In other cases, it is the music that poses the threat. Michael Small’s score plays like a deranged fanfare, interrupting its own triumphalist tones with a sort of musical depression. Notes bend and break. The tone changes from “God Bless America” to dark and twisted. Small, who also marked the unease of “Klute”, “Night Moves” and “Marathon Man”, extended the film’s paranoia beyond the visible.
The visual corollary of Small’s triumphant but ill scoring comes when Beatty sits in a dark room for his parallax test to see if he too could make a good assassin. The screen fills with a series of images, some healthy – mother and son, smiling cheerleader – and others sinister (an orgy, a lynching, Hitler). It’s like an explosion from a Soviet montage in the middle of the film, weird and deeply disturbing.
More recent films have evoked their own kind of paranoia. David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007), with the dark cinematography of the late Harris Savides, sends a serial killer hunt in a series of rabbit holes; like many other paranoid films, it’s also about obsession. (It’s hard to be paranoid if you aren’t also obsessed). “Michael Clayton” (2007) combines paranoia with two other of his tried companions, conspiracy and murder. (At the center of the film is the weirdest antiseptic murder you’ve ever seen on screen). These are comeback films that proudly display their paranoia; one has the feeling that Pakula, who died in a car accident in 1998, would approve.
In these films, it is not illusory to be paranoid. Clever. It’s like the Joseph Heller line of Catch 22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” The characters in these films have every reason to be paranoid; their suspicions are usually proven by the end of the movie, even though they are no longer alive to enjoy the satisfaction. But they tend to underestimate the threat. The Beatty reporter wants a story. Nicholson’s private investigator doesn’t like to be ridiculed and he wants the guys who cut his nose off. Then the stakes keep growing, the evil becomes harder and harder to contain, and the grand design becomes focused. By then, it is too late. As John Huston’s Noah Cross, the puppet master of “Chinatown”, advises Nicholson’s Jake Gittes so helpfully: “You might think you know what you’re dealing with, but trust me, no.
That’s what makes a paranoid hero. They are all over their heads. Objects are much larger than they appear in the mirror. The plot mechanic that begins to sound like an inconvenience, if not an opportunity, becomes a nightmare. And we’re on our way to the journey, sometimes one step ahead of the hero, more often than not so caught up that we wonder if these evil forces might grab us too.
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