'If I'm wrong, I'm insane. If I'm right, it's worse': in conspiracy films – from Rosemary's Baby to State of Play – solving the crime does not bring peace. Michael Newton investigates a rich cinematic genre
Some believe that JFK was shot by his driver, some that Bobby Kennedy was killed by one of his guards; some believe the world is ruled by a Yale fraternity, some by lizard-aliens in disguise; some believe that Obama is a Communist mole; some that, back in 1966, Paul McCartney died. These notions are, at best, deluded; but as potential pitches for an as yet unmade Hollywood movie, they might just secure the contract. For, in movies, you can believe that the moon shots were faked, or that men are replacing their wives with compliant robots, or that space shuttles are firing earthquake-inducing weapons, or that the world itself is a delusion – and in each case you could be proved right.
The distance between conspiracy films and actual documented conspiracies has always been paper-thin. Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of Robert Kennedy's murder, thinks of himself as a "Manchurian candidate", a brainwashed killer just like in the movies; the same atmosphere of anxiety and unease that informs Alan J Pakula's fictional The Parallax View (1974) likewise pervades his Watergate film,All The President's Men (1976).
There have long been fears of conspiracy – weird anxieties about transnational plots hatched by the Freemasons or the Communist International, the Jesuits or the Jews. Yet the conspiracy theory text is really an early-20th-century product, coming into being in a cultural moment that united cosmopolitan anarchist terrorism, revolutionary communist hopes, the triumph of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic system, and the birth of the espionage novel. The phrase "conspiracy theory" was coined in 1909, only a year after GK Chesterton published The Man Who Was Thursday, that great novel of paranoid political fears. A new way of perceiving the world had arrived – one that exposed grand narratives of deception and control, all through the unpicking of clues, the fusing of events. Facts attach themselves to suspicions; unexpected connections coalesce; a story builds; everything seems crazily plausible. Coincidence is king.
Such widespread suspicion, the fall into a troubled and troubling abyss of speculation, was bound to find some counterpart in that great repository of dreams that is the cinema. The conspiracy film is not quite a genre. And if conspiracy is simply two or more people engaging in criminal or nefarious plots, the more you think about it, the more any film can start to seem to a conspiracy film – from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Wings of the Dove (1997). No movie is to be trusted.
Yet there is a discernible kind of conspiracy fiction out there, both criminal or political, fantastic or close to documentary. It would embrace Edge of Darkness (1985), as well as Rosemary's Baby (1968), The 39 Steps (1935) and Capricorn One (1978), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as much as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). Such works might be better termed "paranoid fictions", characterised by uncertainty, suspicion, a mood of disquiet, the sense that nothing is as we perceive it. The camera intensifies the unease with shots that reveal someone else is watching, as we share for a moment their malign, inquisitive gaze. Suspicion and curiosity are the motivating forces. In All the President's Men, the journalists' great mantra is the phrase, "We know that", always spoken when pushing further into what they do not yet know.
Conspiracy theories are for the "clear‑seeing" minority, the supposedly undeceived. Such theorists are the last gnostics; they believe that knowledge is salvation, and knowing necessarily involves possessing secrets hidden from the common herd. In The Matrix (1999), pleasure enters from rising above the ruck, and standing out as "The One", the world around you transformed into a video game. A fear of terrible control turns into a counter-fantasy of enormous empowerment; a triumphant quasi-religious refusal to feel small. It is a dream of self-importance.
In our culture, the great figure of "knowing" is the detective, and the paranoid fiction is a close cousin of the detective story, though it lacks the latter's rational and comforting quality. The job of the detective is to link apparently random elements within the film; to connect the dots. As demonstrated by the brilliant Edge of Darkness, it is on TV that conspiracy finds its ideal home. For there the greater length of the series better accommodates conspiracy's labyrinthine structure, revelation after revelation, a door opening on another closed door.
For the classic detective tale, the solution somehow shrinks the story, pinning all the possible guilt on one suspect. In the paranoid fiction, solving the crime does not bring peace. The exposed mystery is sometimes so immense that it deluges the detective figure, overwhelming all possibility of resolution; corruption ramifies endlessly. Chinatown (1974), The Conversation, The Parallax View, and many others, end in complete hopelessness; victory over the hidden powers is rare. If in Paul Abbott's fantastic TV series State of Play (2003), a small hope lingers, it is only because, to some extent, conspiracy has faded behind a more comprehensible crime of passion. All the leads, all the murk, just result in another murder story for the papers. You unravel a conspiracy, reconstruct its plot; you cannot "solve" it.
As State of Play reveals, the journalist makes the perfect detective hero and heroine in such tales. Journalists are close to power, but are relatively powerless; they are unofficial, slightly sleazy, human. The enemy is a figure in a suit; in The Matrix, the oppressive agents resemble both CIA operatives and certified accountants; in State of Play's forgettable Hollywood remake, Russell Crowe's journalist looks like Jeff Bridges as the Big Lebowski, and Ben Affleck, his complicit congressman friend, like an estate agent.
This interest in the journalist as such is symptomatic of the paranoid film; it is unusually fascinated by watching its characters at work: reporters reporting, investigators investigating. In the Bourne films, Jason Bourne has no identity outside the fact of his training. In All the President's Men, there is almost no indication of the private lives of any of the journalists; there is only their absorption in the story. In Defence of the Realm (1986), one character asks another: "Are you here as a newspaper man, or as a friend?" Later, at the journalist's funeral, his boss declares that, before anything, the dead man was a "professional". In The Conversation, someone asserts: "It's only a job … you're not supposed to feel anything about it, you're just supposed to do it."
In these films and programmes, the working self, the public person, is all but everything. In State of Play, romance is temporary and hardly matters; career trumps love. Again, in Defence of the Realm, Gabriel Byrne's character clearly desires Greta Scacchi's character, yet she remains first and foremost an informant, a contact. Work in such films is an obsession. The ethos of the reporter's job stands as an emblem of compromised purity; the tarnished but real ideal of the freedom of the press. The typewriter makes public the power of the secret state.
This faith in the freedom brought by knowledge is one of the great positives enshrined in the conspiracy film. Yet for all their pleasures, they are among the grimmest of movies. For in the guise of exposing secrets, they are as often dissolving the real. This makes them an ideal subject for cinema, a medium that in any case constructs its own reality from photographed simulacra of the actual. So it is that, very often, such films show us things that, rationally speaking, cannot be there – Bob Peck conversing with his dead daughter in Edge of Darkness, the hallucinations that permeate Martin Scorsese's magnificently gothic Shutter Island (2010), the illusion that is the "world" itself in The Matrix. Reality becomes suspect; the surface must be continually reassessed. In all conspiracy films, the accepted world of the ordinary may turn out to be extraordinary, but only in the sense of being extraordinarily dark. Things are far worse than you believed. Either you are mad to believe in the conspiracy, or the world is mad to have allowed it. In The Stepford Wives (1975), as she considers her suspicions about what's going on in Stepford, Katharine Ross agonises: "It's so awful. If I'm wrong, I'm insane. And if I'm right, it's worse than if I'm wrong."
These films want to tell us to trust nothing. In All The President's Men, the investigating journalists, Bernstein and Woodward, pay a visit to the suburbs of Washington DC. "All those neat little houses, all those nice little streets," murmurs Bernstein. "It's hard to believe there's something wrong with some of those little houses." "No it isn't," says Woodward. In conspiracy films a moment must come in which we have to abandon everything we have thought is true. Since the late 90s, such a move has become a common one; after Fight Club (1999), The Others (2001), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and The Matrix, it is a trusting viewer indeed who never suspects something is amiss with the "facts" a film shows them. We have come to suspect the stories we are told, to doubt the evidence of our eyes. The great fear is manipulation – by the government, by corporations, by criminals and, finally, by film itself.
If deep in the sludge of the internet conspiracies are of all kinds, on film they are almost always the privilege of the powerful. Here, rightful authority tends to debase itself as deceiving power. Despite Stalin and Mao, repression comes from the right; our imagined totalitarian states are now entrepreneurial, corporate, anti-democratic. Government becomes a facade.
The policing of the internet, all that data mining, is already a kind of policing of our dreams – many of them bad. What do our fantasies say about us? On some level, the paranoid film wants to absolve the victim; all vice resides in the CIA or MI5, in Downing Street or the White House, and none in us. Yet, attacking conspiracy means behaving yourself like a conspirator. In State of Play, the journalists have already adopted the techniques of surveillance, secretly recording everything.
Nonetheless a wish for the innocence of the little guy loiters. The strongest example of this trend is Shutter Island. Here in a cut-off island hospital for the criminally insane, two paradoxes face each other: once someone is labelled "insane", suddenly all they say, even their protestations of sanity, will seem mad. Similarly, once an event attracts a conspiracy theory, any evidence that might disprove the theory becomes a duplicitous lie, just another element in the sham. In neither case can credence be given, and our common sense of each other as trustworthy, as real, disappears. The predicament of the film's hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, tells us much about the consolations of conspiracy theory: it can seem better to live in a world run by dark forces, than to face the certain darkness within the self.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, over the last 80 years the vision of conspiracy has darkened. In Hitchcock's film version of The 39 Steps, a conspiracy prompts the hero to go on the run, but flight brings a reckless joy. The world opens itself up to Richard Hannay with all the glorious possibility of adventure. The police may be mistakenly pursuing him too, but the real enemy is a foreign government; he is facing death, but, ultimately, all is right with the world. By the time we reach Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda(1990), a tale of dark deeds done in Northern Ireland in democracy's name, the joy has departed, and the enemy is ourselves; the instruments of violence found in the police and the British government. The paranoid film is not known for its laughs. Only Richard Donner's decidedly weird Conspiracy Theory (1997) comes close to a manic humour. Here, casting is key. The film plays brilliantly on the fact that many in the audience will already find Mel Gibson weird. The film dramatises the great hope of the heroic couple (Gibson, Julia Roberts), illicit lovers, on the run and harried. Both Hitchcock and Donner want us to believe in the victory of trust within a couple, of love's secret conspiracy.
Such moments of affirmation are rare. In looking back on these films, you hardly recall the conspiracies. What more often remains with you is the utter loneliness of the surveyed and the duped. The archetypal scene in such films is someone persuading a recalcitrant other to open up, to tell their secrets. Such secrets signal the intense privacy of the self, precisely the privacy corroded by the surveillance world. And, as Henry Kissinger once warned us, even the paranoid have enemies.