The 1970s are often cited as the heyday of the paranoid thriller — thanks to “The Parallax View” (1974) and “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) and a few other key titles — but the genre really started a decade earlier.
The ’70s films were the result of Watergate and all of the revelations about American intelligence swirling around the Nixon Adminstration.
The paranoid thrillers of the 1960s were powered by fears of a nuclear holocaust and concerns about the stability of our leaders and their power to “push the button” that would trigger the final war.
A 2010 book, “Thrillers: 100 Must Reads” (Oceanview) edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner, cites the 1962 best-seller “Seven Days in May” by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey as one of the finest Cold War thrillers.
The book also lists another paranoid thriller, Richard Condon’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” which was published in 1959, as one of the best of its type.
Both books were turned into excellent films, and both were directed by John Frankenheimer, who had made his name in live television in New York City during the 1950s and then achieved a sensational transition to moviemaking in Hollywood.
Frankenheimer teamed up with screenwriter George Axelrod for “The Manchurian Candidate” in 1962 and then collaborated with an old friend from his television days — screenwriter Rod Serling — for the movie of “Seven Days in May.”
The 1964 thriller doesn’t have the wild comic elements that Frankenheimer included in “Manchurian Candidate” (courtesy of the Condon novel) but “Seven Days” is, in many ways, an even better made suspense film, with a slightly more plausible plot — an attempted military coup by a faction of right-wing generals in the Pentagon.
“Seven Days” is a tense thriller powered by a strong Serling script and a great ensemble that includes Burt Lancaster as the general behind the plot and Kirk Douglas as the military whistle blower (below).
Fredric March (above) plays the president whose push for global disarmanent triggers the takeover plot and veteran character actor Edmond O’Brien (who was Oscar-nominated) delivers a juicy performance as a Southern senator who tries to investigate the rumors of a military coup being planned.
March’s performance is especially impressive. In an interview with Charles Champlin in 1995, Frankenheimer called March “the best actor I’ve ever worked with and the greatest gentleman.”
Nine years later, the director and star reteamed for a magnificent film version of “The Iceman Cometh” in which March ended his career in high style (the actor died two years later).
Frankenheimer’s interest in political corruption and paranoia anticipated the wave of post-Watergate thrillers that covered much of the same ground.
But in his 1960s movies, Frankenheimer still operated from the position that positive forces in the government would somehow manage to vanquish the evildoers. Both of the director’s classic thrillers were made before John F. Kennedy was assassinated (“Seven Days in May” was shot in 1963 but not released until the following year.)
A decade later, the revelations of Nixon’s “dirty tricks” and covert CIA assassination plots would result in a much bleaker sort of conspiracy thriller.