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Digging Up the Seedy Roots of the Surveillance Noir

The 1970s surveillance noir explored the man against the system, predicting that reporters would deliver us from the government’s transgressions. Today, the climate that birthed it has returned.
Screencap from The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola

The 1970s was a time of existential crisis for the executive branch of the United States government, one that birthed a new take on an established film genre: the surveillance noir. While we remember the 70s as the Watergate era, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee was only one such politically egregious instance of a surveillance state running amok, unchecked in its power and armed with technology after 25 years of a Cold War for post-WWII geopolitical supremacy. The questions raised about potential checks upon government and technology in that decade remain unanswered today, a dark street we continue to wander.


It was in 1974 that the true scope of the Watergate scandal was revealed. This was the year of Nixon's resignation, and also the year that Francis Ford Coppola released The Conversation, in which Gene Hackman stars as a surveillance specialist who becomes paranoid that his work will result in a murder. Many viewers thought that Coppola was referencing wiretapping and Nixon’s recordings in the White House. Coppola, in fact, was inspired by Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966).

There was no way that Antonioni could have known at the time, but his film about an egocentric fashion photographer who inadvertently shoots evidence of a murder would become the prototype for the surveillance noir—in which a lone male protagonist becomes overwhelmed by the depths of nefarious conspiracy unleashed by pevasive recording technology.

The year after Blow-Up’s release, in 1967, the National Security Agency (NSA) began Project MINARET, which shared the information gleaned from Project SHAMROCK with the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and the Department of Defense. Project SHAMROCK had been underway since 1945, and was gathering every telegram sent out of the country with the help of the telegraph companies, and scanning them, for intelligence purposes.

The FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign of espionage, threats, and blackmail against Civil Rights groups and later, New Left organizations, began in 1956, two years after Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window, in which the bedridden photographer played by Jimmy Stewart solves a murder mystery by spying on his neighbors with a telephoto lens. The prototypical conspiracy thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, about communists brainwashing prisoners into domestic assassins, was released in 1962, two years before the CIA began its own domestic operations program. But it wasn’t until after 1969 that this program morphed into Operation CHAOS, a full-blown CIA program of infiltrating anti-war groups, driven by the Nixon Administration’s paranoia about foreign communist connections to domestic activists.


It is at this time that the history of the executive branch sets the stage to conflate the murder mystery and the conspiracy film into the surveillance noir. What was merely dramatic investigation in Rear Window, and an environment of clandestine subterfuge in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), became a Blow-Up, where any shred of information could change the mundane into the macabre by exposing the violence hidden within a technologically advancing society.

Antonioni’s protagonist revels in his work, refuting pleas for privacy with the old saw, “I’m only doing my job. I’m a photographer.” And yet, as his London loft walls fill up with enlarged prints of photographs, the more information he has, the less control he maintains. The hedonistic delirium of 1960s London gives way to a paranoid, distorted darkness.

Rendered into auditory hallucinations, we sense the same paranoia in The Conversation via the soundtracked digital glitches of a microphone on the edge of its envelope. In a long, zoom-in aerial shot over San Francisco’s Union Square, we hear the conversations of the crowd on an autumn day become marred by recording technology. Throughout the film, the expert surveillance tech played by Hackman is paranoid about his technology, guarding his trade secrets. He knows the power surveillance holds, and how easily it can escape one’s grasp. After the tables are turned on him, and he himself is recorded, he tears his apartment apart, ripping up the floorboards and the walls to find the device, which he ultimately fails to do. He plays jazz saxophone in the remains of his destroyed living space, echoing the Herbie Hancock scored Blow-Up, and the aesthetics of the ransacked loft in that film.


Today, on this side of the NSA’s internet surveillance and ever-present closed-circuit television (CCTV), and digital cameras, these existential surveillance questions of the 70s may seem quaint. The idea of widespread political assassination intimated in the 1974 film Parallax View, about a reporter uncovering a consipiracy lead by a multinational corporation, had yet to be verified. A very real investigation of the CIA’s attempted assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, in association with plots against Castro and other leaders, later made world headlines.

Screencap of All the President’s Men

The 1974 book All the President’s Men, adapted into a film in 1976 starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, told the story of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovering the Watergate scandal, and it seemed that the rattling staccato of typewriters could indeed be the avenging weapon against this sort of scandal. This journalistic salvation is also the theme of Three Days of the Condor (1975), in which the quote “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” is paraphrased by the hero’s actions to resolve the nefarious plots of rogue CIA elements.

We have since evolved beyond the Cold War—to the War on Terror—and the maxims of a time when it was generally believed that there could be a War to End All Wars. Those larger threats have been replaced by endless cycles of National Threat Alerts based on “collected intelligence.”


And this is where the early films of the genre continue to hold strong for a modern audience. The technology may have evolved, but we're still more Gene Hackman-with-a-saxophone than Robert Redford-and-Dustin Hoffman-in-a-noisy newsroom. We must return to the early heyday of surveillance noir; not just to reacquaint ourselves with the historical antecedents of today’s surveillance, but to remember the utter powerlessness of a world where our government’s highest agents embody the walls that enclose it.


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