Holy trinity of conspiracy thrillers

The Lincoln assassination by the way was a conspiracy wherein a number of participants were arrested, tried and hung. That’s another kettle of fish.

by Michael Bergeron

There’s never been a shortage of conspiracy themed movies and there’s always more in the pipeline.

“Three Days of the Condor,” “The Parallax View” and “The President’s Analyst” not only portray an accurate zeitgeist of the time when they were made but offer a compendium of archetypal assassination plots.

We’re not forgetting such unforgotten gems as “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962); “Executive Action” (1973); “JFK” (1991); “Conspiracy Theory” (1997); or Mark Lane’s groundbreaking 1967 documentary on the JFK assassination “Rush to Judgment;” not to mention every sci-fi flick that suggests the government has suppressed the knowledge of UFOs.

The Lincoln assassination by the way was a conspiracy wherein a number of participants were arrested, tried and hung. That’s another kettle of fish.

The President’s Analyst

James Coburn had achieved his status as a leading actor when he starred in “The President’s Analyst,” which was released in December of 1967. Previously Coburn had been a solid supporting actor for over a decade in television roles and adventure films like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.”

After Dr. Sidney Schaefer (Coburn) becomes the official psychiatrist of the President every spy agency in the world wants to kidnap, interrogate and assassinate him, in that order. The real threat turns out to be the telephone company who wants Dr. Schaefer to use his influence with the President to install a prenatal communication device in every human.

Satire and black comedy merge with a psychedelic twist that lampoons the Summer of Love and corporate malfeasance with equal strokes. Yet the film holds back on its punches reflecting the collective trauma – assassinations, an unending war and civil rights – that defined the 1960s. The cold natured business on display has a hip veneer.

Under pressure from Paramount Studio the filmmakers changed the name of the FBI to the FBR and the CIA to the CEA, dubbing the new names in post. The Phone Company was simply TPC. The Russian KGB stayed the same.

While “The President’s Analyst,” became a cult film due to the story’s machinations of secrecy in government organizations it’s a barrage of side moments that give fans repeat pleasure.

When Dr. Schaefer goes on the run he first hides out with a typical middle class family played by William Daniels and Joan Darling who spout platitudes of complacency but are armed to the teeth; then Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction”) playing a hippie musician allows Dr. Schaefer to hide in the band’s van (a motif that would be repeated by Lindsay Anderson in “O Lucky Man”). Jill Banner, a petite go-to actress who specialized in playing a flower child in countless episodes of Jack Webb television shows, plays Snow White the muse for McGuire’s band. Banner had starred in “Spider Baby” years before but that film was released after “Analyst” opened.

The film proper begins with Godfrey Cambridge as CEA agent Masters recruiting Dr. Schaefer while also posing as a client undergoing analysis. While in therapy Masters delivers the most salient recollection of growing up black in white America that had been seen in a mainstream movie up to that time.

Throw in a ‘60s-era Amphicar 770 amphibious automobile, a Love-In where everyone gets dosed with LSD and a conclusion that suggests an Edward Snowden surveillance dystopia and you have the ambivalent attitude of “The President’s Analyst.”

The Parallax View

The next two films in our trilogy were not so quick to neither substitute the acronyms of intelligence agencies nor hide the fact that the USA was basically taken over by a cabal of multinational overlords after the Kennedy assassination.

“The Parallax View” opened in the summer of 1974, directed by Alan Pakula (whose follow-up was “All the President’s Men”) and shot by Gordon Willis (who lensed the film between “The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part II”).

The plot mirrors the assassination of JFK. Hapless reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) gets drawn into the three-year-old murder of a Presidential candidate.

Several witnesses to the event, one of whom is his ex-girlfriend, have recently mysteriously died. Paula Prentiss, William Daniels and Hume Cronyn co-star.

Further investigation reveals  a shadowy organization called the Parallax Corporation that recruits potential assassins with a personality test designed to reveal psychotic tendencies.

A sequence some refer to as the incredible montage shows the initiation to Parallax with an incredible series of images and words. Frady watches the entire induction video seated in a large room in front of a screen while his hands are placed on galvanic skin response boxes.

True to the more cynical bent of the mid-1970s spiritual mindset “The Parallax View” does not end with what you would call a set-up-for-a-sequel.

The entire enterprise was advertised as a Beatty vehicle and he displays some great moments: running for sanctuary into a strange house asking “has anybody seen my parrot?” or getting into a fight at a redneck bar after he tells one bubba who has called him a girl because of his long hair, “don’t touch me unless you love me.”

A shadowy court of inquiry, photographed in classic Willis noir hues, opens and closes “The Parallax View.”

Three Days of the Condor

Robert Redford as CIA analyst Turner uncovers a CIA within the CIA. A low level minion who reads new books looking for spy plots, Turner is the only one in his division absent when a hired assassin (the always dependable Max Von Sydow) and his team liquidate all the employees in the building.

When Turner tries to come in from the cold he discovers everyone he trusts is trying to off him. Almost Hitchcockian with its implausible yet logical sequence of events “Condor” posits Turner now on the run taking a hostage (an impossibly beautiful Faye Dunaway) who promptly falls in love with him but only after being tied up.

Director Sydney Pollack, early in his long career but certainly no novice at the time brought a breath taking intensity to the few action scenes in “Condor.” Years ahead of the rapid pace of “Bourne” style films the editing by Frederic Steinkamp and Don Guidice resulted in “Condor’s” only Oscar nomination. 

One of the screenplay writers, Lorenzo Semple Jr. was also one of the scribes on “The Parallax View.” The source novel by James Grady was titled “Six Days of the Condor,” so the filmmakers obviously sharpened the focus of the whole affair.

Cinematographer Owen Roizman was one of the top DPs at the time with credits like “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” The movie looks slick and moves at a constant pace between dialogue and motion.

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