At some point in every conspiracy movie, the beleaguered protagonist tries to pull some innocent bystander into the fray, usually by describing the plot of the movie so far. Problem is, protagonists who try this almost always come across as deranged. They never successfully limit themselves to the provable, sane facts that would draw sympathy, like "My abusive husband and his new religious-extremist friends have denied me medical attention throughout my pregnancy and have been force-feeding me quack remedies, and I need proper hospitalization and a good divorce lawyer." No, it's always "HELP ME! MURDERING SATANISTS WANT TO STEAL MY DEMON-BABY!" Decades of this pattern may have audiences thinking there's just no good way for a conspiracy victim to seek help. But a close look at the conspiracy canon has taught The A.V. Club a lot of things… including some relatively successful ways to rope in assistance when the black helicopters come for you.
The 39 Steps (1935)
Conspiracy victim: Canadian tourist Robert Donat
Nature of conspiracy targeting him: International intrigue. A spy ring frames him as a murderer so they can continue smuggling stolen scientific secrets out of Britain.
Who does he ask for help? Practically everyone he encounters, including his milkman, stranger-on-a-train Madeleine Carroll, a suspicious Scottish farmer and his wife, the spymaster targeting him, and various law-enforcement officials.
Does he ask coherently? Intermittently. Depending on time pressures, his pitches range from detailed explanations of the entire plot to a gabbled "They want me for murder, but they mustn't catch me!"
Does he get help? Sometimes. The milkman dismisses his spy story, but eagerly jumps on board when Donat instead claims he needs help escaping an angry, cuckolded husband. Carroll proves more resistant to Donat's "Quick, total stranger, pretend we're lovers!" tactic, but relents after being handcuffed to him for a good chunk of the movie.
Lessons learned: Handsome, debonair conspiracy victims do all right when they seek help from blue-collar workers and lonely, abused women. More aristocratic dames can only be lured in via elaborate bondage routines.
Conspiracy victim: Bank security VP Harrison Ford
Nature of conspiracy targeting him: Criminal. Paul Bettany and a group of well-organized thugs kidnap Ford's wife and children as part of an elaborately choreographed high-tech robbery plan.
Who does he ask for help? Beverley Breuer, the secretary he fired earlier in the film.
Does he ask coherently? No. After smashing down her door and violently restraining her, he hisses the whole story into her ear, slanted in a way that makes him sound like a paranoid schizophrenic on crack.
Does he get help? Actually, she promptly falls all over herself to help in any way possible.
Lessons learned: Violence solves everything.
Conspiracy Theory (1997)
Conspiracy victim: New York cabbie/stalker Mel Gibson
Nature of conspiracy targeting him: Ridiculously complicated, though it involves brainwashed government super-assassins and an evil Patrick Stewart.
Who does he ask for help? His stalking victim, Julia Roberts.
Does he ask coherently? Not even remotely. When he most directly seeks her assistance, he's waving a gun around and screaming "I was in the belly of a whale! No, they were in a wheelchair, I was crippled! There was a goldfish, and there wasn't any gravy!"
Does he get help? Eventually, after dragging a tolerant Roberts into one mess after another.
Lessons learned: Conspiracy victims who can't help acting insane should soften up their would-be assistants with weeks of endearing harmless-crazy interaction before pulling out the Great Big Scary-Crazy routine.
Nick Of Time (1995)
Conspiracy victim: Nebbishy CPA Johnny Depp
Nature of conspiracy targeting him: Political. Evil mastermind Christopher Walken kidnaps Depp's daughter in order to blackmail him into assassinating California governor Marsha Mason.
Who does he ask for help? Several cops, a taxi driver, Mason herself, her assistant, her husband, her head of security, and shoeshine man Charles S. Dutton.
Does he ask coherently? For an Everyman character, he's remarkably resourceful, and for a conspiracy victim, he's remarkably clever. He'd likely be completely coherent if most of his aid-seeking efforts weren't cut short by Walken magically materializing inches away from him and glowering him into stuttering submission.
Does he get help? At long last, mostly because he finds the one living person in the entire film (besides Mason) who isn't in on the assassination plot.
Lessons learned: If at first you don't succeed, just try again with anyone who comes within earshot. Volume, volume, volume.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Conspiracy victim: Brainwashed soldier Denzel Washington
Nature of conspiracy targeting him: Political. Washington is a cog in a complicated scheme to kill the president and replace him with Liev Schreiber.
Who does he ask for help? The U.S. Army, a scientist acquaintance, Schreiber, a senator opposing Schreiber, an undercover Secret Service agent.
Does he ask coherently? No. He sometimes lays his case out relatively clearly, but his efforts get progressively more addled as the movie goes on, and they peak with his attempt to chew a secret implant out of Schreiber's shoulder.
Does he get help? A little here and there, though most of the people who even remotely believe him disappear or die. Oddly, the key to his escape comes from Schreiber, though more due to a mid-film coincidence than to anything Washington said.
Lessons learned: Sometimes it isn't all about you. Sit back and wait for someone else to fix the problem.
Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
Conspiracy victim: Fragile single mother Carol Lynley
Nature of conspiracy targeting her: Personal. After moving to England, Lynley misplaces her daughter Bunny, and no one can find any sign that the child ever existed.
Who does she ask for help? The employees, children, and owner of Bunny's day-care center, policeman Laurence Olivier, her brother Keir Dullea.
Does she ask coherently? Briefly, though she becomes increasingly shrill and repetitive as the film continues, until the cast is fully justified in pondering the film's central question: whether she really has a missing daughter, or she's just nuts.
Does she get help? Yes, though most of it's patronizing, misleading, or just plain disturbing.
Lessons learned: Don't let the chief conspirator manage your conspiracy investigation. Seriously.
The Game (1997)
Conspiracy victim: Grumpy zillionaire Michael Douglas
Nature of conspiracy targeting him: Recreational/criminal. After his brother (Sean Penn) promises to relieve his boredom by involving him in a high-end game of some sort, Douglas winds up on the run from apparent scam artists who make his life a living hell.
Who does he ask for help? The American and Mexican police, the U.S. Embassy, a restaurant full of truckers, his ex-wife.
Does he ask coherently? At first, though as things fall apart around him, he turns into the usual conspiracy-victim gibbering puddle of goo. His high point comes when he throws a shrieking fit over a TV commercial.
Does he get help? Yes. In fact, the worse things get, the friendlier people become. Except for the Mexican cop who beats him up, either for acting crazy or for speaking dreadful faux-Spanish.
Lessons learned: Never accept presents from Sean Penn. Also, being rich, bored, and jaded isn't necessarily as fun as it sounds.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Conspiracy victim: Ludicrously naïve housewife Mia Farrow
Nature of conspiracy targeting her: Satanic. Cultists want to use her fecund body to incarnate their demonic master on Earth.
Who does she ask for help? Old friend Maurice Evans, incredulous doctor Charles Grodin.
Does she ask coherently? No. With Evans, she doesn't understand enough to complain properly; with Grodin, she babbles everything out in a howling paranoid rush.
Does she get help? No—she gets Evans killed, and Grodin promptly turns her in to her devil-worshipping enemies.
Lessons learned: Sometimes you just can't get good help, even when you're up against a laughably disorganized, overly obvious conspiracy. And when you can't beat 'em, you're gonna have to join 'em.