Ten years after Richard Hofstadter coined the phrase “the paranoid style” (in a lecture he delivered just days before JFK was assassinated), the national traumas of Vietnam and Watergate were in full swing. Hofstadter’s point was that “they” weren’t out to get you at all — you really were being paranoid. But by the early ’70s, this paradigm had been shattered. The point now was that they really were out to get you, whether you knew it or not, and generally you didn’t until it was too late.
This dark mood of suspicion and disillusionment was reflected at the time in a glorious run of movies — including Alan J. Pakula’s great troika Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men; Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor; and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. In an almost fetishized landscape of impersonal architecture and encroaching technology (with taut, dread-laden scores, usually by Michael Small or David Shire), these movies chart the gradual alienation and disempowerment of the individual in modern society, the stripping away of privacy, and the growing influence of shadowy power structures.
Although very different from these, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (sun-drenched 1930s L.A., unforgettable noir score by Jerry Goldsmith) is perhaps the greatest of them all. That moment at the end when Lieutenant Lou Escobar instructs Loach to handcuff J.J. Gittes to the wheel of a car, thus rendering him powerless to determine the outcome of events, was a major psychological turning point in American cinema, and it mirrored the greater shift going on outside the movie theater. It was like a changing of the guard. Here, suddenly, were serious, challenging stories where the individual had no moral compass anymore and could casually be crushed by malign, unknown forces.