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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

Trust No One

AUGUST 18, 1997:  The problem with conspiracies is that they're only fun for as long as they're mysterious. Once they're explained, they usually lose most of their allure. Movies that revolve around conspiracy plots therefore have a tricky task: They have to reveal their secrets slowly to maintain suspense, but they have to leave viewers with a satisfactory explanation at the end. It's not easy (see this week's movie review for elaboration).

Alfred Hitchcock was a master of conspiracy stories. Several of his most famous films--North by Northwest, The 39 Steps--involve unsuspecting innocents stumbling into deadly webs of intrigue. One of my favorites is The Lady Vanishes (1938), in which a young British woman becomes increasingly paranoid after the elderly lady she chats with on a trans-Europe train disappears without a trace and other passengers claim to have never seen her. The film is suspenseful and funny and also manages to deal with real political issues. Many critics saw it as a call by Hitchcock for Britain to take up arms against Hitler.

The Cold War gave rise to all sorts of paranoid possibilities in the US. One of the best of the many anti-communist thrillers Hollywood churned out in the 1950s and '60s is The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which has American GIs being brainwashed into Chinese stooges. The film, which stars Frank Sinatra, is tense and inventive, with legendary hallucinatory brainwash scenes. Directed by John Frankenheimer, who also made the military coup conspiracy classic Seven Days in May.

Fed by the Vietnam War and Watergate, the 1970s brought their own wave of conspiracy movies, including Three Days of the Condor (1975, R), Sydney Pollack's tale of a low-level CIA paper-pusher caught up in a scheme involving international assassins. Robert Redford is frantic but resourceful as the hero, and Faye Dunaway is seductively mysterious as the woman who helps him. Max von Sydow is an appropriately cold-blooded villain.

And of course, the '90s touchstone of conspiracy dramas is The X-Files, several episodes of which are out on videotape. The Fox series has FBI agents Mulder and Scully chasing down everything from ghosts to aliens to human mutants. Since it's a TV show, it has a luxury movies don't--it doesn't have to explain its underlying mysteries in any single episode, instead dropping clues here and there. This can get tiresome, but at its best, The X-Files is both fun and unnerving. Just what a good conspiracy ought to be.

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