered the director – it becomes clear that the emergence of his conscience has nothing heroic at all. As Jeffrey Chown has observed, it "seems more like a paranoid tic than a desirable response to the moral quagmire surrounding him" (1988: 92). Caul's struggle is an obsessed and flawed attempt at heroism based on the pathetic belief that he could get behind the opaque operations within the firm. He is left torn apart, like his apartment in the end. His agency panic has resulted in paralysis and madness.
2.1.3 The voyeurism of the cinematic gaze
To say that the movie is a study of Harry Caul's character is in a way an understatement. It could be called a vivisection. The way Coppola presents Caul to the cinematic audience, how the camera intrudes his privacy and reveals even his most private secrets and weaknesses, resembles an experiment on animals to which Caul is the guinea pig. Through his use of the camera, Coppola openly demonstrates his power as a director to be relentlessly voyeuristic: to dissect and manipulate Caul's life. The cinematic gaze in The Conversation becomes an omnipotent observant force that Caul is helplessly exposed to. (Naziri 2003: 81–82)
The voyeurism of the cinematography is evident as early as the very first scene: It takes the camera three minutes to zoom in on the first setting – Union Square – from high above. With this extremely slow zoom the camera draws attention to itself, the audience is given the time to realize that it is observing the characters through a filming device, thus intruding their privacy (Chown 1988: 95 ). This effect is further achieved by the use of a telephoto lens (Naziri 2003: 76) in many of the first shots and the fact that the picture is sometimes shaky. Moreover, the focus of the camera, while it pans along with the characters, is continually readjusted. All of these effects draw attention to the physical presence of the camera – as if an actual surveillance camera was installed above Union Square that observes Caul, Ann and Mark without them knowing it (Chown 1988: 95).
This impression is further enhanced in the first scene in Caul's apartment: While Caul is walking back and forth from room to room, the camera remains static in one spot for a long period of time, thus causing Caul to constantly walk in and out of the frame. This frustrates the viewer, since he sometimes cannot see what Caul is doing, and makes him once again aware of the camera. (Chown 1988: 95)
When Caul enters the living room to make a phone call, the camera pans after him with a ten second delay. Once more the impression of a secret spy camera that Caul does not know about is evoked. Naziri notices the sterility of the apartment that is stressed by the camera work and concludes: "Die Starre der Bildkomposition läßt Cauls Wohnung wie einen Kasten erscheinen, fast wie das Mäuselabyrinth in einem Versuchslabor " (2003: 84). The cinematography relentlessly reveals Caul's lonely and isolated life in the apartment. His total exposure to the audience is epitomized by him being framed in his underwear. The cynical voyeurism of the camera eye reaches its peak in the documentation of Caul's complete disintegration at the end of the film: When he sits in his torn-down apartment, playing saxophone, the camera slowly and mechanically pans back and forth like a surveillance camera that is installed on the ceilings of department stores (92).
This use of the camera makes Caul's paranoia palpable to the audience. His paranoia in the face of forces he fails to understand gains justification on a meta-level, as the cinematic view conjures up an omnipresent atmosphere of persecution. But Coppola does not leave it at that: Toward the end of the film he increasingly exposes the very depths of the psyche of his character to the audience. The tormented mind of the paranoid becomes vividly visible: Surreal, nightmarish images dominate the scenes in the Jagtar hotel. A bloody hand clutching the moisty glass between the balconies and a toilet overflowing with blood and drenching the entire bathroom in red, bloody water. These scenes, which are accompanied by an eerie, Hitchcock-style soundtrack come as a surprise since the movie, up to that point, has had a rather realistic look. Several critics have pointed out that these images represent a new point of view – an outward expression of what goes on inside Caul's mind. Naziri argues that the narrative now blurs the border between reality and fantasy (2003: 112–114). David Thompson calls these scenes a "feverish psychological imagery" (quoted in: Chown 1988: 96). Caul's repressed feelings of guilt and his doubts about the morality of his profession surface in these images. The surreal imagery visualizes his mental decay and destruction at the realization of his inability to act and thus to redeem himself. Another grotesque image at the very end documents the completion of this process: Caul crouching in one corner of his torn-down room, staring at the grey, empty concrete walls. After his rampant destruction of the apartment in frantic search for a bug, all the furniture is miraculously gone – the room is empty. Once again Caul's inner life is documented in the outward images: Like the apartment, his mind has disintegrated, he has reached a state of utmost isolation and paralysis (Chown 1988: 96). By scrutinizing Caul's tormented consciousness, Coppola delves deeply into the psychological consequences of paranoia.
Studying Caul very much like a psychiatrist would study a patient, Coppola suggests that postmodern social and political paranoia resulting from agency panic can produce pathological symptoms which resemble those of clinical, nervous paranoia.
Thus, implying that Caul might be delusional, the images that seem to have leaked directly out of his imagination have the capacity to call the entire narrative into question. One wonders if the murder had really happened at all and, consequently, if the entire conspiracy existed or if it was merely a product of Caul's heightened paranoia. (Weyand 2000: 85) The audience cannot tell. Like Caul, it faces a puzzling narrative it is unable to solve.
2.1.4 Bleak Pessimism: The Destruction of Believe
Harry Caul has embarked on a quest for redemption: from his social paranoia, his isolated solitude, his sinfulness and his apathy. By trying to save two people he had grown emotionally attached to, he has made an attempt at becoming an agent: a person who takes action on a firm basis of moral principles. His failure across the board makes him a paragon for the phenomenon of paranoia as agency panic. He has to realize that he is unable to act in a meaningful and morally appropriate way. When he tries to, he inevitably makes the wrong decisions – because the world he lives in, is an enigma to him. It becomes evident here, how the concept of paranoia as agency panic is linked to the concept of paranoia as "a poor person's cognitive mapping". To make sense of what is going on, Caul cobbles together two conspiracy theories. The first one – murder plot against the couple – is wrong. And not even the audience is able to judge the truthfulness of the second one: murder plot against the director. Caul is desperately looking for answers, for an authority that would legitimize his judgements. But he is left alone in the dark. The decisive moment occurs when Caul shatters his statue of the Virgin Mary at the very end. As Naziri comments:
Die Zerstörung der Plastikmadonna [...] kennzeichnet eine Grenzüberschreitung mit der Caul in einer Entladung angestauter Aggressionen die Grundfesten seiner tiefsten Überzeugungen erschüttert. Die folgende komplette Zerlegung der eigenen Wohnung bar jeder Verhältnismäßigkeit vollendet den selbstzerstörerischen Akt mit unabwendbarer Zwangsläufigkeit. (2003: 105)
It is a most bleak and pessimistic ending: Devoid of any moral foundation, without any social relationships, Caul has lost everything that constitutes him as a person.
The Conversation is not a movie that is primarily concerned with politics, it rather suggests that corruption in the political system and in corporate America are contributions to a world which has become increasingly opaque and enigmatic for the human being.
Starting from there, Coppola poignantly explores the condition of paranoia and its desastrous consequences for the self-constitution of the individual. Driven by the pessimistic atmosphere of the seventies it makes a philosophical, existentialist statement about the condition of man as an entity thrown into a nihilistic world in which he has no chance to escape the determination of his fate by chaotic, uncontrollable forces (Naziri 2003: 119).
2.2 "You may think you know what you're dealing with…" – Chinatown
If The Conversation has shown how paranoia in the face of the depravation of society and the erosion of traditional authorities is responsible for psychological disintegration, Chinatown (1974), by Roman Polanski, documents how the phenomenon of paranoia is linked to a deconstruction of traditional notions – or myths – about American society and American values. Self-reliant morality, private entrepreneurship and progress are some of the fundamental ideals that traditionally constitute American identity. Employing the generic form of the hard-boiled detective film – that is in itself a deeply ingrained American myth – and its conventions, Chinatown at first evokes these notions in a nostalgic fashion, only to eventually reveal them as essentially hollow and inadequate.
2.2.1 The film noir fallacy
At first glance, Chinatown conveys the myth of the hard-boiled detective in various ways, by adhering to many of the conventions of the film noir genre – the group of films that brought the prototypical hard-boiled novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to the screen in the 1940s. The settings are nostalgically reminiscent of the film noir era. Costumes and interiors seem to have been crafted with great attention to the style of the period. The film is not shot in black and white, as the 1940s movies were, but it uses a limited color spectrum dominated by subtle brown and beige tones (Wexman 1985: 94). Wexman argues that, while in the 1940s "thrillers exploited the documentary associations of black-and-white photography to create an atmosphere of gritty naturalism " (93), Chinatown's ambience is "both softer and more obviously artificial" (93). This self-conscious visual style is an important part of Polanski's strategy to evoke "the basic characteristics of a traditional genre in order to bring its audience to see the genre as an embodiment of an inadequate and destructive myth " (93).
John Cawelti describes the conventions of the film noir formula as they pertain to the main character: The film noir protagonist, a private investigator, is a man of morals, who occupies "a marginal position with respect to the official social institutions of criminal justice" (Cawelti 1979: 561). It is essential that he is not part of the police force, since the "ambiguity of institutionalized law enforcement and true justice" (561) lies at the heart of the formula. "The story shows us that the police and the courts are incapable of effectively protecting the innocent and bringing the guilty to appropriate justice. Only the individual of integrity who exists on the margins of society, can solve the crime and bring about true justice. " (561) In the course of his investigations, the private eye reveals links between criminals and wealthy, respectable members of society. This intertwinement of underworld and upper class is the reason why institutionalized crime fighting is rendered ineffectual. The thrust of the myth is, Cawelti concludes, "essentially toward the marginal hero becoming righteous judge and executioner, culture-hero for a society which has profoundly ambiguous conflicts in choosing between its commitment to legality and its belief that only individual actions are ultimately moral and just " (563). The mythical hard-boiled detective is thus an epitome of American individual agency. He represents the very concept of rugged self-reliance, the decline of which Melley considered to be responsible for the emergence of agency panic (2002: 60–65).
In the beginning, private investigator J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), Chinatown's protagonist, seems to very much adhere to the conventions of the hard-boiled formula. He aspires to be a private eye with the moral superiority that is characteristic of, for instance, Humprey Bogart's Sam Spade in the classic noir adventure The Maltese Falcon (Cawelti 1979: 564–566). "Like the traditional hard-boiled detective", Cawelti has stated, "Gittes begins as a marginal individual, but gradually finds himself becoming a moral agent with a mission " (565). After being conned into observing Hollis Mulwray, the chief of the Water and Power Department, by a false Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray, he is determined to "expose the political conspiracy which he senses beneath the surface" (565). When Hollis Mulwray dies, Gittes refuses to accept the suicide theory: He continues to investigate without a client or assignment. He likes to see himself as a man with moral standards who "makes an honest living", as he frantically claims toward a customer in the barbershop. His elaborate manners toward his clients, his elegant suits and occasional truisms ( "This business requires a certain amount of finesse") prove that he aspires the charismatic aloofness of the paradigmatic hard-boiled heroes. It also fits the formula that he eventually falls for the real Evelyn Mulwray, Hollis's mysterious widow. Gittes seems to be trying to live up to the myth.
However, several details about Gittes' character and his profession betray the pretentiousness of his existence as the paradigmatic private eye.
Contrary to the detective in traditional noir films who, according to Cawelti, usually refuses to do divorce business (1979: 565), Gittes actually makes his money by snooping into the love life of his clients' spouses, which gives his business a rather disreputable connotation (565). His raunchy jokes and accidental sliding into street language ( "this phony broad", "all of it quicker than the wind from a duck's ass") reveal his sophistication to be a mere farce and hint at his past as a lowly street cop in L.A.'s Chinatown (Jacobsen 1986: 144) – the place he left behind to become a private eye. He is, in fact, in a situation similar to that of Harry Caul in The Conversation. Like Caul, he had, in the past, unwillingly caused the death of an innocent person. It was a woman Gittes was trying to protect in Chinatown. Like Caul, he has, as a consequence, resorted to a state of apathy and "unquestionable professional detachment" (Wexman 1985: 99). He capitulated to and fled from the corruption of Chinatown, which, in the film is characterized as a place of mythical strangeness and evil: "a world in which the individual is helpless in the face of the complex intrigues surrounding him and where depravity exists on a scale that defies human imagination " (99). Unable to come to terms with this world or take meaningful action in it, Gittes and his associates in Chinatown had resolved to do "as little as possible", thus obliviously accepting the corruption and depravity, just like Caul had blindly carried out his assignments, oblivious of what intrigues his clients might be involved in. However, Gittes – once again like Caul – longs to break out of his apathetic state. His leaving the Chinatown police force and becoming a private detective signifies his whish to escape the immoral jungle and become a moral agent in a world he is able to comprehend. His attempt to solve the intrigues surrounding the death of Hollis Mulwray is an attempt at taking individual action that is meaningful and guided by moral standards. Since he is no longer in an alien place like Chinatown but in what he would consider the "real" American society, he deems this kind of action possible (97, 99). Gittes is obviously convinced that, while Chinatown is a place that is depraved in its very essence and where morally grounded action is futile, American sociey is essentially intact, and occasional evil can be dealt with.
But, like Caul, he is bound to fail miserably. "Instead of demonstrating his ability to expose and punish the guilty, Gittes steadily finds himself confronting a depth of evil and chaos so great that he is unable to control it " (Cawelti 1979: 566). The conspiracy that Gittes uncovers is too immense for him to comprehend. The perversion that he encounters in Evelyn's father Noah Cross – a wealthy and very influential businessman – is "beyond the capacity of the hard-boiled ethos of individualistic justice" (566). Cross is right when he warns Gittes: "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." The villain is capable of causing an artificial drought for the entire city of Los Angeles, con the citizens into building an unnecessary and dangerous dam, murder his former partner Hollis Mulwray, poison the wells in the North West Valley to drive the farmers off their orange groves and use the inhabitants of an old folks' home as straw men for his massive land purchases in the valley.
He is is also capable of sexually abusing his own daughter just like he is abusing the City of Los Angeles to satisfy his limitless greed. The movie never reveals how many other people in influential positions are involved in the conspiracy but one suspects a vast number that Cross has bribed or is in cahoots with: From the wealthy members of the Albacore Yacht Club and the high ranking politicians in the city council to the police force and the Department of Water and Power (as the involvement of Yelburton, Mulwray's successor, indicates) (Werner 1981: 168).
In the face of a conspiracy this powerful, Gittes stumbles and makes mistakes that prove the myth of individual hard-boiled action wholly inadequate (Werner 1981: 158-159). Instead of solving the crime and bringing about justice, Gittes' actions are not only ineffectual, they also cause the death and destruction of the innocent. His first major mistake is his fundamental misunderstanding of Evelyn Mulwray's intentions. He naively concludes that Evelyn has killed her husband Hollis for having an affair – a simple motive he could comprehend. As a consequence he gives Evelyn's hiding place away to the police, which shall prove fatal in the end. When she confronts him with the outrageous truth about her being raped by her own father, he is unwilling and unable to take it at first. Instead he resorts to violence and slaps Evelyn in the face. Gittes' physical abuse of her is a sign of his helplessness in the face of evil too extreme for him to grasp. (Wexman 1985: 98–99)
His second major mistake follows suit: Despite having unearthed Cross's conspiracy, Gittes completely underestimates what the old man is capable of. He challenges him at the Mulwray residence, confronting him with his crimes, ignorant of the fact that Cross's underlings can easily overwhelm him and force him to betray Evelyn's refuge (99). When they all meet up for the final showdown in Chinatown, Gittes still fails to grasp that he is, as Paul Werner has remarked, fighting an entire social system (1981: 159). He is yet confident that law and order will bring Cross to justice, now that he has delivered the evidence. When he begs Evelyn to "let the police handle this", Evelyn's sobering answer is: "He owns the police". And in fact, the cops will not even listen to Gittes' accusations toward Cross. Instead they shoot the fleeing Evelyn. Cross emerges virtually unscathed and no one prevents him from grabbing his second daughter/granddaughter Kathrin – a gesture that foreshadows more incest to come (160). Contemplating Evelyn's mutilated corpse, Gittes mumbles "as little as possible". When his associate Duffy tries to placate him with the words "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown", he asks Gittes to accept the evil that is rooted too deeply in the L.A. community to exterminate it (166). The audience can assume that Gittes will now resort once again to his apathetic state, doing petty divorce investigations and ignoring the corruption in the higher places.
The movie's fatal ending in the Chinese quarter expands the significance of the Chinatown image: It is a metaphor for a world of unstable values and ingrained corruption, "a symbol for life's deeper moral enigmas, those unintended consequences of actions that are past understanding and control " (Cawelti 1979: 566). Chinatown is no longer just a term for a geographically confined space, an alien, exotic place. It is now a symbol for American society itself, in which Gittes has discovered the same layers of intrigue and corruption. The private eye of the classic film noir was a paragon of individual agency and rugged self-reliance. The helplessness and ineffectuality of this mythical figure is a powerful symbol for the agency panic of the American people in the seventies. Just like Harry Caul – and very much unlike the former noir-heroes Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe – the hard-boiled hero now struggles and fails to make sense of the society that surrounds him with its entanglements of politics, economy and the criminal underworld. Chinatown's protagonist collapses not so much as a person but more as a cinematic stock character and foil for the projection of myths. The deconstruction of the film noir formula is thus a strong indication of paranoia resulting from agency panic and a crisis of interpretation.
2.2.2 The myths of history
Chinatown depicts the phenomenon of paranoia stemming from the loss of individual agency as a deconstruction of a myth that lies at the heart of American culture: The myth of self-reliance. As a consequence it widens the scope of the implications of paranoia: Along with the central myth about the individual, fundamental myths about American history, society and values also go down the drain. The film in fact calls into question the integrity of the very hands that built America.
The builders of the nation
The political conspiracy that dominates the plot of Chinatown is based on an actual corruption scandal that took place in Los Angeles in 1904: A group of investors had illegally acquired knowledge of a plan to build a new aqueduct for the city. As a consequence, they bought masses of cheap land in the San Fernando Valley, that would turn into a fertile and precious region. (Jacobsen 1986: 138) Robert Towne, who wrote the script for Chinatown was shocked about the fact that Water Commissioner William Mulholland, who had been at the center of the corruption, is not despised today: "Some crimes are so monstrous they can't figure out how to punish them. They actually sort of reward them. […] Mulholland's name is on the scenic route of the city. […] Criminals are on plaques – as city founders, rather than in jail where they belong. " (quoted in: Pratt 2001: 118)
Mulholland indeed has been credited with having more to do with the creation of the modern city of Los Angeles than anybody else (Wexman 1985: 102). A shocked disillusionment about pioneer entrepreneurs like Mulholand is central to the bleak view of American history that Chinatown promotes. The founding fathers of American civilization, the heroes of the westward expansion are revealed to be associated with greed, crime and corruption.
Noah Cross, the arch villain of the film, is a paragon of the heroic American entrepreneur: A stout and energetic old man, wearing a broad-rimmed hat like the pioneers of the west and rolled-up-sleeves that suggest hands-on-experience and Protestant work ethic. They contribute to the image of a "self-made-man" in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin. He is a charismatic leader who, as Paul Werner has noticed, hides his true character behind the jovial bonhomie of American businessmen or politicians (1981: 161). His stereotypical depiction that recalls countless western films and fictional texts about American history leaves no doubt: He is the mythical fulfillment of the American dream, a man who came from rags to riches to build the country and become a wealthy and influential upper-class citizen. Characters like Noah Cross are traditionally associated with values of hard work and honesty and are often pictured to be the patriarchs of a prosperous family dynasty.
Through the character of Noah Cross, Chinatown reveals the myth of the self-made builders of the nation as a hollow façade beneath which lurk the most grotesque depths of greed, crime and perversion. Cross's greed is so boundless that it is beyond the imagination of Gittes and possibly beyond that of the audience (Pratt 2001: 118). When Gittes asks him what he could buy with the new land, that he could not already afford, Cross simply answers: "The future". Cross's criminal energy lives up to his greed. He knows no scruples or any moral boundaries, is – as he himself admits – "capable of anything". His greed is the spur for his gross perversion of his status as the patriarch of the family (Cawelti 1979: 567): The violent sexual abuse of his daughter as well as – possibly – his second daughter/granddaughter indicates a past, present and future of endless incest and abyssal depravation that mocks traditional family values.
The most frightening and gloomy aspect about Cross's personality is the fact that he has retained his power and agency. While Gittes, who is trying to adhere to traditional values and moral standards is rendered powerless to the point of paralysis, the reckless and profoundly immoral Cross possesses a virtually unlimited power that allows him to take action in literally any way he wants. (Cawelti 1979: 567) It is a deeply pessimistic statement that agency can only be retained through crime and corruption.
But the movie also makes clear that it is not Cross alone, not a mere individual who is at the root of all evil. His entanglements with influential businessmen in the Albacore Yacht Club and the city council indicate a highly corrupt system, a conspiracy of the powerful. It is the most pessimistic and cynical message that Polanski could possibly convey: To suggest that the American self-made-men are integrated into criminal systems and that thus the foundation of the American nation is greed and corruption above anything else. It is the nightmare of the paranoid American come true.
The New Deal and the myth of progress
Although the historical scandal took place in 1904, Chinatown transplants the events to the late 1930s, the time of Franklin D. Roosevelts New Deal politics and the hopes that came with it: hopes for more social justice through a benevolent involvement of the state and restrictions on large private corporations ( "New Deal" 1979: 203). Chinatown, however, offers a "disdainfully revisionist view of the way in which the New Deal economic policies actually operated" (Wexman 1985: 103). In the film, two characters are associated with the New Deal: Gittes, who has just recently experienced a rise up the social ladder from a street cop to a successful small business man (Werner 1981: 160), is one. A portrait of Roosevelt is hanging behind his desk. The New Deal ideology pervades his moral standards and actions. As Pratt has claimed, "the view of the ruling economic class in Chinatown – personified by Noah Cross – prompts in Jake Gittes that sense of democratic scepticism and suspicion of economic power typical of FDR's speeches a few years earlier " (2001: 119). Gittes is sharing this view with Hollis Mulwray, the second "New-Deal-figure" in the film. The water commissioner who once co-owned the city's water supply – which made him a rich man – donated his source of wealth to the city because he "believed the public should own the water", much to the disdain of his former partner Noah Cross. Another portrait of FDR is hanging in the city hall when Mulwray holds his speech, attempting to prevent the building of the dam.
Thus, in Chinatown, Polanski pits the two social ideologies of traditional American high capitalism, embodied by Cross, and a reformist, modern social state, personified by Gittes and Mulwray, against each other (Werner 1981: 168). Polanski leaves no doubt about which model he thinks is truly ruling the country: It is the high capitalists like Noah Cross who hold the real power. This appears to be an expression of Polanski's own darkest fears – since the class of Noah Cross in the film is associated with crime and perversion. While Cross embodies agency and potence, the New Deal-figures are portrayed as inefficient and powerless (168). Gittes is unable to bring Cross to justice. Mulwray is unsuccessful in trying to prevent the building of the dam and in saving his life.
The dam, camouflaged as a typical New Deal public works project for the benefit of the people (that is brought under way by the democratic city council), is in fact revealed to be a project in favor of greedy capitalists who bribed the representatives of the public and are actually cheating the public out of their water (Wexman 1985: 103). Thus the idea of the New Deal itself is seen here as a mere myth, a
"fiction created by powerful capitalists like Noah Cross to rationalize their own will to domination" (104). The government in which the New Deal ideology puts its trust, is portrayed as being undermined and profoundly corrupted. In Wexman's view, the whole ideal of progress in American history, which is represented by legendary figures such as Roosevelt, is rendered obsolete. Instead, American history
"repeats itself in cycles of reform and disillusionment" (102).
It thus becomes clear that Polanski chose the late 1930s for the plot of Chinatown in order to reveal obvious parallels to the (then) contemporary America of the 1970s. The evils that he identifies in prewar America are the same ones he suspects and fears in the American society of the 70s. This point has been made by various critics. Wexman wrote about Chinatown: "[…] the story's portrayal of scandal and corruption in the highest places during the 1930s bears striking similarities to the post-Watergate climate that prevailed in the United States when the film was initially released " (1985: 102). In Pratt's view Gittes is brought by the end of the film "to the (then) historical present – to the disillusionment characteristic of the Watergate and post-Vietnam era " (119). Newsweek film critic Paul Zimmerman even called the plot of Chinatown a Watergate with actual water (quoted in: Werner 1981: 164).
Whereas The Conversation focused on the implications of paranoia for the individual, Chinatown probes more deeply into the question of what is foul in American society, economy and politics. It's revelations are utterly, almost grotesquely, pessimistic. American society is basically portrayed as an absurd, nihilistic chaos in which every value or moral standard Americans traditionally believed in, is seen as a flawed fantasy. Those typically seen as heroes are the real villains. Greed was the driving force, and corruption the method of those pioneers responsible for the growth and prosperity of the country. Even the slightest hope for progress is denied by a bleak, cyclical interpretation of American history as essentially inert. American society is a wild and dangerous world in which no one can be trusted since, as Cross remarks: "At the right time and the right place, people are capable of anything." Equally denied is the hope for salvation through heroic, individualistic action as the myth of the prototypic savior, a marginal tough-guy, is portrayed as a deceptive illusion.
Through its self-reflexive treatment of film noir formula, Chinatown is also a critique of traditional pre-sixties Hollywood cinema as a phony conveyor of the false myths. Polanski ironically emphasizes this point by having the villain Cross played by John Huston, the director of many noir and western classics of Hollywood's studio period.
For the individual of the 1970s, a strange and enigmatic world no longer exists merely in a confined space like Chinatown – in fact America has become the chaotic, immoral place in which for the individual there is nothing for it but to do "as little as possible". Thus Chinatown exemplifies the paradigmatic shift in the concept of paranoia that took place in the 1970s: From a fear of alien, un-American subversion toward a panic about the depravity of Americanism itself. Chinatown marks a climax of American agency panic: Agency is possessed solely by powerful criminals embedded in giant conspiratorial power structures. With crime and corruption in Chinatown pervading society to the bones, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that a more paranoid film could not possibly be made.
2.3 "There's only yourself" - Three Days of the Condor
Like The Conversation and Chinatown, Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, which was released in 1975 is a story about a criminal conspiracy in the power centers of the American nation that draws obvious parallels to the actual events in 1970s America. It came to the theaters in the aftermath of disclosures about secret, criminal operations by American intelligence agencies. Shortly after Nixon's resignation in 1974, New York Times Journalist Seymour Hersh unearthed details about CIA efforts to illegally spy on dissidents of the Vietnam War as well as on student and civil rights organizations. In the course of congressional investigations of the CIA, other criminal activities of the secret service agency in foreign countries – i.e. assassinations of unwanted political leaders – reached the awareness of the American public, as well as disclosures about FBI harassment of student and civil rights groups (Pratt 2001: 113). Government agencies who operated in secret, inscrutable ways became the focus of the people's distrust and paranoia: "Vietnam and the cumulative abuses of military intelligence, the CIA and FBI, and other agencies resulted in the darkest views of American institutions in the nation's history" (Pratt 2001: 124).
Three Days of the Condor not only deals with the evils within government agencies and the paranoia resulting from the fact that these organizations actually operated against their own people. The film also – other than The Conversation and Chinatown – explicitly identifies an actual government agency – the CIA – to be the source of evil. Like the first two examples of paranoia movies, it pits a solitary individual against the virtually unlimited powers of a corrupt system. However, in Condor the individual is able to strike back.
2.3.1 Demons in dark suits
Just like The Conversation and Chinatown, Condor evokes a strong sense of paranoia by unfolding a conspiracy plot that is complex, enigmatic and inscrutable to the protagonist and the audience. Thus, the idea of paranoia resulting from a crisis of interpretation, is once again a central aspect. In Condor, however, this strategy is used to a new extreme: to a point where the audience is left confused about the role, significance and motives of virtually every important character, save for the protagonist Joe Turner (Naziri 2003: 152–153). This state of confusion is maintained throughout most of the movie. Even at the very end, only part of the riddle is solved and many questions are left unanswered.
When CIA-employee Turner returns from a lunch parlor to his place of work – a CIA research department camouflaged as the "American Literary Historical Society (A.L.H.S.) " – and finds all of his associates murdered, he turns to his superiors in the Intelligence Agency for help. Both his section chief Wicks and the deputy director Higgins seem genuinely shocked at the news of the atrocity. As both promise to help, it seems almost childish and unreasonable of Turner not to trust them (Naziri 2003: 153). How justified Turners suspiciousness is, however, becomes evident when he meets up with Wicks who promised to bring him back to the safe haven of the "Company": Wicks tries to assassinate Turner, and executes Turner's best friend and CIA-associate, Sam Barber. Since Wicks himself is killed shortly afterwards – presumably by the contract killer Joubert (Max von Sydow), who was also responsible for the A.L.H.S.-massacre – neither Turner nor the audience can figure out if he knew the real motives for the murders or the background of the conspiracy. He might have been just a henchman. Deputy Director Higgins is another enigma. Turner does not learn until the very end that Higgins is a member of the "Five Continents Import Inc." The firm is really a secret and highly influential sub-organization within the CIA, that is plotting a US invasion in the Middle East. Turner will eventually realize that during his research he had unwittingly stumbled on evidence that revealed the plans of the group. To prevent the leakage of this information, Turner's entire section was murdered. Higgins is part of the conspiracy – but did he really want Turner and his associates dead or did he, as he claims, not know about the massacre? We cannot say for sure. (Naziri 2003: 153–155)
Pollack further confuses the audience by showing a conference of the Five Continent Imports Inc. after about 45 minutes into the film, without explaining the purpose of the meeting or introducing the participants. Neither the name of the organization nor its purposes and significance are known at this point. The gathering is presented basically as a group of older men in dark suits that are shown only briefly and are tough to distinguish.
This is remarkable especially since two of the characters introduced here will play important roles in the further development of the plot: Wabash, head of Five Continent Imports, and Leonard Atwood, the central villain, who had ordered the A.L.H.S.-massacre. Atwood in particular has very little on-screen time and only a few rather insignificant lines of dialogue that understate his importance. The next scene features him wearing a hat, which makes it almost impossible to re-recognize him as one of the conference's participants. His name is not mentioned until several scenes later and most viewers of the movie probably have a hard time identifying him as one of the many "dark-suits" introduced earlier. What is more, Wabash's name is not mentioned at all. The audience does not learn it until the end credits run down the screen. One can only assume that he is the mastermind behind the secret invasion plan and also behind the assassination of Atwood. Joubert, who kills Atwood, assumes that the latter has become a disgrace to the organization, which makes Wabash the top suspect for this crime. But his involvement is not revealed for a fact. (Naziri 2003: 155–156)
While in The Conversation, the audience is granted a more omniscient perspective that allows for scrutiny of the protagonist from a vantage point of view, Condor grants the viewer nothing but the scarce information Turner strenuously assembles. Every character that holds power and influence in the CIA is revealed to be somehow associated with the outrageous conspiracy: The development of a strategy for a US invasion in the middle east to ensure future oil supplies and the murders that are committed to cover up the plan. But Pollack not only withholds information about how deeply involved the respective characters are, he also refuses to give the villains a face and a personality for the audience to remember. Many of them are shown very briefly, and none of them are endowed with memorable character traits or facial features, some do not even have names. They remain interchangable to a point where it gets frustrating for viewers, since the characters are easily mixed-up. The evil force behind the conspiracy is an anonymous and elusive one, as much as it is deeply rooted within the very structure of the CIA: impossible to comprehend or trace, let alone eradicate. The secret service agency thus becomes a perfect focal point for paranoia resulting from a felt crisis of interpretation.
2.3.2 The thrill of omnipresent danger
The inscrutability of the film's personnel is only one factor that contributes to the intense, gripping atmosphere of paranoia that Pollack creates. As Turner learns that literally no one involved in this mystery can be trusted, his environment, the very streets and places he visits on a daily basis, increasingly become hostile to him.
After having barely escaped the killers that waited for him not only in his home but also in the apartment of his associate Heidegger, Turner's senses grow acute to the possible dangers that might lurk behind every street corner. An elderly woman wearing suspicious dark sunglasses and pushing a baby carriage on the sidewalk scares Turner as he fears her to be an agent of the conspirators that pursue him. He changes to the other side of the street in a sudden move and nearly gets run over by a car. Turner senses potential danger in literally everyone he encounters. He has become paranoid in the sense of an acute fear of persecution, the only difference from clinical paranoia being, that Turners reaction is justified. (Naziri 2003: 168)
The cinematography greatly contributes to the atmosphere of omnispresent danger by creating what Taylor calls "visual expressions of confinement" (Taylor 1981: 64). Turner is repeatedly framed in narrow spaces in which he appears trapped and an escape from the impending danger seems impossible. The phone booth from which Turner calls his CIA superiors several times is one example. Pollack "sets the booth in the middle of the frame […] so that he [Turner] is tightly contained by the booth instead of the sides of the whole frame […] It is as if Turner is completely surrounded " (64). And possibly the scariest scene of Condor has Turner framed in a narrow elevator right beside Joubert, the ruthless killer who relentlessly haunts him. Only moments later, Turner is framed again: in the viewfinder of Joubert's sniper rifle. He once again barely escapes assassination. (64)
It is, however, the perception that things and places normally associated with peacefulness now hold danger, which makes the film's atmosphere of paranoia truly disturbing. The baby carriage is only one example. Moreover, references to Christmas are contrasted with the terror that is imposed on Turner: Joyful Christmas music plays in the background when the fugitive hides in a department store and abducts the customer Kathy in desperate need of cover; similar Christmas music is playing when Turner buys food at a booth shortly after the gruesome massacre and in the final confrontation with Higgins in front of the New York Times building. Terror most violently and shockingly breaks into homey peacefulness in the tragic scene where Turner stumbles into his murdered friend Sam's apartment in order to warn the latter's wife Mae. Mae is happy too see him, and joyfully begins to chat with him: She and Sam had expected Turner and his associate Janice for dinner that night. Mae continues preparing the meal, completely ignorant of the fact that both her husband and Janice have been murdered. A festooned Christmas tree graces the living room. Turner does not have the heart to break the horrific news to her: Without an explanation he orders her to hide at the neighbors' place. (Naziri 2003: 168–170)
All of these atmospheric techniques contribute to a quality of the film, that the two previously discussed movies possess to a much lesser degree: the capacity to thrill.
Though both The Conversation and Chinatown contain scenes of a thrilling nature, the directors of these films have put less effort in gripping the audience by a continuous series of thrills. This difference is a clear indication that Pollack designed his film with a much stronger commercial focus.
The references to Christmas and the scene with Mae Barber, however, convey meaning beyond the mere intention to thrill and shock. Just like in the other two movies, these elements hint at the realization that there is more at stake than the life of the protagonist and the integrity of the government: The operations of the government agency are directed against the American people and violate its values: That the murders happen during Christmas time signifies that the CIA atrocities are a direct assault on Christian values of love and peace. The scene with Mae in the cozy home of the Barber's inspires the audience with an acute awareness of the fact that immoral activities of government agencies intrude upon and threaten American lifestyle at its very heart: the family in its home. Thus, the images of omnipresent danger in Condor are associated with a breakdown of the traditional American value system that – just like in Chinatown – results in a fundamental sense of disillusionment about traditional authorities that are portrayed as being the chief corruptors of those values. Other than The Conversation and Chinatown however, Condor's protagonist does not react with paralysis and apathy. Instead he lives up to the challenge.
2.3.3 Adapting to a hostile world
In his essay "Allegories of Post-Fordism in 1970s New Hollywood", Drehli Robnik has argued that countercultural influences in 1970s movies did not necessarily result in the depiction of traumatized and paralyzed anti-heroes, like those of Keathley's post-traumatic cycle. In his analysis of less canonized war movies like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Kelly's Heroes (1970), Robnik identified non-conformist heroes with countercultural attitudes that take action but refuse to obey rules and adhere to standard procedures – in these cases – of warfare. They use unconventional, highly individualistic methods – and succeed. This kind of non-conformist resourcefulness indicates a notion of the benefits of countercultural thinking that is in line with Hardt's and Negri's political theory: According to Robnik, Hardt and Negri "highlight a historical success of the 1960s youth and countercultures, in that these movements' creativity in inventing new social subjectivities and standards of purposeful, productive action has been the driving force of capitalism's shift away from Fordist discipline " (Robnik 2004: 335). Or, as Hardt and Negri phrase it: "The youth who refused the deadening repetition of the factory-society invented new forms of mobility and flexibility, new styles of living " (quoted in: Robnik 2004: 335–336).
This perspective on countercultural influences is not only evident in 1970s war movies but is also a pivotal feature of Condor's protagonist Joe Turner. From the beginning of the film, Turner is portrayed as a person with a boyish ingeniousness who refuses to succumb to the conventions and routine procedures of his job. Meyer calls him an "antistereotypical character" (Meyer 1998: 81), Naziri attests him "ungestüme Jugendlichkeit" and "spritzige Dynamik" (2003: 167). He wears blue jeans instead of a business suit, rides a motor bike, loves comic-strips and is constantly late for work. When he arrives at the office on the day of the massacre, he plays a trick on the receptionist by hiding his face from the front door surveillance camera. After entering the building he greets a security guard with a mock military order: "At ease, sarge" (167). Later, he uses a rear entrance to exit the building, which is prohibited. His statements toward his superiors and associates are loaded with irony and he makes abundantly clear that he refuses to take his job, the bureaucracy and the high security standards involved, entirely seriously. Turner tells his boss, Dr. Lappe, that he considers it unnecessary that the members of the A.L.H.S. are not allowed to talk about their work. It bothers him, since "I actually trust a few people". His youthful, rebellious nature marks him as someone sympathising with countercultural ideas and an anti-establishment attitude.
Turners non-conformist behavior is combined with a flexible resourcefulness and alertness of mind that endowes him with a remarkable versatility. He is able to precisely predict the New York weather, repair a copy machine that usually requires specialized maintenance personell, give his boss gardening advice and discuss Mozart and Van Gogh with a waiter (Meyer 1998: 81-82). His unconventional and creative way of thinking helps him to come up with ever new problem-solving strategies. Thus he solves a criminological problem by quoting comic strip detective Dick Tracy (Naziri 2003: 167).
More than anything, it is the fact that Turner can successfully maintain this ingenuity and flexibility even in his struggle against the seemingly omnipotent conspiratorial forces, which distinguishes him from the protagonists of The Conversation and Chinatown. While Caul and Gittes are helpless, dazed and disoriented at the depth of evil they encounter, Turner is able to quickly overcome his state of shock after the massacre of his associates. This capability is impressive, considering Turner's previously trusting and carefree nature. He is able to immediately react to the repeated assaults on his life and to spontaneously develop creative strategies to ensure his survival. What is more, he has these stategies instinctively result in purposeful action: Turner abducts the innocent Kathy to obtain a safe haven for his operations and succeeds at blurring his trace for his persecutors. When Joubert tries to assassinate him outside his hotel, Turner cunningly uses a group of youths as cover for his escape. Although Turner's job had previously never involved combat experience, he hesitates no second to engage in a fight with one of the contract cut-throats and kills his enemy without scruples to safe his own life. Turner manages to make it impossible for the CIA professionals to trace his phonecall when he wires together fifty phones all across New York.
But Turner does not stop at simply evading his foes: He refuses to be merely reacting, to – as he calls it – "draw fire like one of those penny-acrade bears". As a consequence, Turner takes initiatve: He abducts Higgins from the very center of power (the latter's office in the World Trade Center) to obtain information. He wiretaps Joubert to learn the name of the latter's employer and thus get to the real wirepuller of the conspiracy: He is finally able to ambush the arch-villain Atwood in his very home.
In short: Turner has quickly adapted to his new environment of omnipresent danger. Although Turner's old life and view of the world collapses within moments, he acts without hesitation, without being "trapped in the affection image". His non-conformist, countercultural attitude helps him to acknowledge – even embrace – a world in which many traditional values have broken down. This distinguishes him from Caul, whose destruction is catalyzed by his desperate attempt to cling to the Christian value system, and Gittes, who keeps believing in the basic integrity of American authorities, such as the police force. Free of ideological ballast, Turner is able to accept the corruption of society as a given fact. To survive he needs no family or stable relationship. "Some safe and quiet time" at Kathy's place and a brief sexual encounter with her is enough to fulfill his need for human warmth.
Turner's lack of ideological ballast does, however, not mean that he resorts to utter nihilism. The nihilistic alternative is offered to him by Joubert. The assassin freely switches allegiances and carries out his assignments with total disregard for the motivations of his employers. He has succeeded in what Caul unsuccesfully tried to achieve: He has made his professionalism the only moral value he adheres to.
After having spared Turner at the final encounter in Atwood's mansion, Joubert advises Turner to follow in his footsteps. "It's almost peaceful", he describes his occupation. "No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There's only yourself. The belief is in your own precision. " Moreover, he suggests that Turner should flee the US. Turner refuses indignantly and claims with determination: "I was born in the United States." His bold refusal to accept a state of moral apathy is confirmed by his next action: instead of fleeing and trying to save his own life, he continues his fight against the conspirators by revealing his story to the New York Times. "You're about to be a very lonely man", Higgins predicts for Turner's insecure future, and Joubert, too, warns him that he will continue to live an endangered life.
With his acceptance of this fate, Turner completes the (re-)birth of a new type of film hero, who, through his countercultural qualities of non-conformist flexibility and ingenuity, lives up to the image of the traditional, mythical American hero: A solitary fighter, who takes on a brave struggle. Civilized American society has become the new frontier, the new wilderness of moral ambiguity, in which the hero has to prevail, relying solely on his own moral and physical strengths and his capacity to take individualistic action. Turner stands for a re-birth not only of the cinematic action image but also of the fundamental American myth of rugged self-reliance. He is paranoid only in a sense of a productive and live-saving alertness. Paranoia as agency panic haunts him only briefly, when he turns to his superiors for help directly after the massacre. He almost immediately overcomes this weakness.
3 Common Amxieties – Different Symptoms
When it comes to the plot and characters of the three movies that have been chosen for this study as representatives of the 1970s paranoia film, certain common features are obvious. All of them show an individual who is pitted against a system: a social, political or economic structure that is equally malevolent as it is powerful and influential. The system is involved in an evil masterplan, an enigmatically complex (at least from the point of view of the protagonist) conspiracy that involves high-ranking businessmen or politicians previously regarded as honest and honorable. In order to realize and cover up the masterplan, the system exerts its power over American citizens in an abusive way: By manipulating and wiretapping them (The Conversation), deceiving and robbing them (Chinatown) or even murdering them (Condor). All of the three films thus paint a pessimistic picture of the state of American society and its institutions. They all at least hint at the shocking realization that values Americans have traditionally believed in, no longer count in the present. With their suspiciousness toward traditional authorities the makers of the three films all show an affinity to the goals and ideals of the 1960s countercultural movement.
These plot elements can be considered the basic features of the formula the paranoia film adhered to in the 1970s. What makes the movies discussed here truly interesting artistic achievements are, however, the different directions they take from there, highlighting different aspects of the paranoia motif.
In The Conversation, paranoia in the sense of agency panic and a crisis of interpretation is the trigger for the deterioration of the individual's consciousness in postmodern society.
It is the growing complexity of social structures and institutions, mysterious and opaque to the individual, which causes a pathological form of paranoia. In fact, Caul's paranoia is presented as a mental illness, a feverish tic that results from his constant failure to understand his surroundings combined with his continuous pangs of conscience. Authorities and power structures in the film are depicted less in a realistic but rather in an absurd, kafkaesque fashion: nameless, anonymous, vague and ambigous. The actual conspiracy – the murder plot – is also staged in a surreal way that leaves open, if the murder was but a delusional fantasy of Caul. Thus the movie takes one step away from the political events of 1970s America and makes a philosophical statement about human existence in a state of crisis. The way our lives are controlled by social structures we do not understand leads to a destruction of consciousness and an erosion of concepts of self. The loss of agency results in fear, isolation and – eventually – in madness.
Chinatown is mainly concerned with a fundamental disillusionment: The shocking realization that American society is and has always been corrupt in its essence. In fact the founding and building of the American nation is inextricably linked to crime and greed. Thus, popular accounts of American history are revealed to be inadequate myths. The big fallacy of Gittes is, in a way, that he is not paranoid enough. He is indeed confident that the evil he senses exists on a scale that he can comprehend and eradicate. He fails to grasp the gigantic dimensions of the conspiracy and the limitless powers of its heads. The realization comes to him as a series of shocks that leave him paralyzed and helpless in the end of the movie, not in a much better condition than Caul's at the end of The Conversation. Gittes's disillusionment triggered by a 1904 scandal, the film seems to say, is the same disillusionment America experiences in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. History repeats itself and nothing has ever changed. Thus, it is the filmmakers who communicate their fears about American society – their own paranoia – to the audience. They identify a fallacy not only of historians but also of the cinema itself. Through genre films like the hard-boiled detective movies, Hollywood has helped spread the myth of heroic individualism which Chinatown depicts as fundamentally inadequate.
Condor's portrayal of American society is not much happier than Chinatown's. Crime and immorality rule the country in the shape of the CIA. However, the film does not pay much attention to the realization of that. Turner does not waste much time on being shocked or paralyzed – he rather takes immediate action. As danger to Turner's life is revealed behind every streetcorner, the ordinary American urban environment becomes a wilderness, the world of corruption a perfect backdrop for an adventure story full of heroes and villains, thrills and action – what the prairies of the west used to be.
Of course, Turner's behavior can hardly be called realistic or typical for an average American, nor is it meant to be. Rather, by basically acknowledging society's corruption, Hollywood has created a new myth of individual action and has founded a new generic tradition: The commercial conspiracy-action-thriller. It is an almost paradoxical reversal: The realization of corruption and immorality in the nation's power centers that caused Hollywood's crisis of the action image has now been transformed into a new genre that enables Hollywood to tell – or re-cycle – the same old stories of rugged self-reliance it used to tell in westerns and detective films.
Thus the group of 1970s paranoia films exemplifies the New Hollywood's role as a transitional phase. Shock, disillusionment and the inability to act were features of the post-traumatic cycle, films that capured the feelings and views of a generation traumatized by the Vietnam War and the political scandals. With the emergence of the first blockbuster movies in the late seventies, Hollywood had basically overcome its financial crisis – as well as the entrapment in the affection image.
Conspiracy-minded plots like those of the films discussed here have become a popular subject in today's mainstream movie culture. Various contemporary films like Absolute Power (1997), Murder at 1600 (1997), Enemy of the State (1998) or Snake Eyes (1998) all deal with conspiracies and constitute a well-established sub-genre of the commercial political thriller. Moreover, conspiracy plots are featured in various major non-political blockbuster films like Spider Man (2002), Jurassic Park (1993), Armageddon (1998) or Men in Black (1997). Conspiracy has also become a favorite subject of television series, the most popular and famous being The X-Files. It has indeed become a ubiquitous feature of mainstream entertainment.
It is clear, however, that the conspiracy plots in these movies of the 1990s and early 2000s have been downgraded to a mere generic framework for action-packed or comic adventure stories. In that they stand in the tradition of Three Days of the Condor. Moreover, Naziri critizes that
das Interesse der Filme im Gegensatz zu jenen aus den 70ern weniger in der Kritik an fundamentalen Strukturen des Staatsapparates besteht, als sich auf die moralischen Dispositionen und verbrecherischen Unternehmungen von Einzelpersonen richtet. Nicht die institutionelle Macht per se [original emphasis] wird als potentielle Gefahrenquelle dargestellt, sondern der persönliche Stil und die Aufrichtigkeit der jeweiligen Akteure liegen im Fokus. (2003: 292)
Whereas in the films of the 1970s conspiracies remained opaque and monstrous, these riddles are usually solved in the films of the 1990s and the villains brought to justice (293), however, as Naziri concludes, while the films may have re-discovered the action-image, they have lost much of the capacity to criticise.
There is one aspect of the countercultural movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, however, that has survived in today's mainstream blockbusters. The portrayal of the main character as a non-conformist – in some cases even a Hippie – that was evident in Condor is still a popular feature of some of the most conventional blockbusters. Robnik names Armageddon, "with its rockband-like team of misfits and jokers on a special NASA mission" (2004: 353), as well as Twister (1996) and XXX (2002) (353). One might add Independence Day and Enemy of the State, which both star Will Smith who is often typecast for his rebellious and non-conformist image. "The relationship between the New Hollywood of disciplinary crisis and countercultural experimentation and the New Hollywood of the blockbuster is less one of opposition, than one of virtualities that are actualized " (352), Robnik concludes. The images of the counterculture live on. But they have been transformed into standard generic formulas and hollow stereotypes, essentially devoid of social or political relevance. There is a cynical touch to the way Hollywood these days holds corruption and crime in government and economy to be self-evident, virtually takes it for granted. The ideals and deep concerns of the countercultural movement have been repressed into mainstream oblivion.
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