There’s always more to it. This is what history consists of. It is the sum total of the things they aren’t telling us.
I’ve thought a lot about this quote recently. It is from Libra (1988) by Don DeLillo, a speculative account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed John F. Kennedy, fifty years ago to this very day. In this post, I’d like to reflect on the stories that have been inspired by conspiracy theories, and also the real-life events that gave birth to them. Today I’d like to delve into the fascinating world of the conspiracy theory thriller.
There will be many articles written and programmes made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. They will all point to the big divide in the debate, which is whether Oswald acted alone, or whether he was, in his own words, a patsy, set up to distract attention away from the real killer. Whatever your own view, the assassination of JFK has been the inspiration for many iconic books and films. It has led to the creation of a very specific strand of the conspiracy theory genre. Conspiracy theory thrillers can be grouped largely into several broad camps, those that relate to science fiction, typically stories involving space and space travel (Eric Frank Russell’s Dreadful Sanctuary, 1951), those that relate to religion (Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, 1988) and classic stories of a man-on-the-run type nature (John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915). JFK’s assassination provides us with another group, the political conspiracy theory thriller.
Perhaps the first example of this group is one which actually pre-dates JFK’s assassination. In 1959 Richard Condon, an American writer, published The Manchurian Candidate. It is a classic political thriller which entails a Communist plot to brainwash an entire infantry platoon kidnapped during the Korean War. The novel was twice made into a film, one of which contains, arguably, the finest acting performance of Frank Sinatra’s career. Condon wasn’t a published writer until his forties but went on to produce a staggeringly wide-ranging canon, which includes the 1974 novel Winter Kills, a thinly disguised, if at all actually, parallel of JFK’s assassination.
Of particular note is The Parallax View (1970) by Loren Singer. It was made into a film by Alan Pakula in 1974 and both the novel and the film are extraordinary. The novel exploits the fear, intrigue and suspicion that surrounded the political climate of the 1960s, with particular reference to an alleged, or real depending on your view, series of assassinations. In the novel, a reporter tracks the wake of dead witnesses that litter the trail of a presidential candidate’s assassination. The film version neatly bisects the paranoia trilogy that Pakula made in the 1970s, plugging into the voracious appetite of the American public for conspiracies. Beginning with Klute (1971) which is a missing person story, Pakula went on to make a film version of The Parallax View, before releasing, for me, the greatest example of a conspiracy theory thriller, ever made, All The President’s Men (1976) which plots the downfall of President Nixon via the Watergate scandal. Klute is the lesser-known of the trilogy, which is a shame because it stars Jane Fonda, who won an Academy Award for her performance (and to think she nearly quit claiming she wasn’t right for the role), Donald Sutherland (as the private detective Klute) and Roy Schneider. It is exceptional and deserves to be much more widely known.
All three of Pakula’s films are excellent, and the last one, All The President’s Men, has a poster with the caption the most devastating detective story of this century. What I love most about the story and the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward on which it is based, is that it is true. All the best stories always are. Whatever version of the truth you believe.