Before “Utopia”: Seventeen Great Conspiracy Thrillers


source: Channel 4
source: Channel 4

By Niall McArdle

The British conspiracy thriller series Utopia has just completed its second season. I won’t even bother trying to explain what it’s all about, but it’s brilliant, a very well-written and stylishly made piece of television. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it. Now.

The series did not get high ratings but quickly developed a cult following. I expect the same will happen next year when the HBO remake is aired: David Fincher is directing and producing; Gillian Flynn is writing the adaptation.

Conspiracies are great source material for thrillers, of course, because you can throw all sorts of twists and turns in without worrying too too much about having to fully explain them. After all, the best conspiracy theories are the ones that you can’t prove, aren’t they?

Here then is a selection of some of the best conspiracy thrillers.

The Manchurian Candidate

Perhaps the granddaddy of conspiracy thrillers. A highly effective exercise in paranoia and a wonderfully hysterical satire on Communist witch-hunts. Oh, and a truly terrifying Angela Lansbury

All The President’s Men

How on earth did they manage to make a nail-biting suspense thriller about Watergate when everyone in the world knew how the story ended?

The Parallax View

After Watergate, nobody wanted to trust the government again, which meant the 1970s was a very paranoid decade.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TV series)

John Le Carre’s intricately plotted spy novels are generally too dense to be fully and faithfully transferred to the big screen. Television has served him better. His novel about a mole hunt within MI6 was made into a fantastic series in 1979, with the sublime Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the retired spymaster called back into The Circus to root out a double agent. Featuring a roster of some of Britain’s leading thesps of the 1970s (what ever happened to Hywel Bennett?) including the superb Beryl Reid, who has one scene that should be studied by all aspiring actors.

The X Files (TV series)

Ah, the nineties. Conspiracy theories made something of a comeback in popular culture and the popular imagination in the last decade of the last century. Perhaps it was due to millennial fears, the Y2K scare, or the ramblings of David Icke & co. Either way, it was the perfect time for Mulder and Scully to investigate the paranormal, alien sightings, mythological beasties, and all sorts of cover-ups at the highest levels of government. Behind most of the cover-ups, wreathed in a cloud of blue smoke, was the series’ puppetmaster, the villanous and enigmatic Cigarette Smoking Man.

JFK

The Mafia. Cuban Exiles. The CIA. Texas oilmen. Lyndon Johnson. Everyone was in on the assassination of John Kennedy, according to Oliver Stone’s brilliantly-made exercise in paranoia. You may end up more confused after it than you were going in. Starring an annoying preachy and wooden Kevin Costner supported by a huge cast of actors all at the top of their game, most especially Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci in a fright wig, and a mesmerising Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film)

Gary Oldman again: in the role of George Smiley that Alec Guinness made famous two decades earlier. Oldman’s Smiley is sadder and somewhat seedier, and not as clubbable as Guinness made him. Like Guinness, he wears oversized, ugly spectacles. He even wears them when he swims. The film has twists aplenty and flashes back and forth in time, and if you haven’t read the novel you may be somewhat confused. Featuring a brilliant cast of high-rent British thesps and wonderfully horrific 1970s decor.

Blow-Up

Yeah, baby! London in the swinging sixties and Michelangelo Antonioni is concerned with reality and how it is perceived. David Hemmings is the fashion photographer who witnesses a murder. Or does he?

The Conversation

Gene Hackman plays a lonely wiretap expert who overhears a conversation about murder. Or does he? This off-kilter homage to Antonioni is perhaps Francis Coppola’s best film, and boasts one of Hackman’s best performances.

Blow Out

John Travolta is a movie soundman who records a murder. Or does he? Brian de Palma’s loving homage to ripoff of both Antonioni and Coppola, with a little bit of Chappaquiddick thrown in.

Enemy of the State

Do you remember when Will Smith wasn’t so annoying? When he hadn’t inflicted Jaden on us? In Enemy of the State he’s a lawyer drawn into a web of intrigue. Gene Hackman reprises his role from The Conversation in Tony Scott’s flashy, highly entertaining thriller.

Conspiracy

Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci as the Nazis who met at the Wannsee Conference in 1942 and organised the Final Solution.

Defence of the Realm 

Gabriel Byrne as a tabloid journalist who finds himself in all sorts of trouble when he exposes an MP as a spy.

A Very British Coup (TV series)

The much-loved and dearly-missed Ray McAnally in his BAFTA winning role as a Labour Primie Minister who upsets the status quo.

Dead Head (TV series)

Dennis Lawson as a small-time crook who becomes embroiled in a plot by the State to frame him for a series of grisly murders

Edge of Darkness (TV series)

Another cracker of a conspiracy series from Britain made at the height of public concern about nuclear proliferation. There is also an okay film version from a few years ago with Mel Gibson

Conspiracy Theory

Speaking of Mel Gibson, who has a few conspiracy theories of his own, we end with Gibson as an extremely paranoid New York taxi driver in Conspiracy Theory. He runs a newsletter filled with all sorts of oddball conspiracy theories. It turns out one of them is true.

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3 thoughts on “Before “Utopia”: Seventeen Great Conspiracy Thrillers

  1. Great list Niall, and even better to see ‘A Very British Coup’ included. One of my all-time favourite TV dramas. I have the second series of ‘Utopia’ lined up and ready to go on my PVR, but I am depressed to hear about a US remake. Why not just show the UK series? What is wrong with the Yanks?
    Cheers mate, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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