April 15 is the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s death. The cinema has been filled with assassination and conspiracy-themed plots – which seems only natural, as the Great Emancipator was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre while watching the play Our American Cousin. (Note to self: Be careful re: which actors you give bad reviews to.) One hundred years ago D.W. Griffith directed what may be the first major Hollywood motion picture to depict an import political assassination scene: 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, with future director Raoul Walsh (1941’s High Sierra starring Bogie, 1949’s White Heat with James Cagney) playing Booth.
The Lincoln slaying, of course, was part of a political plot by sympathizers of the just defeated Confederacy. The 1963 shooting of President Kennedy in broad daylight in Dallas is arguably the greatest unsolved murder in American history. Conventional thinkers, hacks and propagandists may seek to perpetrate and perpetuate lone gunman, magic bullet and other cover-ups about assassinations and the like — but the big screen knows better! Behind-the-scenes conspiracies shrouded in mystery and carried out by government elites, rogue agents, mobsters, secret societies and special interests (take your pick!), which are probed by intrepid investigative reporters, crusading district attorneys and patriotic “truthers” make for far more and exciting sagas to entertain audiences with.
Political violence is as American as apple pie: As the Secret Service continues to grapple with security breaches at the White House, on April 11 a self inflicted gunshot wound by a purported protester caused a shutdown of the U.S. Capitol Building and on March 30 there was a shooting at NSA headquarters. To observe the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s liquidation here are the Top 10 “Et tu, Brutus?” assassination/conspiracy films of all time, from A – Z. Who knows what evil conspires in the hearts of men? THE MOVIES KNOW!!!
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
After the mysterious break in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington’s appropriately named Foggy Bottom neighborhood, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward (Robert Redford, who also produced) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) fearlessly follow the money. The trail leads to a cabal at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, including the White House “Plumbers Unit” with James McCord (Richard Herd) and the “rat fuckers” led by Donald Segretti (Robert Walden), who systematically undermine America’s electoral system. Guided by the enigmatic “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged determination and shoe leather cracks the case, leading to the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon in Alan Pakula’s tense, tautly paced 1976 classic of intrigue in the highest corridors of power.
Ten years after President Kennedy’s killing the trailer for Executive Action proclaimed the movie to be “possibly the most controversial motion picture of our time.” Indeed, Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan lead a group of conspirators in this covert action feature that boldly contradicts the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. (If you believe that, would you like to buy some swampland in Florida to train anti-Castro terrorists at?) The 1973 movie raises the spine tingling specter of two “Oswalds,” anti-Castro Cubans and ex-CIA agents as part of a shadowy conspiracy to whack the liberal-leaning chief executive.
Executive Action is also noteworthy for its left-leaning pedigree: It was co-written by ex-Communist Party member Dalton Trumbo (portrayed by Bryan Cranston in an upcoming feature), who’d been one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten and co-produced by Dan Bessie, whose father, Spanish Civil War veteran Alvah, had also been a member of the Ten. The co-writers included attorney Mark Lane, one of the original independent investigators of the Kennedy assassination, and progressive playwright Donald Freed (who co-wrote the 1984 Nixon movie Secret Honor, directed by Robert Altman). Executive Action was produced by Edward Lewis, who was also a producer for 1960’s Spartacus and Costa-Gavras films, including 1982’s Missing. Blacklisted actor Will Geer (1954’s Salt of the Earth) co-starred as one of Executive’s rightwing co-conspirators. According to Freed, seed money was provided by antiwar activists for the low budge movie shot for $175,000, which – despite the fact that TV networks refused to advertise it – eventually earned millions.
Oliver Stone is also on the trail of Kennedy’s assassins in this 1991 masterpiece, which received eight Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Director, winning in the cinematography and editing categories, as well as scoring the Best Director Golden Globe. JFK is probably the finest Hollywood assassination/conspiracy movie ever made. At the peak of his powers Stone skillfully demolishes the Warren Commission Report piece by piece, constructing an alternative history wherein Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner plays the New Orleans DA, who in a bit of canny casting portrays Earl Warren!) leads an all-star cast on an epic quest for the truth to find out who killed Camelot’s king. And, most importantly, as Donald Sutherland’s inside man Colonel Fletcher Prouty ponders in this exhaustively well-researched film: “Why?” Stone was subjected to an unprecedented character assassination campaign for his audacious artistry, although JFK triggered passage of 1992’s Assassination Materials Disclosure Act. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination Warner Bros. Home Entertainment released a JFK Ultimate Collector’s Edition, which includes Stone’s Director’s Cut of his classic with an extra seventeen minutes never seen on the big screen, plus a cornucopia of Kennedy-ana, including several documentaries, such as JFK: To the Brink from Stone’s The Untold History of the United States Showtime series.
Shakespeare’s tragedy dramatizes the über assassination/conspiracy that toppled Rome’s would-be despot in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 black and white epic released at the height of the HUAC/McCarthy era. James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud as Cassius lead the mutinous band of disillusioned conspirators, who plot to rescue the Roman republic on that fateful Ides of March, when they cut Caesar (Louis Calhern) down at the Senate (presumably causing a lockdown at the Roman Forum). During his funeral oration Marlon Brando’s Mark Antony craftily reads Caesar’s will on a scroll only he can see, purportedly bequeathing his wealth to Rome’s masses, as Antony seeks to win the allegiance of the plebeians against the coup plotters. The scene is redolent of Senator Joe McCarthy’s referring to a legendary list of Communists inside the U.S. government that only the junior senator from Wisconsin could “read” (or fabulate).
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
John Frankenheimer’s motion picture prophecy — a lurid, star-studded 1962 Cold War thriller about brainwashing, communism, conspiracy and presidential politics — was withdrawn from distribution after Kennedy was rubbed out. Frank Sinatra (a real life JFK supporter who portrayed a would-be assassin of President Eisenhower in the 1954 movie Suddenly) plays Major Bennett Marco, who has recurring nightmares and served with Staff Sargeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) in Korea, where they were both POWs. Angela Lansbury depicts Raymond’s scheming, coldblooded mother Eleanor Shaw Iselin, wife of fanatical rightwing Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). Khigh Dhiegh plays the Asian communist Dr. Yen Lo, who ominously says: “His brain has not only been washed, as they say, it’s been dry-cleaned.” (Dhiegh also won an Obie Award for his acting in a 1961 play by leftist Bertolt Brecht and went on to portray Chairman Mao’s secret agent Wo Fat in the original Hawaii Five-O series.) The Manchurian Candidate was re-made in 2004 with Denzel Washington and based on a book by Richard Condon, who also wrote Winter Kills, a conspiracy theory-palooza novel inspired by the JFK assassination and adapted into a 1979 movie with Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Toshiro Mifune, etc.
THE PARALLAX VIEW
Activist/actor Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, a journalist who’s no “fraidy cat” as he goes through the looking glass in this action-packed 1974 movie directed by Alan Pakula about the assassination atop Seattle’s Space Needle of U.S. Senator Charles Carroll, a presidential candidate (possibly named after Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll). Paula Prentiss plays television newscaster Lee Carter, who’s terrified that she, like six other eyewitnesses, will be disappeared. A Warren Commission-like congressional tribunal whitewashes an “investigation” into the senator’s murder. Frady stumbles upon the multi-national Parallax Corporation, which pulls strings behind the scenes and trains prospective assassins in the black op arts. At another senatorial rally Frady ends up being “a patsy,” like Lee Harvey Oswald claimed he was shortly before being gunned down by Jack Ruby.
RUSH TO JUDGMENT
The Parallax View dramatizes many of the points made in the very first Kennedy assassination film, the 1966 documentary Rush to Judgment directed by the radical filmmaker Emile de Antonio and written by the unstoppable Mark Lane. This crudely made low budget nonfiction film is as artless as Stone’s JFK is an aesthetic tour de force. Nevertheless, shot only a few years after the JFK hit, Rush to Judgment is often chilling as Lane, a lawyer, presents much of the doc as a brief for the defense – presumably for Lee Harvey Oswald, who was no longer around to defend himself. The crew travels to Dealey Plaza and interviews on camera numerous eyewitnesses who describe in vivid detail the shooting of President Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Witness after witness describes at least some shots being fired from behind a wooden fence (on the infamous grassy knoll) where they also report seeing “puffs of smoke.” De Antonio cleverly cuts to text from the Warren Commission’s 889-page final report to contradict what the filmmakers clearly believe are the tome’s bogus findings. Another early JFK truther, newsman Penn Jones, asserts: “The only way to believe the Warren report is not to read it.” As in Parallax many witnesses die mysterious deaths, are threatened and the like. Jones expresses a wish for a computer to compute the odds of these strange demises from occurring. But after viewing this unforgettable film the odds are against any open minded viewer believing that some lone nut carried out the crime of the century with a bolt action rifle from the Texas School Book Depository Building.
SEVEN DAYS IN MAY
Executive Action producer Edward Lewis also produced John Frankenheimer’s hard hitting 1964 movie about a military plot to overthrow the U.S. government. According to Executive Action’s co-writer Donald Freed: “In 1963 President Kennedy let it be known to friends in the film industry that [a film adaptation of Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II’s 1962 novel] Seven Days in May should be made…Kennedy went to Hyannis Port so Frankenheimer could film extreme rightwing demonstrations at the White House, where the president couldn’t be during filming with actors. In the story President Jordan Lyman [Fredric March] arranges a disarmament summit with the Soviet Union. This is what JFK was moving towards, with his [“Strategy of Peace”] speech in the summer of 1963 at American University in Washington,” a clarion call for a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and defusing the Cold War. When the dovish President Lyman makes similar moves in Seven Days in May the hawkish, Curtis LeMay-like Gen. James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) plots a coup d’état, which the more liberal-minded Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) opposes. Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling wrote the screenplay.
Costa-Gavras’ fast paced 1969 masterpiece Z was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and won for Best Foreign Film and Best Editing. Costa’s first feature, 1965’s The Sleeping Car Murders, was a murder mystery, and with Z the French-Greek director took the tried and true film noir form, filling it with politics. Inspired by a true story, Z is essentially about the death of a peace candidate (Yves Montand) while he’s campaigning to become the leader of Greece. When a prosecutor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and journalist (Jacques Perrin) investigate the mysterious death, they prove that the politician was actually assassinated by a high level military conspiracy. Upon being exposed the Greek colonels stage a coup and impose a military junta in democracy’s ancient homeland. Costa-Gavras’ classic eventually helped lead to the repressive regime’s isolation and demise.
The Zapruder Film
Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder was a home-movie enthusiast who was filming the fateful presidential motorcade in Dealey Plaza with his Bell & Howell camera on a concrete pedestal at Elm Street on November 22, 1963, when shots rang out. The 26 second, 486 frames of silent 8 mm color celluloid is the Ur text for conspiracy movies and the ultimate assassination footage. According to Executive Action’s Donald Freed: “That’s the film behind all the films.” In it, JFK rides in his limousine and appears to be caught in a crossfire, hit by bullets being fired from different positions. And while Oswald is supposed to be behind Kennedy the president seems to be hit by a final shot fired from in front of him — perhaps from the fabled grassy knoll — as his skull explodes in frame 313. As Kevin Costner playing Garrison repeats in JFK: “Back and to the left” — not from the direction of the Texas School Book Depository Building.
The Zapruder Film arguably makes “conspiracy theorists” of us all, asking: “Who are you going to believe? Your lying eyes — or the Warren Commission and its ‘magic bullet’ flight of fancy?”