1. The Parallax View (1974)
Few conspiracy movies ever live up to their premises or their early scenes. They tend to have disappointing endings for a lot of reasons, but one of the most common is a discrepancy of scale: In order to make a conspiracy properly scary, filmmakers often present it as some sort of all-powerful global octopus with its tentacles in all facets of life, and yet conventional filmmaking demands that it also be fragile, flawed, and short-sighted enough that a single intrepid hero can tear it down by the end of the film. (By way of example, look at Hitman or Wanted, two action movies centering on long-established, world-spanning secret assassin organizations that completely fall to pieces after one of their own gets betrayed, gets pissed, and comes out shooting.) Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 film The Parallax View also addresses a secretive organization of assassins with broad political ends, and an intrepid hero reporter (Warren Beatty) looking to expose their machinations. And much like their shadowy-organization brethren, the Parallax Corporation isn’t shy about betraying its inductees. But Pakula’s film makes a daring choice by choosing to keep the conspiracy consistent: Initially seen as powerful, secretive, full of careful planners, and intimidatingly well-run, it remains so right up until the end, such that one man flailing around in the dark can’t necessarily kick all the pillars out from under it. That makes for a bleak movie, but a memorably terrifying one.
2. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Another way to keep a conspiracy thriller from falling apart: Keep the scale small. Not every conspiracy needs to be global, and the smaller it is, the more understandable when it begins to unravel. And often conspiracies are more intense when they’re more personal. So while the conspiracy in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes isn’t entirely limited to the train where half the story takes place, the train serves as a self-enclosed, isolated environment where a mystery can unravel without interference or help from the outside world. (The era’s lack of cell phones and Internet access—say, to look up one Miss Froy on Facebook—certainly helps.) When an elderly lady disappears and everyone on the train denies she ever existed, protagonist Margaret Lockwood tries to uncover the truth, but after a blow to the head, even she’s half-convinced that there is no conspiracy, she’s just concussed. Hitchcock cleverly lets viewers in on a few of the motivations behind the lies, as one couple in particular participates in the conspiracy entirely inadvertently, and he gives viewers plenty of clues that there really is a conspiracy afoot, albeit a small one. In the process, he not only keeps the action taut, he makes the film not merely about the nature of the conspiracy, but about whether the heroine has the strength and luck to fight off her own self-doubt and keep pushing until she finds the truth.
3. The Wicker Man (1973)
Another flaw that frequently plagues conspiracy movies: The compulsion to change genres for the third act, turning a meticulously plotted thriller into a sloppy actioner, in which a complicated plan gets unraveled largely via car chases or fisticuffs. (Unknown is just the most recent example of the problem.) It’s rare to see a conspiracy movie as consistent throughout as the original Wicker Man, a carefully plotted mystery that sticks to its eerie tone throughout and deliberately lays down every thread of its final act within the first half-hour of the story. Edward Woodward stars as an aggressively self-righteous Christian policeman who pursues an SOS letter about a missing child to a small island where the residents still engage in pagan rituals, and where everyone claims the girl in question never existed, though plenty of clues suggest otherwise. While their clear conspiracy, and Woodward’s efforts to unravel it, are key to the story, The Wicker Man takes its key elements from Woodward’s prickly, judgmental character and the culture clash between his beliefs and the locals’: While the action does ramp up toward the end, Woodward never makes that so-often-unbelievable switchover from everyman in difficult circumstances to kick-ass action hero, and his constancy in the face of the plot against him is much of what makes the film work.
4. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Good conspiracy movies certainly need to reveal what’s going on by the end of the film, but few films have enough faith in the audience’s patience, or even the writers’ storytelling abilities. Filmmakers often feel the need to start solving the mystery as soon as it’s introduced, leaving viewers little time to sit in the uncomfortable weirdness of a dark, compelling conspiracy. The original, Frank Sinatra-fronted version of The Manchurian Candidate (not to be confused with Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake) is as confident as it is unsettling. The tale of Raymond Shaw—and what the hell the Koreans did to mess with his head—is introduced via a series of dreams from Shaw’s former army buddies. Each dream reveals more information, and by the time the last is complete, the audience knows the entirety of the formative incident, but nothing yet about Korea’s intentions and what Shaw is capable of. Plus, his mother—played by a sufficiently creepy Angela Lansbury—only reveals her role at the end, leaving viewers guessing about her true intentions all along. The final scene is a gut-punch of information, catharsis, and the realization that the story was progressing the entire time, right under our noses.
5. Chinatown (1974)
Another way to approach the idea of keeping a conspiracy believable is to give everyone who knows even the slightest information about it good reason to keep their mouths shut. Tossing in a few historical truths for verisimilitude doesn’t hurt, either. In Roman Polanski’s classic noir Chinatown, a woman hires private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson, never better) to tail her husband and prove he’s cheating on her. But as Jake gets deeper into the mystery of who the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Mulwray are, the bottom keeps dropping out from under him. Screenwriter Robert Towne drags Jake through a lengthy series of revelations that might challenge credulity were they not so close to the methods the early businessmen who built Los Angeles used to construct the city out of a desert. But the final revelations are the most wrenching of all, as Jake finally tracks down the secret at the core of all of his investigations—the secret that bears an eerie thematic similarity to the central tale of land mismanagement and water thievery—and it immediately becomes apparent that no one was talking all this time due to deep shame. It’s often hard to believe that movie conspiracies could outlast people’s natural tendency to gossip, brag, or let things slip, but the one hidden here is more likely than most to keep the participants quiet.
6. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Following Chinatown’s lead is a good start to a sustainable conspiracy movie, but sometimes it also helps to make the conspiracy the least ridiculous aspect of the entire picture. The Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes demands that viewers suspend their disbelief long enough to buy into a shadowy plot predicated on loose ends from the Mulwray case, a suspension that wouldn’t be necessary if The Two Jakes took place, say, in a Los Angeles where humans and cartoons coexist. By the time the pieces of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s own L.A. land-grab start falling into place, boozy P.I. Bob Hoskins has witnessed a violent piano duel between animated ducks, driven a talking cab, and been harassed by a gang of wise-guy weasels. If anything, the larger implications of the Hollywood murders Hoskins investigates helps the film establish a grounded reality.
7. The Conversation (1973)
Tossed off between the first two Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation suggests that the true way to tell a conspiracy story is to put viewers right inside the head of its centerpiece. Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is asked to spy on a young couple, but he doesn’t know his employer’s true motives. The deaths of several people in an earlier wiretap job still weigh heavily on his conscience, leading him to be extra-careful in making sure this new couple won’t meet a foul end. But the further he presses to hear what they said on the fateful day, the less he’s able to understand what it means. As Caul plumbs the titular conversation for hidden depths, the paranoid nature of most people in the surveillance business begins to poke its head around his demeanor, convincing him that he can find the truth if he presses hard enough. But he’s just one man, emotionally warped by years of doing this job, and justified paranoia is just a few steps from madness. Coppola (who also wrote the script) gains his greatest strength from keeping the true nature of the conspiracy just out of Caul’s grasp for most of the film’s running time. Is it prosaic and mundane, or more far-reaching and evil? The answer will likely determine Caul’s sanity.
8. Enemy Of The State (1998)
Though not a sequel to The Conversation, 1998’s Enemy Of The State features Gene Hackman as a shadowy surveillance expert, though an older and wiser one. Will Smith plays the protagonist, a lawyer who’s unwittingly cast into a murder plot when a friend slips him some video evidence. The movie works because Smith remains convincingly confused and angry, and because even though the government-spying stuff seems far-fetched, it also seems plausible. (The hacker nerds who play the NSA’s dirty tricks are played by Jack Black and Seth Green, pre-fame.) And Enemy doesn’t give way to oversimplicity as it unravels: Sure, there’s a gunfight, but it’s wrapped in a convincing web of deceit that keeps viewers guessing.
9. Jean De Florette (1986)
As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Three can keep a secret… if two of them are dead.” Sometimes a successful conspiracy movie is just about seeing how long ordinary people can manage the difficult business of keeping an ordinary secret. The French film Jean De Florette succeeds on many levels, and for many reasons, but primarily because it makes that ordinary secret matter. The film lets viewers in on the conspiracy from the beginning, as a young man and his uncle attempt to buy a piece of land, accidentally cause its owner’s death, then dam up its spring in an attempt to drive out the owner’s heir. They cleverly turn the local villagers against the new owner, Gérard Depardieu, by spreading rumors about him, enlisting anyone who knew about the spring in a cabal of silence against him. And the rest of the film is just about watching Depardieu fight for the future he’s envisioned for himself, as the forces at work against him wait and watch. Jean De Florette doesn’t fit the mold of the usual conspiracy movie—Depardieu doesn’t even know there’s a conspiracy against him, and thinks he’s battling nature instead of his fellow villagers—but there’s a vicious, intimate tension in watching his all-too-human struggles with optimism and defeat, and in watching his just-as-human enemies battle their own consciences. Conspiracy movies all too often come down to one ridiculously symbolic, unlikely attempt to expose a secret to the world—Sandra Bullock trying to send evidence of a secret computer back door in the middle of a computer convention in The Net, for instance, or Ryan Phillippe uncovering the stolen computer code in Antitrust—but all the silly chase sequences in the world aren’t as tense as the prospect of a handful of people consciously choosing to destroy a man with lies and silence, then facing up to what they’ve done. (A sequel from the same year, Manon Of The Spring, shows the impact on the next generation.)
10. Tell No One (2006)
Guillaume Canet’s compelling French thriller Tell No One follows a similar philosophy by making its central conspiracy less of a vast plot than it seems, and more of a personal secret held in a few hands. But it also works for a different reason: The heart of the conspiracy is in the past, not the present. Too many conspiracy movies follow an organization’s ongoing attempts to control and conceal events, and for the conspiracy to properly unravel, conspirators who’ve made brilliant choices in the past in order to set up a complicated situation (say, the child’s disappearance in Flightplan, or the slickly accomplished murders in The Pelican Brief) have to make increasingly stupid choices in order to keep the story moving along. With Tell No One, the important decisions were all made in the past, and the action of the movie is more about uncovering what happened and why than about dealing with forces that want to keep the secret under wraps. François Cluzet stars as a man whose wife was horrifically murdered eight years ago, under opaque, baffling circumstances—or so he thinks, until he seemingly gets a message from her. The rest of the film is as much mystery and character drama as conspiracy thriller—which tends to be another way to make conspiracy stories work, by drawing on multiple genres and tones, and not relying solely on some shadowy drama to make things work.
11. The Game (1997)
The Game is smarter than the average conspiracy film because it lets viewers know exactly what’s going on up front without explaining why it’s happening. Michael Douglas’ rich, bored protagonist gets a gift certificate from his brother, allowing him to play “The Game.” When he reluctantly follows the certificate’s instructions, it becomes clear that he’s put his life in the hands of people whose extensive barrage of psychological profiling and physical reflex tests are as comprehensive as possible. By getting that sinister profiling out of the way up front, The Game accomplishes two things: It provides a logical explanation for everything that happens by the film’s end, and it keeps viewers questioning the motives of those administering the tests. Explaining how rather than why (and then clearing up both by the end) prevents the film from falling apart: the ends are as clear as the explicitly shown means.
12. Z (1969)
Conspiracy thrillers often reference real-life conspiracies directly or indirectly, but that doesn’t necessarily support their verisimilitude. Oliver Stone’s JFK, for one, presents an “alternate version” of the Kennedy assassination that’s so convoluted and unlikely, it has the effect of affirming the Warren Commission’s findings. Costa-Gavras’ galvanizing classic Z also references an assassination—the 1963 killing of democratic Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis—and it opens with a provocative epigram: “Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.” Defying the military dictatorship that was ruling Greece at the time, Costa-Gavras backs that epigram with a story designed to work on the current government much like Hamlet’s play-within-a-play works on Hamlet’s uncle. Z simplifies its conspiracy plot by taking the form of a procedural, following a prosecutor who doggedly pursues the truth behind a “car accident” that killed a prominent left-wing politician. Bit by bit, the truth comes out.
13. Oldboy (2003)
The second installment in Park Chan-wook’s “vengeance trilogy,” Oldboy succeeds not only by maintaining a small scale, but by keeping emotional investment high and at times embracing a lunatic vibe. It’s classical tragedy wrapped in stylized Korean thriller, straight through the third act, in which Park employs some good old-fashioned human-on-human suffering for our enjoyment. This isn’t a standard, predictable, law-based comeuppance—this dual revenge fantasy involves complete emotional annihilation. After a drunken night lands him cuffed to a police station wall, a Seoul businessman (Choi Min-sik) disappears, mysteriously imprisoned for reasons he doesn’t understand and by people he doesn’t know. His release comes uncelebrated and unannounced some 15 years later, and Choi begins to piece together the conspiracy that locked him away and plot revenge on those who put him there. The highly stylized film serves as an antibody to Choi’s long confinement, building the real world to be outrageous, wild, and capable of exacting the sort of depraved, insane revenge that Choi’s conspirators have in mind. The key players’ minds are broken, unhinged, and deeply motivated—allowing the conspiracy to breathe and evolve without becoming implausible. When the third act arrives, it does so deliberately and inevitably, bringing the full, absurd scope of more than 15 years of pent-up aggression and anticipated sex and violence.
14. Blow Out (1981)
The conspiracy in Brian De Palma’s Blow Up retread, Blow Out, succeeds almost in spite of itself. When a governor dies in an assassination disguised as a Chappaquiddick-like car accident, the murderers leave behind an abundance of loose ends: a prostitute who survives the accident (Nancy Allen), film footage, and an audio recording, the latter captured by sound technician John Travolta. What’s more, their attempt to cover it up by murdering a bunch of prostitutes who resemble Allen and blaming it on a serial killer reeks of desperation. And yet… Everyone should watch the movie to learn the final twist, but like everything leading up to it, it seems convincing because it depends on virtually everyone touched by the conspiracy not noticing what’s right in front of their eyes and ears. (It also provides De Palma with another chance to explore how illusions overpower reality.)
15. Winter Kills (1979)
Because they frequently deal in wildly complex, intricate schemes requiring preternatural insight into human choices and the cooperation of massive bureaucracies acting with uncommon coordination and efficiency, even the best conspiracy films are inherently far-fetched. And yet they’re rarely funny, as if acknowledging the silliness at their core will somehow prevent the audience from doing the same. One conspiracy film that isn’t afraid to play its labyrinthine story for laughs is William Richert’s endearing, bizarre cult favorite Winter Kills. Based on a book by Richard Condon, whose Manchurian Candidate provided the source material for one of the classics of conspiracy cinema, Winter Kills stars Jeff Bridges as the half-brother of a Kennedy-esque presidential candidate who stumbles upon the plot that killed his sibling many years earlier. Bridges starts digging for the truth, but the more he digs, the less clear the picture looks, as conspiracy theories start piling atop each other to reveal a darkly absurd tapestry. While Winter Kills is often funny, it’s a comedy in the Dr. Strangelove tradition, laughing at the insanity of the people who are supposed to be in charge in order to keep from crying.