This article supplements Slate’s Conspiracy Thrillers Movie Club. To learn more and to join, visit Slate.com/thrillers.
Paranoia first entered American usage in the 1880s, but it didn’t take long before the mental illness made its way into the motion pictures, transformed into a cinematic device that portrayed distrust and heightened tension. In 1974, I coined the word filmnoia to distinguish the on-screen depictions from real paranoia.
There are five ways in which we can characterize and identify off-screen paranoia: It thrives in (1) an environment of moral chaos. A system of order collapses and throws victims into a limbo where they must construct “logical” explanations based on the very order which has collapsed. The victims are marked by (2) increasing loneliness. They feel that only they know the truth. They imagine (3) an outside oppression aimed at them and perhaps others. The oppressors may be particular individuals, but more often they’re (4) anonymous: a “they” known only to the victim who is (5) incapable of overcoming “them.”
In turn, filmnoia’s elements include (1) an environment of social or mental chaos—German films of the 1920s were classic instances: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari takes place in a madhouse; in Variety murderous jealousy rages in a high-wire act. At the center of such stories are (2) single-minded, lonely heroes. Isolated from reality, these loners often feel mad or believe they are the only people who are not. They’re in (3) a story involving unheroic defeat or inexplicable death. In filmnoia, heroes don’t fail from lack of virtue but because failure is necessary for the well-being of (4) a dark, impersonal opposition. With furtive and shadowy antagonists at the helm, the protagonists are often (5) refused true catharsis.
Because they are stylizations, these elements are not all essential to filmnoia’s existence. They vary from time to time in intensity and are adapted to the qualities of different periods. Filmnoia is not a formula but a narrative instrument. It isn’t confined to any one genre but is most noticeable in the American gangster film.
The gangster of the ’30s belonged to an era of licentious chaos. The gangster had good reason to be paranoid: He operated under constant threat by police and competitors. He was a loner, even within his own gang. He rose and fell inside urban shadows. His paranoia could become heroic, and he could evoke sympathy as did James Cagney in The Public Enemy and Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. But he had to die, for filmnoia in the ’30s was conservative, and these gangsters were seen as depraved hoodlums who deserved a dark end.
This changed with the arrival of the private detective in the ’40s. The hero roamed an underworld where the police were as suspect as the mobsters. The private eyes, like the gangsters, were loners who trusted no one and had learned never to believe in anything. Unlike gangsters, they showed some moral integrity.
Thus, the audience was asked to understand the paranoid’s point of view. No one treated the detective openly; anyone could be plotting against him; nothing was what it appeared. The villains were strong but complex. Sometimes they were rather likable. The audience, like the hero, was thrown into a moral limbo. The ending wasn’t always satisfying. Justice was served without the old sense of restored equilibrium. When Humphrey Bogart turned in Mary Astor at the end of The Maltese Falcon, he established the archetype—detectives were to lose their chances for social rapport by sticking to their personal moral code.
The late ’40s and the ’50s saw the development of film noir. This style was evident in many films of the period, but noir offered an environment and an attitude that particularly strengthened the filmnoia in films about the underworld. The action moved through deep space and sharp-edged shadows, far more dramatic than before. Protagonists were now “anti-heroes.” Stories might end in irony or despair as in The Asphalt Jungle, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or The Killing, and these unsteady resolutions suited the age of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was making the country paranoid in his own image.
So far I have pretended that filmnoia is simply reflects our changing culture, but by the 1960s and ’70s—a time of upheavals that rattled our assumptions about law, democracy, American life, and cinema—skilled directors began to shape filmnoia in their own distinctive ways.
It had been a while coming. When Don Siegel sought to end Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the hero shouting to the audience that “they” were coming to get us, his producers demanded a traditional, calming finish; Robert Aldrich’s original ending for Kiss Me Deadly, a low-budget detective thriller, suggested that a nuclear bomb had destroyed the world. But just less than a decade later, in 1964, Stanley Kubrick destroyed the world at the end of the famous Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Alfred Hitchcock had always played a psychological game with his audiences, yet his ’30s films seem less profound than those of the ’50s and ’60s. His talent didn’t change; it was that his wit became more perverse with the times. His 1956 film The Wrong Man, in which a man is falsely accused of a crime, is so dark that it almost refuses us any catharsis at all; then The Birds, released in 1963, does refuse it. In both films, Hitchcock used filmnoia in a way that would have been unthinkable in his earlier works.
Meanwhile, the fear of faceless power was rising again. In Dirty Harry, a policeman outwits a single killer, but in the sequel, Magnum Force, he confronts an entire band of killer policemen run by untouchables in the police department. All of Sam Peckinpah’s films play upon the conflict between personal honor and civilized law and order, but Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid ends on a striking note of paranoia—in killing the Kid, Garrett serves powerful men whom we know are bound to kill him.
The loneliness of 1970s protagonists was close to pathological helplessness. In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, a spy discovers he might have set up someone’s assassination. He ends up guilt-ridden, confused, himself under surveillance, and unable to resolve anything. In Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, the main character, a private detective, finally walks dazed into the streets, having solved and lost everything.
In the meantime, the power of the opposition has grown awful. These are not the old clichés of social control. These antagonists know everything, do anything, go anywhere, find anyone. None of the films bothered to explain such feats. Critics point out their absurdity, but filmnoia is not devoted to reason. It wants to turn fear into art, and fear isn’t rational. (Neither, probably, is art.)
An increasing number of filmmakers began to signal that relieving our anxiety in any substantial way is dishonest, inconsistent, or at least not what the audience deserves. From that point on in filmnoia, viewers could no longer expect catharsis.
The Parallax View demonstrates the new style. Under the guise of a spy thriller, it leads us along a conventional plotline of rising complexity into total frustration. Nothing is changed. The hero is dead. “They” are in control and will defeat us all. In The Blair Witch Project, we watch film footage left behind by young filmmakers who get lost in the woods. One by one they are killed by ghostly forces. Then the camera goes black.
Since the turn of this century we have been given some of the most powerful examples of filmnoia on film. In the fascinating Memento, we follow the main character back and forth in time to bring him back to his death. Donnie Darko, a dark fantasy built on time travel and schizophrenia, ends with the hero’s death in a dimension where nobody remembers him. No Country for Old Men, one of Joel and Ethan Coen’s most haunting films, follows a horrific anti-hero: a killer who uses a coin toss to determine who will die. He finally walks away, an instrument of random chance, like death itself.
Filmnoia was not exclusive to the big screen; it came early to television in the bizarre, compact stories of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, in which we can find all the elements of classic filmnoia. Network crime series like Law & Order and Hill Street Blues tended to wrap up endings neatly but by using ongoing characters who increase the audiences’ rapport and so their sense of dread. When a beautiful female officer in NCIS was killed in 2005, her fans were appalled—their assumptions about happy endings shattered. The X-Files offered its viewers the almost certain guarantee that it would leave them virtually paranoid after every episode. The Sopranos returned to the menace of the gangster genre and ended its long run by refusing its viewers a simple answer. Dexter took us into the mind of a serial killer with a peculiar sense of integrity and asked us to dread he might be caught.
Last season’s Fargo ended with a touch of perfection. A policewoman has finally captured the smarmy Englishman who has brought about the death and ruin of local townsfolk. She sits, facing him across a gray table in a cold, gray room, sure the authorities will soon arrive to take him away. He is just as sure they won’t. The two watch each other a long time. And the episode ends.
I felt used. We were nowhere. Who will end this conflict? What is going on? And then I understood: Good faced evil, as it had from the beginning and as it always would—and we never can be sure which side will prevail. No honest fiction actually releases us. It can only entertain us with the mounting pressure of emptiness. And there lies the power of filmnoia.