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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Hollywood isn’t the only source for bleak 1970s political thrillers

Illustration for article titled Hollywood isn’t the only source for bleak 1970s political thrillers

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The throwback D.C. conspiracy theories of Captain America: The Winter Soldier have us thinking back on the best political thrillers of the 1970s.

The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)

Shortly before The Conformist debuted in Italian theaters, the country’s public television offered another political thriller from Bernardo Bertolucci, The Spider’s Stratagem, adapted from Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Theme Of The Traitor And The Hero.” It’s a historical murder mystery, but the political implications are present from the start. Four decades after a great anti-Fascist hero named Athos Magnani is shot during a performance of Rigoletto, the man’s mistress summons his adult son of the same name to investigate. She believes Athos Sr. was murdered by his friends and the police were privy to this. What’s more, she reveals that a fortuneteller prophesied his death a few days prior, and he died with an unopened letter warning him that if he entered the theater he wouldn’t leave. So Shakespeare joins the ranks of the tragedy’s authors, and now another Athos Magnani must try to untangle the web.


The Spider’s Stratagem works first as a marvelous snare. Early on, the camera pans leftward from a train station into a forgotten town, a sequence of disorienting shots turning the setting into a maze. Even the locals are lost, one telling Athos to turn right and the other to turn left. Jarring cuts skip through time until it’s too late for the amateur investigator to catch the next train. The elliptical editing grows especially confusing when the flashbacks begin, as Giulio Brogi plays both Athos Magnanis, the better to confuse the past for the present. The hall of mirrors simultaneously disguises and betrays the truth that this is a story about optics. In a breathless climax, a silhouetted figurehead outlines what happened to Athos, standing over his city and waving his arms like he’s conducting a world-historical symphony.

Bertolucci isn’t often cited alongside Alan J. Pakula, Sydney Pollack, or John Frankenheimer, but his 1970 one-two punch makes smart company with the paranoid thrillers of those directors. Beyond the assassination and conspiracy subjects, The Spider’s Stratagem shares a political weariness with its genre contemporaries, a sense that the gears of the world are so big that the individual is powerless. This is about both Athos Magnanis after all. When the son finally discovers what happened to his father, he realizes his own place in history. What lingers is the feeling that his part was already written.

Availability: Unfortunately, The Spider’s Stratagem has not been given the DVD/Blu-ray/digital treatment. But it is available to stream for free on YouTube.

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