The Parallax View
It is indisputable that the 1970s produced some of the best conspiracy movies ever made and most of these movies came out of Hollywood. It makes sense, of course. The social and political unrest of the day, the public’s growing mistrust of government following the infamous Watergate scandal and the seemingly never-ending speculation over the JFK assassination meant that movies involving government conspiracies and sinister political machinations were deemed particularly relevant, even prescient, at that time. Director Alan J. Pakula chose to make three movies in that period that delved into the shadowy underworld of lies, cover-ups and intrigue: the most famous and successful of these was the Oscar-winning classic All The President’s Men, a masterful re-enactment of the exposure of the Watergate affair. Before that, however, Pakula had already mined similar thematic ground with the moody, character-based suspense thriller Klute and perhaps the least well-known of the three, The Parallax View. Although it did only modest business at the box office when it was first released, this tense and chillingly persuasive thriller has over the years slowly but surely gained the recognition it so rightly deserves and is now generally acknowledged as one of the finest entries in the conspiracy movie genre.
The story begins with the assassination of a U.S. senator during a party atop the Space Needle in Seattle. The shooter dies soon after and a subsequent inquiry by a government commission concludes that a lone assassin was responsible for the murder and that there is “no evidence of any wider conspiracy”. However, reporter and eyewitness to the killing Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) disagrees and, three years after the event, tries to convince her ex-boyfriend Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), another journalist, that the other witnesses to the assassination are being systematically eliminated, their deaths made to look like accidents. She also believes her own life is in danger but, aware of her troubled personal history, he dismisses her as flaky and paranoid. When her dead body turns up in the morgue however, Frady realises that he might have been wrong about her suspicions and decides to investigate. Using a phoney I.D. supplied by an “ex-non-FBI agent” friend of his, the reporter pays a visit to a rural community where one of the witnesses has perished but almost immediately finds his life in mortal danger when his questions about the deceased prompt a couple of the locals to try and kill him.
Barely escaping alive, he nonetheless manages to procure one promising lead concerning an organisation called the Parallax Corporation, vaguely subtitled ‘Division of Human Engineering’. Sensing that this could be the story he needs to get his flagging career back on track, he asks his long-suffering news editor (Hume Cronyn) for more time to investigate and his friend accedes, albeit begrudgingly. Hoping to learn more about Parallax, Frady fills in their recruitment form, which he learns has been specially designed to identify specific psychological and behavioural traits in a potential applicant. In the meantime, he obtains photographic evidence of a possible second assassin present at the Seattle murder. However, as the body count continues to rise, Frady starts to wonder what he has gotten himself into. A Parallax representative (Walter McGinn) soon contacts him, offering him a placement with their organisation and, assuming the role of a “hostile misfit”, he accepts. Can he uncover their plans? Will Parallax find out who he really is? Do you honestly think I’m going to tell you? I’m sure there are many who have yet to see this exceptional thriller so I won’t spoil it for them except to say that the answers are well worth finding out.
It’s encouraging to see that The Parallax View’s reputation has grown over the years – in fact, it has become quite influential in its own way, as TV shows like The X-Files and films such as The Game and Arlington Road can attest. This reputation does not go unjustified, and one of the film’s chief strengths is that it quite brilliantly combines real moments of genuine suspense with a grander, more intangible sense of paranoia and low-key menace. One memorable scene in the film has Frady visiting the Parallax offices for the purpose of undergoing a further test in order to ensure his ‘suitability’ - what follows has to be one of the most bizarre but fascinating sequences in the entire movie. Asked to sit in a chair, his hands placed on sensors, Frady is subjected to an initially serenely paced montage of positive and negative images flashed up on a giant cinema screen. Various titles like ‘MOTHER’, ‘FATHER’, ‘HOME’, ‘COUNTRY’ and ‘ENEMY’ precede appropriate images of the same. As the montage progresses however, these images are displayed in an increasingly rapid fashion and soon, they begin to connect and combine in more subversive, even dangerous ways. The accompanying music too, although at first tranquil, becomes more forceful and ever so slightly discordant, the combined audio-visual bombardment rapidly and deliberately unbalancing the viewer, insidiously working its way into his subconscious. It seems the test is designed to provoke an emotional response from those viewers with possible sociopathic tendencies, tendencies that this shady corporation believes could be useful to them and their plans. What is interesting to note about this scene is that we, the audience, experience the images as the protagonist experiences them – there are no reaction shots of Beatty’s character in the sequence – so the film appears to be trying to provoke a similar response from us as it does from the character, a kind of cinematic psychometric test. It is an extremely unsettling sequence that discreetly but nonetheless superbly encapsulates the questions posed by the film in regard to political assassins and their raison d’être.
Pakula directs with characteristic assurance, eliciting fine performances from his cast, indeed Warren Beatty is as good here as he has ever been and there are fine supporting turns from Paula Prentiss, Walter McGinn and veteran actor Hume Cronyn. Although I’ve never been a great fan of his, Beatty is very effective, giving a credible portrayal of a reckless, ex-alcoholic reporter, gradually becoming more obsessive in his search for the truth but dangerously unaware of the powerful and ruthless forces at work against him. The film is well paced, with no real subplots or romantic asides to divert the viewer’s attention away from the central narrative thrust, although there is little humour to lighten the tone of what is mostly a very solemn movie. The tension level is, however, expertly sustained, particularly in three standout sequences: the aforementioned ‘test’ scene, the film’s devastating climax and, a particular favourite of mine, an outstanding sequence where Beatty makes an alarming discovery on board an airplane. A wonderfully suspenseful set piece, Pakula handles this part of the film like a pro, making commendable use of the ambient sounds of the passengers on board to heighten the tension. In fact, the actual music score (by Michael Small) is employed very sparingly in the movie, although its (infrequent) use adds greatly to the film’s bleak and despairingly cynical tone.
The central premise of the Parallax Corporation is an interesting one. Some have pointed out that the film is actually a thinly veiled albeit fictitious attempt to make sense of the many theories surrounding the JFK assassination and indeed, the Parallax Corporation might be interpreted as a metaphor for the government itself, with its seemingly limitless powers and influences. We also have other similarities such as the photographs that seem to imply a second gunman (remember the Zapruder footage?) and the witnesses that die in mysterious circumstances after the fact. In a much broader, almost abstract sense, however, the film allows Pakula to tap into the general paranoia surrounding large-scale conspiracies and forces the audience into contemplating what might be going on behind the closed doors of the corporate world. There is no doubt that the director’s disturbing vision is brilliantly complimented by Gordon Willis’s cold, stark cinematography, which, with its tricky camera angles and disorienting compositions, manages to suggest that nothing is ever quite what it seems and emphasises the Parallax building as a cold, faceless structure, an eerily anonymous centre of dark secrets and sinister goings-on.
One of the main criticisms levelled at the film is that it is simply too preposterous – why is Beatty the only one capable of seeing that there is a conspiracy? Shouldn’t the questionable nature (not to mention frequency) of the murders taking place arouse more suspicion? How can Parallax get away with so much without drawing more attention to its nefarious activities? It is fair to say the movie takes quite a bit of dramatic licence but it is first and foremost a thriller after all and the way in which Pakula overcomes the story’s inherent implausibility is a testament to his smart, serious and coolly detached style of filmmaking. Together with Gordon Willis’s dark, expressive photography and a clever, elliptical script (by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr, adapted from Loren Singer’s novel of the same name), Pakula creates an atmosphere of omnipresent malevolence and corruption that is dark, chilling and yes, frighteningly believable, and the film evinces and elicits fear and suspicion simply because the true extent of that corruption is never exposed, merely glimpsed at. The Parallax View never answers all the questions it raises; instead it relies on subtle implication and insinuation, suggesting so much by revealing so little – indeed, even characters themselves often appear in half or total darkness or are obscured by windows, curtains or shadows, adding to the overall sense of uncertainty and distrust. It may well be that Pakula’s wilfully oblique approach ultimately masquerades a film of only superficial meaning but his method works extremely well, in the very least transcending the usual limitations of genre to achieve something genuinely disturbing. Make no mistake: there is an intelligence at work here that not only instils in the audience a very real sense of paranoia that grows more intense as the story advances but, as we realise by the film’s conclusion, has in fact craftily alerted us to the terrible inevitability of the story’s trajectory right from the opening scenes.
No matter what I say, The Parallax View will not appeal to everyone – some viewers may find the story too obscure and confusing, annoyed by the very things I felt worked to its advantage, such as its failure to answer all the questions it poses (for example, the Parallax Corporation’s overall agenda is never explained), or perhaps they may be turned off by the film’s generally bleak atmosphere and downbeat conclusion. Certainly, The Parallax View carries that same strain of sombre cynicism discernible in other movies of its type and time, like Coppola’s excellent The Conversation and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days Of The Condor, and like the protagonists of those movies, we become conscious of the sheer impossibility of this one man’s plight. Like the melancholy of a man who realises he will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder (Robert Redford’s Condor), or the desperation of someone trying to atone for a past mistake but becoming a victim of his own good intentions (Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul), Joe Frady is another example of an essentially good man facing an adversary against whom we learn there can be no true victory. This paralysing realisation creates an overwhelming cynicism in the viewer, a kind that already suffuses the entire film – I love the scene, for example, that has a senator attend the rehearsal of a political speech he will give except that instead of his actual speaking, a recording of his address is played while he discusses his golf swing with an assistant. Although this largely pessimistic view of the world could be said to make for depressing viewing, I believe that it actually lends the film an air of grim authenticity that makes it all the more engrossing. When all’s said and done then, this is by no means a flawless movie; certain aspects of the film haven’t dated too well, some scenes sit badly with the rest of the film - the car chase, for example, sticks out like a sore thumb, feeling like a concession to the action film fans in the audience - and some may find scenes like Beatty’s ‘test’ experience both overlong and possibly over-indulgent but give it a chance. The Parallax View is a suspenseful and disturbing experience that rewards the attention and provides the viewer with a final resolution that is both shocking and, thanks to Pakula’s intelligent and deadly serious approach, all too plausible.
Until I bought this DVD, I had only seen The Parallax View on a very murky pan-and-scan VHS copy which ruined Gordon Willis’s superb compositions (which really use the full width of the frame) so it is great to finally have a version of the movie in the proper (anamorphic) 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The print used is in fine shape, with only rare instances of scratches or white flecks, and the transfer itself is also above average. The detail of the image is generally very good, contrast is fine and flesh tones look natural, if just a tad brownish at times. Colours are also nicely reproduced and the black level – so important in such a dark, gloomy film as this – is dead-on, although some of the darker scenes at the film’s climax lack decent contrast. The picture is not overly grainy but occasional artefacts could be detected, particularly during the opening scenes. Unfortunately, there is also some shimmering from time to time but still, it’s great to see the film in the correct format and the picture quality here is perfectly acceptable.
Presented in 2.0 mono (English or French), there is little to say about the soundtrack given the limited dynamic range. Dialogue and music sound fine although the volume of the dialogue appears to be set lower than the other elements on the soundtrack. Turning the sound up, some background hiss is also detectable. However, Michael Small’s score comes across nicely, particularly the marching band fanfare. Average but adequate.
The disc contains dull static, silent menus and the film has just 15 chapter stops. Sadly, the only extra provided is the admittedly well put together original theatrical trailer (in widescreen).
There are about five or six truly great conspiracy/political thrillers that should be on every serious film fan’s wish list and The Parallax View is one of them. The late Alan J. Pakula created a complex, chilling and superbly crafted tale of intrigue and paranoia with this movie and I heartily recommend it to all conspiracy theorists, they, I mean, you know who you are.