By Jeremy Carr.
Pakula adopts an accordingly striking compositional tension throughout the picture, isolating portions of the frame and dwarfing individuals in an abstract expanse, suggesting both a voyeuristic perspective and an unnerving environmental apprehension.”
It might be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when being a tad on the paranoid side meant you were in the know and may actually be on to something. While today such conspiracy-minded thinking has been largely co-opted by less savory elements of society, in 1974, when Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View was released, America was still grappling with the Vietnam war, the Watergate scandal, and recent high-profile assassinations. In other words, there was every reason in the world to be skeptical about almost anything concerning the government or other authoritative bodies.
While this cultural context isn’t overtly stated in The Parallax View (new from the Criterion Collection), the motivating atmosphere of cynicism remains palpable, though it doesn’t initially sway Warren Beatty’s Oregon journalist Joseph Frady, despite his witnessing the public killing of Independent Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce) in Seattle, the sequence opening Pakula’s film. According to a shadowy commission (literally depicted as such), the supposed lone assassin was “motivated by a misguided sense of patriotism and a psychological desire for public recognition,” and there was no evidence of a wider conspiracy. Frady takes this at face value and moves on, but the same can’t be said for television reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), who was also on the scene that day. Three years after the incident, she’s more convinced than ever that something isn’t right. When she shows up to Frady’s home, certain of impending danger, she makes her case for a larger plot, particularly in light of the six other witnesses who have since been killed in mysterious circumstances. Frady remains doubtful. “You mean,” Carter asks in one of the film’s most prescient lines of dialogue, “if you didn’t see it, it’s not there?”
Like Frady, established early on as an erstwhile drunk with a tendency to create the news rather than cover it (priming the rationale for any doubt thrown his way), Carter is noted to have had a suicidal past. So, when she ends up in a morgue not long after her appeal to Frady, the drugs in her system attest to yet another self-destructive binge. But the disconcerting timing is sufficient to motivate Frady, who begins to piece together the suspect shards, eventually narrowing his focus on the Parallax Corporation. Although much is left ambiguous about this enigmatic conglomerate, the fact they have a human engineering division sufficiently seizes his curiosity.
The politically active Beatty is appropriately cast as Frady, a brazen, handsome shaggy dog who has a way with women and enjoys his occasionally irresponsible methods. The well-spaced dispersal of developments, generally revealed as Frady concurrently receives them, makes for a relatable, sympathetic everyman only gradually informed, and thanks to Beatty’s star stature, he is just exceptional enough to make his more outstanding exploits seem undoubted. Investigating the death of a judge, another witness to the senator’s slaying, Frady is a fish out of water in the small, aptly named town of Salmontail, facing resistance from the townsfolk (what with his long hair and all) and scrapping with the local law enforcement, demonstrating his physical prowess and validating his suspicions. Individuals who continually resist his questions expose their veiled secrets, and repeated cautionary phrases emphasize Frady’s contracting trek into the perilous unknown. Alex Cox, interviewed on the Criterion Collection disc of The Parallax View, applauds Beatty’s convincing performance within the performance, as he delves into the murky depths of the corporation’s inner circle and is surreptitiously accepted into its ranks of would-be assassins, proving to be remarkably resourceful and determined in the process.
Written by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr., with uncredited contributions by Robert Towne, The Parallax View was based on the novel of the same name by Loren Singer. It was the second film of Pakula’s so-called “paranoia trilogy,” following Klute in 1971 and preceding All the President’s Men in 1976, and Cox notes other key precursors, including the dramatized JFK exposé Executive Action (1973). He also argues that Pakula’s film aligns itself with the “privatization of intelligence” seen in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and the rampant corruption of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, both of which were also released in 1974. Yet for Cox, The Parallax View is a “high water mark” in terms of American political conspiracy thrillers. A primary reason for this is the film’s notable presentation. According to Pakula, The Parallax View “has a kind of bold canvas, instead of being a film with tiny intimate details. It is a film with bold sketches and an almost expressionist quality, at the same time seeing things on the surface as being totally real.” “The film was designed as a myth,” the director continues, “with archetypal people, characters, and places. … full of alienated people wandering around in totally alienated worlds with a seeming absence of continuing relationships.” Working with Gordon Willis, arguably the most distinguished American cinematographer of the 1970s, Pakula thus adopts an accordingly striking compositional tension throughout the picture, isolating portions of the frame and dwarfing individuals in an abstract expanse, suggesting both a voyeuristic perspective and an unnerving environmental apprehension – the film’s anamorphic format was a favorite of Willis’s, allowing him to focus on “people in space.”
In an interview from 2004, Willis says he and Pakula shared an interest in political conspiracies and got along well together, having previously collaborated on Klute, and they clearly demonstrate a mutual adeptness when it comes to a choreographed friction derived from sideways glances, procedural banality, and character movement (antiquated travel precautions and lax security certainly help, though the ease only adds to the circumstantial foreboding). They’re equally proficient in moments of scenic pandemonium. The Parallax View’s introductory sequence atop Seattle’s Space Needle is still a jaw-dropping bit of staging, and its climactic assassination is a haunting expression of vulnerability (“surreal” is Pakula’s accurate description). There are also stealthy foot pursuits and a rather incongruous car chase complete with Dukes of Hazzard-style vehicular stunts. As Frady is progressively sucked into the Bermuda Triangle of psychology, crime, and politics, The Parallax View does indeed become, as Pakula declares, his “most visually stylized” film.
Pakula also says, in a 1974 interview, that the movie “dealt with the mythical American hero and a lot of American myths, some old ones but mostly contemporary ones,” and with the tagline “As American as apple pie,” this distinctly American character can’t be overstated. From the Independence Day festivities that launch the picture, with its symbols of traditional, benign Americana, to its montage of evocative imagery used in the Parallax Corporation’s testing program – interspersed with words like “Love,” “God,” “Country,” “Happiness,” “Mother,” “Father,” “Me” – elements of national relevance, for better or worse, infuse the film’s conceptual associations. Yet The Parallax View is decidedly nonpartisan. Senator Carroll remarks he’s too independent for his own good, and there are no objectionable political positions stated to spur on those pulling the strings. The underlying logic of this, as despairing as it might be, is that it ultimately doesn’t matter. The reasons are irrelevant; only the results are essential, and no political party holds a monopoly on America’s dubious capacity for reinforced, often violent, manipulation.
It’s curious, then, that Nathan Heller, in his Criterion essay, finds a cause for optimism. “I understand The Parallax View as being carried by hope,” he writes. “There is nothing truly nihilistic in its outlook. Through its parable of failure, it puts forth the possibility of institutional society done right. The movie is a plea for better power structures and a wiser choice of heroes.” That’s a bit of a stretch considering how much of the film is left unsettled and unsettling. The desire to know more and uncover what lies beneath is an area of irresistible appeal, as it is for Frady, and there’s a justified, perhaps paradoxically hazardous and intriguing interest in the notion that anything is entirely possible (after all, as Cox notes, all a conspiracy takes is just two or more people). But here, as the plot narrows and tightens and as the Kafkaesque descent into muddied and unspoken truth makes obvious, especially as it relates to Frady’s final destination, the disturbing inevitability and utter futility of it all far outweighs any hint of hope. And that is precisely the fascinating, frustrating, and finally frightening point of the picture.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).