Elliot: “Hello friend. Hello friend? That’s lame. Maybe I should give you a name. But That’s a slippery slope, you’re only in my head, we have to remember that. Shit, this actually happened, I’m talking to an imaginary person. What I’m about to tell you is top secret. A conspiracy bigger than all of us. There’s a powerful group of people out there that are secretly running the world. I’m talking about the guys no one knows about, the ones that are invisible. The top 1% of the top 1%, the guys that play God without permission. And now I think they are following me.” [Rami Malek talking to Rami Malek, “Mr. Robot”]
Don’t you feel sometimes that life is just not fair! Maybe you feel that you are not recognized for the work you do. Maybe you feel like you never get a fair break! Maybe you feel like you are constantly harassed or disrespected! Even worse, maybe you feel that you cannot truly trust anyone or that those around you wish to betray you or to do you harm! Well, if that’s the case, then Dear Reader maybe you are suffering from a case of Paranoia! According to Marriam-Webster’s Dictionary, paranoia is defined as:
- Mental illness characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur usually without hallucinations or…
- A tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others!
However, like the old expression that you have either read somewhere or seen on a popular T Shirt or two saying,” Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!” maybe, just maybe, you might not be necessarily mentally ill, but actually, right after all! Paranoia as an essential part of a storyline for films and Network TV or cable has been a popular one for a long time. This month’s Blog Post will discuss paranoia in these mediums, and how it has been utilized in varied and unusual ways.
Two movies where paranoia was an important part of a storyline are the RKO Pictures films’ “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943) and “Cat People” (1942). The espionage themed “Sparrow” starred John Garfield as Kit, an American veteran of the Spanish Civil War who was brutally tortured by the Nazis for two years for vital information until he was rescued by his lifelong friend Louie. While recovering in Arizona his convalescence ends when he finds out that Louie, now a NYPD lieutenant, died in a mysterious fall from a Park Avenue high rise apartment window during a party hosted by Kit’s former girlfriend. Now Kit, still physically and psychologically frail, heads to New York to investigate Louie’s death, and to see if it was tied into their experiences in Spain. During his investigation, Kit also starts to suspect that the Nazis are still after him. “Sparrow” was adapted from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes who crafted literary works teaming with paranoia (“In a Lonely Place”, etc.). Despite undistinguished direction by journeyman director Richard Wallace this movie is note-worthy due to the incredible dark shadowy cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca which captures the slow creeping fear and paranoia all around Garfield along with good performances by Patricia Morrison as Kit’s former girlfriend (or maybe not) along with Maureen O’Hara as Kit’s possible new love interest (or maybe not), and Walter Slezak as a wheelchair bound Norwegian intellectual (or also, maybe not) as fellow guests at the party the night Louie died. While this is not one of Garfield’s more memorable performances, he still is very believable as an unlikely hero who is unsure, mentally fragile, and full of self-doubt.
As a different type of paranoia, the horror film, “Cat People” was the first film made by Producer Val Lewton. Made for only $150,000 and completed in just 18 days, it starred Simone Simon as Irena, a Serbian-born illustrator in New York City who, when catching the eye of Oliver (Kent Smith) they meet cute, and after a brief romance he asks her to marry him despite her protests and fears. What protests and fears you may ask? Oh, nothing much! Just that she believes that she is descended from the legendary satanic “Cat People” from her region in Serbia and that she can turn into a murderous panther if aroused by passion (I think she means SEX, Oliver). Well, although that one sure beats the Hell out of being stuck with your intended bride’s “Battle Ax” mother-in-law by a country mile, does our Oliver decide to call off the engagement? Ah, No! So of course, they marry, there is no consummation of the marriage, and Oliver starts paying attention to his enticing assistant Alice (Oliver, I think she’s thinking about SEX too, you dumb F**k!). In the meantime, Irena is being treated by her pompous and lecherous shrink, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) who insists that her fears are all just psychological while seeing if Irena might be more interested in being physically, rather than psychoanalytically, probed on Dr. Judd’s couch. Soon Dr. Judd will discover that he should have invested in some extra medical coverage along with having a spare whip and chair handy for the next time Irena starts getting aroused!
“Cat People” was loaded with all kinds of uneasy moments like when various animals start reacting in terror to Irena’s mere presence when entering a pet store or visiting a zoo. However, she wasn’t the only one exhibiting paranoia. Underrated Director, Jacques Tourneur assisted, once again, by Nicholas Musuraca’s great cinematography helped to create a visual atmosphere of increasing unease and dread with Alice, Dr. Judd, and finally, Oliver (It’s about time!) realizing that Irena’s supernatural beliefs are not psychological, but menacingly real. Amazingly, for Puritanical America at that time, this film slid by the censors despite its veiled hints at a woman’s sexual frigidity, the suppressed sexual yearnings of different individuals like Alice and Oliver, and even possible hints at lesbianism like a scene at a Serbian restaurant where a mysterious semi-androgynous cat-like woman walks over to Irena and addresses her as mova sestra (“my sister”). This movie, along with other films that Lewton produced, conveyed chills and scares by shadows and darkness which worked like a charm at the box office too. “Cat People” was a big hit and the largest moneymaker for RKO that year. Not bad for a film where one of the taglines for it back then was, “A Kiss Could Change Her into a Monstrous Fang-and-Claw Killer!” Hmm! Well, I guess if that kiss was from idiots like Dr. Judd and Oliver, you might have whipped out those old fangs and claws too!
Another type of movie where paranoia was a popular element was for what was known as a “woman in jeopardy” movie. One of the best of these was for the movie, “Gaslight” (1944) with Ingrid Bergman giving an Oscar winning performance as a new wife in Victorian London slowly being driven insane with objects disappearing, and accusations from her sinister husband (bug-eyed Charles Boyer) that she was a mentally ill kleptomaniac. Years later you had another great one with the French film “Les Diabolique” (1955) starring Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret as the brutally treated wife and ex-mistress of the cruel head of a second-rate boarding school near Paris where both women finally decide to team up and kill him while making it look like an accident. They commit the deed, but complications soon occur when the body is not found, and tell-tale signs start showing up suggesting that he might still be alive and that their lives might be in danger. This one might have come close to rivaling “Psycho” as being one of the most scary shock movies ever made.
An even more recent one was the SY/FY horror/suspense thriller, “The Invisible Man” (2020), a reimagined, updated version of the famous H.G. Wells novel starring Elisabeth Moss. For this version Moss played a heroine who escaped her abusive and wealthy boyfriend, a sort of brilliant scientist/optics expert, who was so unstable he supposedly committed suicide shortly after her escape. However, soon afterwards she starts questioning her own reality, memory, and even her own sanity with items being moved, sounds being heard but nothing seen, and with even physical things starting to happen, to herself and later, to others but never seeing anyone or anything. Finally, after concluding that her ex is not only alive, but has acquired the ability to become invisible and was now stalking her, she has to take swift action before he completely destroys her life. Director Leigh Whannell (“Upgrade”) had a great premise and visually directed a film where both the audience and Moss’s character are in a constant state of unease where potential danger can occur at any moment. Unfortunately, unlike the two previous “woman in jeopardy” movies that I have favorably mentioned, there was only one small problem with this version of “The Invisible Man” … IT STINKS! Moss, usually a fine actress, is absolutely terrible here. She overacts so badly with her face crazily contorted all the time that all that was missing was a drool cup under her chin. The plot also has holes big enough to move a supertanker thru. For example, Moss, while in her attic dumps a can of paint on her invisible ex while he is trying to climb the attic ladder to menace her, yet by the time she climbs down he has already cleaned the paint off so he’s invisible again, or Moss, while with her sister in a crowded restaurant sees her sister killed by Moss’s invisible ex with a floating knife moving through the air past numerous individuals and no one else happens to see it, or… Oh, forget it! Do I need to say anything more? Just don’t waste your time watching this Turd!
Fortunately, keeping up with the paranoid SY/FY angle tying in with a feminist viewpoint is the far better British film, “Unearthly Stranger” (1963). This little black and white movie was only 78 minutes long, and had almost no special effects. They weren’t needed. Told in flashback, John Neville (“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”) portrays a scientist exploring the possibility of space travel by mental concentration after his predecessor dies from an explosion in his brain after making a scientific breakthrough. The following investigation soon focuses on Neville’s new Swiss(?) wife (Gabriella Licudi) who has some disturbing physical characteristics like almost never blinking, sleeping with her eyes wide open, and picking up hot objects with her bare hands (although that sure saves her from ever having to buy a pair of oven mitts!). These revelations may soon put her husband’s life at risk. Like “Cat People,” a husband quickly marrying an unusual foreign-born wife but discovering danger soon afterwards was given a SY/FY “Twilight Zone” twist here while invoking an atmosphere of increasing paranoia and fear. Neville is excellent, and Licudi, an actress who mostly had few roles of notice, is also very fine as an increasingly scared mysterious wife that schoolchildren recoil from upon her approach. Also, starring a young Jean Marsh (“Upstairs, Downstairs”), maybe the most interesting aspect of “Unearthly Stranger” is in how women are portrayed. Here they may appear to have mostly secondary or minor roles, but by the time this movie ends they may be the ones who will ultimately be in control, not the men. The chilling ending of “Unearthly Stranger” makes that prospect, abundantly, clear!
Network and cable television also had a number of SY/FY shows that evoked paranoia very well. One of the lesser ones was ABC’s hokey “The Invaders” (1967-68) starring Roy Thinnes as someone who accidently learns of an in-process alien invasion which he tries to thwart by traveling place to place in an attempt to stop their threats despite the fact that no one will believe him, and that the aliens, altered to appear human, disintegrate after dying leaving no trace of their existence. This show did have some good “who is a human and who is an alien” type of paranoia moments. However, Executive Producer Quinn Martin, who also produced the immensely popular ABC Network TV show, “The Fugitive”, which ended right around the same time, was looking for another “cash cow” TV hit so he gave the go ahead to have this one made. Unfortunately, he tried to use the same format of “The Fugitive” for “The Invaders” with Thinnes showing up in different places each week as the hunter, not the hunted, trying to root out those sneaky Aliens! The show even had the same sort of “fake” omnipotent beginning narration for the opening of every episode like in the “The Fugitive” to try and garnish some cheap sympathy for Thinnes’s character. It didn’t really work (I guess looking for hulking green aliens wasn’t the same as looking for a one-armed man), and the show was cancelled after the 2nd season. Now, at the same time Martin was also the Executive Producer for the even more hokey hit ABC Network TV show, “The F.B.I.” (1965-74) with emotionally lifeless Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. portraying J. Edgar Hoover’s wet dream fantasy vision of what an F.B.I. agent should be along with his crime busting F.B.I. agents always driving around in Ford sedans (Guess who the show’s TV sponsor was?). Hoover was even a series consultant, and his boyfrie…, I mean, second-in-command, Clyde Tolson vetted every episode to ensure that all the actors playing F.B.I. agents, and other participants, had background checks so that no criminals, subversives, or “Commies” could ever be associated with this show. Hmm! You’ll notice that the background checks didn’t include “Aliens!” Maybe Martin should have done a cross-over show with Thinnes discovering that Zimbalist was an alien and that his actual alien leader was “J. Edgar Hoover!” (After all, Hoover was already used to being in disguise with all of those dresses in his closet!)
A much better paranoia infused SY/FY TV show made back then was the British TV show, “The Prisoner” (1967) starring Patrick McGoohan. This 17 episode limited series starred McGoohan as an unnamed Secret Agent who angrily quits his job without a reason but shortly afterwards is subdued and whisked off to “The Village”, a coastal town isolated from the outside world by mountains and sea. No one is constrained there and everyone dresses the same with each individual assigned a number, rather than a name (his is No. Six). The village is secured by various high-tech monitoring systems and security forces making escape impossible, and where in each episode you have a new leader (No. Two) of the village trying to get No. Six to reveal the reasons why he resigned (which he will not do) while continually trying to either escape or undermine No. Two’s authority. This show was an allegory about individuality personified by No. Six vs. the crushing conformity of No. Two and “The Village”. McGoohan was excellent playing someone trapped in a surreal paranoid nightmare world where no one could be trusted, but where he could still be defiant. Much later on, two other fine series, where either supernatural or SY/FY paranoia was a major component, were “Outcast” (2016-17), and “Mr. Robot” (2015-19). “Outcast” was a short-lived horror series about unseen demonic possession in West Virginia with Patrick Fugit starring as an individual recovering from his own possession while also trying to help others affected by the same malady. “Mr. Robot” was even better starring Rami Malek in his Emmy winning role as a cybersecurity engineer and secret hacker, who struggles with social anxiety, clinical depression, multiple personality disorder, drug abuse, (leprosy, lycanthropy, acne, whatever) resulting in him constantly being in a paranoid and delusional state. He ultimately becomes a cyber-vigilante for an anarchist group known as “fsociety” trying to destroy one of the largest corporations in the world called, E Corp (AKA Evil Corp) while constantly fighting his own inner demons. Both shows were excellent in conveying a sense of creeping paranoia where too often you never knew what was actually real or who you could actually trust.
The last type of movie that I want to mention incorporating paranoia is, what I like to refer to as, “look over your shoulder” conspiracy films. I will mention one bad one, and then one really great one to conclude this month’s post. The first one, which actually could have been really great, but fell flat on its face, was the organized crime conspiracy film, “The Brothers Rico” (1957). Richard Conte starred as Eddie Rico, a former mob accountant now retired who is called back by the syndicate to find his two mobbed up, and now on the run, brothers to convince them not to talk to the authorities. Based on a story by George Simenon and directed by the underrated “pulp” film director, Phil Karlson, “Rico” was (for about ninety-nine percent of the film’s running time) a terrifically sinister, downbeat, and tragic criminal conspiracy tale with the mob seemingly everywhere watching Eddie in his search, and with Eddie slowly realizing that he, along with his brothers were in a trap with no way out. “Rico” really could have been a paranoid film classic, but unfortunately, Columbia Pictures proceeded to ruin it. How? Why by using that last one percent of the film’s running time to tack on a ridiculously stupid, “Happy Ending!” If you ever want to imagine something equivalent, try imagining the end of “West Side Story” with Maria holding the dead Tony in her arms and then… her immediately jumping up to sing a rousing repeat rendition of “I Feel Pretty” with all of the remaining gang members dancing around her! After seeing the end of “The Brothers Rico”, I definitely…
- Did not feel pretty, oh so pretty
- But I definitely felt “Very MAAAD!!!”
However, the truly great, paranoid conspiracy film that I want to enthusiastically praise is “The Conversation” (1974) directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It starred Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a bespectacled and highly respected San Francisco surveillance expert who is personally obsessed (paranoid) about his own privacy. Behind the multiple locked-door of his almost bare apartment which also includes a burglar alarm, he lives a sort of Spartan existence with no phone (he only uses pay phones) and almost no friends. Even his sometime girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr) knows little about him, and his only other obsession is playing a tenor saxophone along to his jazz records alone in his apartment. He has his own business and his office is enclosed in a chain-link cage in a corner of a much larger warehouse. Although he believes that he is not responsible for the actual content of whatever information he records or how his clients choose to use it, he is still racked with guilt accentuated by being a devout Catholic from a past assignment that resulted in people being killed. Now his current assignment, bugging the conversations of a young couple in public for his unknown client, starts to lead Caul into fearing that history may repeat itself and that the couple’s lives may now be in jeopardy unless Caul personally gets involved. His following decisions soon result in himself being followed and possibly being placed under surveillance by someone.
Director Coppola had a banner year in 1974. Besides “The Conversation,” he also did “The Godfather Part II” which won him the Oscar for both Best Director and Best Picture even though “The Conversation” was also nominated for Best Picture too. In all honesty, my own personal opinion was that he should have won both awards for “The Conversation” instead (and he also should have gotten the Best Director Oscar previously for “Godfather Part I” too, but that’s another story). His semi-documentary directing style for this film along with strong support provided by cinematographer Bill Butler was brilliant. He is equally matched by Gene Hackman’s towering performance as Caul. His Caul is a lonely outsider, introverted, and socially awkward with a need to be in control of his own limited little world to feel safe. His ultimate tragedy is that he not only doesn’t achieve it, but that he also repeats the same mistakes of his past. It’s one of the finest performances of his career, and how he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, I’ll never know. Coppola additionally elicited fine supporting performances from John Cazale, a coldly sinister Harrison Ford, and an uncredited Robert Duvall as Caul’s client. As a film, “The Conversation” is a masterpiece!
This concludes my Blog Post for this month. So, if you ever feel the need to complain to someone about how you think the world is unjustly treating you, well that is perfectly OK. However, if you ever feel the need to complain out loud to no one about how you think the world is unjustly treating yourself, and then you start to answer yourself back, well…
You might not be Paranoid…
But you sure might be CRAZY!!!