I’ve become obsessed with the movies that US presidents watched while they were in office. So much so that I recently compiled my own list of all the movies Jimmy Carter watched in the White House. [Update: Here’s Clinton’s list.] And now I’ve pored over Nixon’s complete list, compiled by author Mark Feeney. Nixon watched some dark shit.
Feeney’s excellent book, Nixon at the Movies, doesn’t explore any of the films below, but his book is a fantastic read if you’re interested in how Nixon saw himself in relation to Hollywood and mainstream culture in general.
The list below ranges in quality from classic spooky films that I would highly recommend (like Wait Until Dark) to some not-so-classic movies that are somehow both salacious yet tedious (like What the Peeper Saw).
“I like a good lusty movie with some action... this and that,” Nixon reportedly said about What the Peeper Saw as he disgustedly told his staff the plot of the film. “But I would’ve loved to turn it off.”
Sure you would’ve, Dick. Sure you would’ve. The funny thing about White House movie screenings? As president, you’re fully capable of walking out of them. You’re in your own home and you’re the leader of the free world. But yes Tricky Dick, we believe you. You would’ve loved to turn off all the sex and violence.
Queue up one of the movies below and have a very Nixon Halloween!
1) Wait Until Dark (1967)
Of all the films on this list, Wait Until Dark is my personal favorite. Through a series of strange events, some shady guys come to believe that Audrey Hepburn’s character is hiding a doll filled with heroin somewhere inside her apartment. The twist? Hepburn has only recently become blind, and has been trying to adjust to navigating her new life without sight.
Naturally, the climax of the film involves Hepburn using the dark to her advantage as she’s terrorized by three men intent on finding that heroin. But it’s a genuinely gut-wrenching tale that utilizes both the absence of light and great sound design to make viewers empathize with Hepburn in a way that only movies can.
And all this is to say nothing of the terrific performances of not only Hepburn and Alan Arkin (the major baddie in the flick), but also the oddly sympathetic bad guys played by Richard Crenna and character actor Jack Weston.
As you can see from the trailer, light is its own character in this film:
Nixon watched Wait Until Dark on November 7, 1971—just two months after some of his cronies burglarized a psychiatrist’s office looking for incriminating info on Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers. So one can only imagine what Nixon was thinking while watching a movie about three guys trying to break into a woman’s apartment to steal valuable material.
The film is a must-see during the Halloween season, or anytime really. Terrifying, well written, and superbly acted all around, Wait Until Dark attempts to show us the world through the perspective of Hepburn’s character, first and foremost. Which is more than can be said of many horror and suspense films from this era featuring female characters.
2) The Collector (1965)
From the opening scene of the 1965 British movie The Collector, we can tell that something’s not quite right. Frederick Clegg, played by the amazing Terrence Stamp, is collecting butterflies in a field. He looks carefree. He looks relaxed. But he also looks possessed. There’s something not quite right about this man. And we quickly come to learn to trust that instinct.
Stamp plays a delusional psychopath who kidnaps a young woman, played by Samantha Eggar, and keeps her locked in a dungeon just outside his home. As we see Stamp’s character stalking this woman at the beginning of the film, viewers are implicated in his crime, continually seeing the world from just over Stamp’s shoulder, and through a gaze slightly obscured by window blinds.
One of the most haunting shots in the entire film doesn’t take place after Stamp has Eggar in his dungeon—though almost every second of that is admittedly horrifying. No, the most disturbing shot occurs just after Stamp throws her into his van in an alleyway, and the camera pulls back to show him driving through London. We witness hundreds of people just going about their day, and nobody is aware that there’s a woman who’s just been kidnapped in their midst.
The trailer hints at the voyeuristic nature of the entire movie, but doesn’t really do any of the suspense justice. It does however include a preview (again, with a strangely inappropriate and almost upbeat tone) of one of the most violent scenes from the film, when Stamp’s character drags Eggar through the lawn in the pouring rain.
When Nixon watched The Collector in February of 1974, there had already been calls for him to resign as President over the Watergate break-in. And the House was exploring whether they should impeach Nixon.
He wouldn’t resign for another five months, but it’s interesting to picture Nixon watching such a terrifying movie in the middle of the biggest political crisis of his life.
3) Twisted Nerve (1968)
The 1968 British film Twisted Nerve is the disturbing tale of a young man born into wealth, who pretends to be mentally disabled. Why would he do such a thing? He’s caught shoplifting for kicks and starts a ruse that he quickly realizes can be worked to his advantage with a young woman he meets in the store where he was shoplifting.
Georgie, played by Hywell Bennett, will clearly go to extraordinary lengths to be with the object of his affection, Susan, who’s played by Hayley Mills. His real name isn’t even Georgie, despite what he tells Susan and her mother, who kindly take him in when they think he’s been temporarily abandoned by his caretaker father. But will Georgie resort to murder to get what he wants?
Nixon watched Twisted Nerve in May of 1969, not that long after he moved into the White House in January of that year. But this particular film was screened at his Key Biscayne estate in Florida. He must really have wanted to see this one if he watched it on vacation.
The film is a disturbing psychological thriller, filled with outdated notions of mental illness, and a horrible stigmatization of the mentally disabled when viewed through the eyes of the 21st century. But all that aside, it’s a compelling horror flick, as you can see teased in the trailer below.
Interestingly, Twisted Nerve was written by Leo Marks, a cryptographer who served at Bletchley Park during World War II cracking Nazi codes.
If you’ve never seen Twisted Nerve but recognize the whistling theme used throughout the film, that might be because Quentin Tarantino would use it decades later in his Kill Bill series. I guarantee that if you watch Twisted Nerve you’ll be hearing that terrifying whistle in your sleep.
4) Man on a Swing (1974)
The 1974 film Man on a Swing was based on the real life story of a supposed psychic who tries to help police solve the case of a young woman who’s been recently murdered. The clairvoyant Franklin Wills, played by the perfectly cast Joel Grey, knows details about the murder that nobody could have known, unless they were either psychic... or at the scene of the crime.
Nixon watched Man on a Swing in July of 1974, less than a month before he would resign the presidency. His entire tenure was fraught with controversy, but it really does seem that in times of personal stress and frustration, Nixon turned to the darker elements of cinema.
Produced during a period when the American public were increasingly open to the idea of supernatural phenomena being real, 21st century audiences are left to question until the very end whether Wills is a real clairvoyant—or whether he knows too much for some other reason.
5) What the Peeper Saw (1972)
Of all the movies on this list, the 1972 psycho-sexual thriller What the Peeper Saw is probably the most disturbing. Originally released in the UK as Night Child, the film revolves around a 12-year-old boy, his father, his new stepmom, and questions about whether the boy killed his biological mother.
Nixon watched this movie on December 7, 1972, and reportedly was disgusted by it. Or so we’re led to believe by Nixon’s own words.
“I had seen this most obscene, horrible goddamn movie the other night,” President Nixon told his staff, before lamenting the fact that wholesome movies were no longer in style with the American public. In fact, Nixon blamed the decline of cinema as writers writing for themselves, rather than for audiences.
Perhaps tame by today’s standards of violence, it’s the grittiness of the film’s 1970s washed out color palette and the taboo sexual relationship between a minor and his stepmother that make this movie so disturbing to audiences today.
The trailer for this hints at the fact that a disturbed boy, played by Mark Lester (who’s perhaps most famous for his role in 1968’s Oliver), probably killed his own mother without mercy. And he’s more than willing to do the same to anyone else.
We’re terrified for the new stepmother, played by Swedish actress Britt Ekland, but we’re also left to wonder why the hell she indulges the boy’s fantasies to get information out of him. In one infamous scene she strips in front of the boy, taking off a piece of clothing each time he gives her information about who killed his mother. Spoiler alert: By the end she’s completely nude—and the boy has confessed to not only killing his mother, but enjoying it.
In the UK the movie went by its original name, Night Child. And while you can watch What the Peeper saw on DVD with some small bits cut out, you can also find rare copies of Night Child in deep dark corners of the internet.
There were a couple other contenders for spookiest films that Nixon watched, including The Night Visitor (1972) and Pendulum (1969). But in the case of the former I have yet to watch it. And in the case of the latter, I simply can’t find a copy anywhere.
Relative to the total number of movies Nixon watched in office, he didn’t watch that many creepy ones. But there were certainly enough to keep his mind filled with thoughts about the darker elements of modern society.
Happy Halloween, and don’t let the Nixons bite!
Top image by Jim Cooke, source photo via AP