Director Alan J. Pakula(left) with Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty on the set with Paula Prentiss
THE PARALLAX VIEW A
USA (102 mi) 1974 ‘Scope d: Alan J. Pakula
If the picture works, the audience will trust the person sitting next to them a little less at the end of the film.
―Director Alan J. Pakula
Every time you turned around, some nut was knockin’ off one of the best men in the country.
―Joe Frady (Warren Beatty)
Even looking back at it today the film this most resembles is Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963), an inventive B-movie about a journalist hell-bent on admitting himself into a mental asylum in order to expose a murderer, believing his stunning exposé will win a Pulitzer prize, but his quest for the truth is undone by his mad obsession to get the story at any cost, which is immeasurable, as he is soon subject to all manner of psychiatric electro-shock treatments, driving him further and further off the edge of sanity, where he may just lose his mind in there. Similarly, Warren Beatty as Joe Frady is a kind of burnt out newspaper reporter who routinely resorts to ethically unsound methods, garnering a reputation for chasing grandiose stories that never add up, developing a questionable reputation along with a long history of drinking problems, yet his editor (Hume Cronyn), offers him a job to help him recover and get back on his feet, telling him at one point, “We’re in the business of reporting the news, not creating it,” but he still has a tendency to go for the knockout story, remaining wildly ambitious, yet because he’s a nameless nobody from nowhere in particular, he’s perfectly cast for this film, as his anonymity is easy for audiences to identify with. In the era of the 70’s paranoid conspiracy films, including Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), and Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975, which shares the same screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple Jr.), this is the second installment of Pakula’s “Political Paranoia Trilogy,” preceded by Klute (1971) and followed by ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), where this was the only one in the trilogy not to be nominated for an Academy Award, yet it may be the one film that most perfectly captures the dark paranoid reality of the times. Few films have captured that gnawing sense of growing suspicion and dread better than this film, a moody existential thriller that reverberates from the disturbing echoes of real-life murders of prominent public faces. Coming after the shocking assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the decade of the 60’s, the film was released at the height of America’s distrust in elected officials, with looming questions about the Vietnam War still lingering, the Pentagon Papers were released in 1971 revealing a trail of lies and administrative cover-ups, with President Nixon embroiled in the Watergate controversy, resigning in disgrace just two months after the film was released. With television images flooding the nation reinforcing the idea that government had lost control, that ordinary citizens were powerless, this film rides a wave of popular skepticism and disillusionment in a decade defined by disenchantment and distrust about encroaching technology, beautifully integrating a quiet sense of foreboding with its emphasis on long dialogue-free scenes and an attention to Antonioni-style detail, defined by a dark mood of suspicion, gradual alienation, and eventual disempowerment of the individual in modern society, including the stripping away of privacy and the growing influence of shadowy power structures, given a subversive undertone in the music by Michael Small that seems filled with a mix of patriotic fervor and impending doom, masterfully shot by cinematographer Gordon Willis, creating an elegantly impersonal use of sleek geometric space and high-rise buildings with reflective windows, giving the film a timeless look, almost futuristic, yet it perfectly fits in the claustrophobic confinement of the 70’s, revealing a collective unease about our national identity.
Adapted from a 1970 novel by Loren Singer, opening with a startling set piece atop the Space Needle in Seattle, there’s an almost cornball feel of patriotism in the air with presidential candidate U.S. Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce) and his wife on hand celebrating the Independence Day 4th of July celebrations before live TV cameras, brutally interrupted by a gunshot that kills the Senator, reminiscent of the shooting of Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, where an armed waiter is chased outside onto the steeply slanted roof where he quickly falls to his death. It’s an impressive and rarely seen use of a recognizable national monument, like the use of the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR (1942), or Cary Grant eluding killers chasing after him on the site of Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), though this doesn’t appear to be a studio set, offering a much more realistic vantage point. What follows is a glum but sobering depiction of a specially appointed Congressional Committee (which may as well be the Warren Commission) releasing their findings publicly that after a complete and thorough investigation, it is their conclusion that the killer acted alone, attempting to end all growing speculation concerning various conspiracy theories, yet to viewers there appeared to be a second waiter that was unaccounted for. Warren Beatty is an interesting choice here, as he was an active campaigner and fundraiser, also part of the inner circle for Senator George McGovern’s failed Presidential bid in 1972, and prior to that he campaigned for Bobby Kennedy, taking a two-year absence from making films, so his political presence on the American landscape adds a certain credibility to his role. Playing a down and out newspaper reporter in some non-descript town with little notoriety to his name, Joe Frady (a variation on Dragnet’s straight arrow cop Joe Friday whose single-minded purpose was collecting facts) seems like a lost man, visited by TV newswoman Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss, an earlier girlfriend) seen earlier interviewing the Senator before he was killed, frantically claiming people are after her, that her life is in danger, but Joe doesn’t really believe her, that is, until she turns up in the morgue the very next day, with the police concluding she died of a drug overdose. Her contention was that more than a half dozen witnesses to the Senator’s murder have also died under mysterious circumstances afterwards, where it appears someone is plotting to kill them. She wanted Joe to accompany her to the small town of Salmontail to look into the recent death of a judge who similarly died unexpectedly. Her death turns Joe’s disorderly life around, suddenly driven by a dogged spirit to get at the root of the problem, to find out what’s behind this sinister plot to kill all the witnesses to a murder. Frady confides his growing suspicions to newspaper editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn, with a picture of Theodore Roosevelt on the wall behind his desk), who like Joe earlier expresses his own cynicism, finding it hard to believe, so he heads out there alone to sniff around, finding himself embroiled in a bar fight with the deputy, who the sheriff describes as really dumb, humorously claiming “You move his plate five inches, that boy’s gonna starve to death.” So the sheriff (Kelly Thorsden) takes him out to the scene of the judge’s death, the Gorge Dam on Washington’s Skagit River (1,002 × 1,536 pixels), allegedly fishing downriver from where the floodgates of the dam open, but then pulls a gun on him before releasing a thunderous stream of water that floods the river below, recreating the drowning scene but with different results, as a tense physical struggle between the two men leaves the sheriff drowned instead. A search of his home afterwards uncovers the existence of the Parallax Corporation, a shadowy entity in the business of hiring disturbed sociopaths to work as high-priced assassins. Almost immediately, Frady decides to apply for the program himself using a fake identity.
After Frady is shown a photograph of the other waiter (a presumed suspect) by Austin Tucker (William Daniels), Carroll’s former aide, yet another unfortunate boating accident occurs, killing Tucker and his associate, with reason to believe Frady didn’t survive, so when he shows up, Rintels is more receptive this time around, offering money for support, urging Frady to check in with him regularly. Much to his surprise, a Parallax official arrives at his door, Jack Younger (Walter McGinn), always polite, eagerly informing him “We could use someone like you,” thinking they just might have something for him, telling him to come in for a personalized test, which turns out to be the scene of the film, like something out of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), but it’s not a brainwashing technique, instead it’s more like a lie detector test, a psychological gauge meant to measure positive signs of hatred and inner rage, measuring his inner psyche for violent sociopathic tendencies, really unlike any other test. While seated in a darkened room in a specially designed chair (like an electric chair) equipped with sensors, filmed as a mammoth room designed to diminish any signs of individuality, where he is merely a speck of light, he is instructed to simply observe the “visual materials.” In many ways this set-up recalls a similar scenario of Beatty being portrayed in Arthur Penn’s exasperatingly existential Mickey One (1965), another paranoid thriller where a small-time comic performs before no visible audience, just an Oz-like voice behind the lone spotlight pointed directly at him in an otherwise completely darkened theater, a nightclub audition from Hell that resembles being locked inside of your own conscious with no way out. While those are just reference points to help digest the uniqueness of the experience, where the highly abstract six-minute montage is an uncanny document in itself that seems to specialize in subliminal imagery, starting slow and then speeding up, The Parallax View (The Test Scene) - YouTube (6:21), perhaps the best description comes from a Damon Smith review from Reverse Shot, Southland Tales / The Parallax View - Reverse Shot:
A montage sequence begins, intercutting the words “LOVE,” “MOM,” “GOD,” “HAPPINESS,” “FREEDOM,” and “ME” with bland homespun images of a father and son, an elderly couple, babies, baseball players, pies, churches, and rural farmhouses, accompanied by a soothing ‘70s soft-rock theme. The word “COUNTRY” is paired with glimpses of Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty, the word “ENEMY” with stills of Castro, Mao, and Hitler. As the music shifts to a more dissonant register, the images arrive faster and have an uglier, more harrowing aspect (lynchings, prison cells, muddy-faced children, riot scenes, bodies), leading to disturbing juxtapositions and presumably confused emotional reactions on the part of the viewer, who is invited to identify with comic-book avenger Thor. Since we see it all through Frady’s eyes — there are no cutaways or reaction shots during the entire six-minute sequence — the experience has the flavor of a bad acid trip, speaking to the ways American ideologies can be twisted into revenge fantasy by pathology. Or more to the point of the scene within Pakula’s film, deployed as such by mind-control experts.
It’s an intriguing sequence, paralleled by Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) where doctors, the sole authority for institutionalized mental patients, are performing electro-shock treatment on patients, allegedly to cure them of their psychotic tendencies, while here a secret corporate entity is attempting to measure recognizable signs of sociopathic disturbance, but rather than cure the patient, this corporation wishes to utilize the anti-social resentments in furthering their cause, which is carrying out assassinations while cleverly concealing the real culprit behind the crimes. In the 60’s, society was met with anti-establishment demonstrations against the war, ending discrimination in all forms, allowing free access to the ballot, equal treatment of women, and cries against an entrenched systematic authority run amok, with hopes of creating a better and more hopeful world, yet Fuller’s vision depicts an anxious world driven to madness by the extreme pace of social progress and change, where mental patients exhibiting signs of stress from war, racial bigotry, and fear of nuclear annihilation are all treated as damaged psychotics in need of extreme forms of psychological therapy, such as electro-shock treatment in an attempt to rewire the patients on a more benign course of behavior that exhibits less activism. In the 70’s, however, the individual has all but been eliminated, as it’s a world now controlled by unseen corporate strategies who have their own plan for how the world should look, using criminal acts of murder and sabotage to achieve their dubious aims, all kept out of sight from the public, who has no inkling of what’s really going on, yet a helpless sense of dread exists everywhere, as there’s reason to believe in governmental conspiracy theories and cover-ups, all designed to keep the public from learning the truth. Corporate America is there to answer the call, rewiring the circuitry behind the scenes.
Amazingly, while at the Parallax offices, Frady doesn’t wait for the test results (ironically he already fits the profile), but instead recognizes the second waiter and presumed assassin (Bill McKinney) from Senator Carroll’s assassination and follows him, observing that he picks up a suitcase from the trunk of a parked car then heads for the airport, checking that bag at curbside check-in. Searching in vain for the man, Frady actually boards the plane on the runway ramp as if it were a waiting train but can’t find the missing man, instead he discovers the presence of another U.S. Senator flying in first class. Paying on board directly to the stewardess, with open smoking freely allowed as well, both options were eliminated a long time ago, which certainly dates this picture. The missing man is actually detected on the airport roof watching the plane’s takeoff, while Frady, once onboard, coolly has to decide what to do in a ten-minute wordless sequence that plays out slowly over time The PARALLAX VIEW 8(is that P-A-I-L-E-Y?) YouTube (9:52), accumulating tension, writing a note that a bomb is on the plane and placing it in the pile of napkins on the stewardess tray. When she finds it, she takes it to the pilot who turns the plane around, claiming mechanical issues. Once landed and the passengers departed, the plane explodes, yet casually waiting for him in his apartment is Jack Younger, who confronts him about his fake identity, having to invent yet another fake story to explain his actions, yet he is given a new assignment with a partner, who he cleverly sends to a deep retreat in the remote regions of Hawaii. Curiously, Bill Rintels is seen listening to cassette recordings made of the conversation with Younger, placing it in an envelope with other recordings, receiving a food delivery at his desk, as is his habit, though this delivery man is the second waiter who poisons his food, removing all tapes and any other evidence connecting Rintels to the Parallax Corporation. What’s evident is that Frady, like the journalist in Fuller’s film, has gotten himself deeply embedded into a nefarious situation with little wiggle room to escape, where he’s an amateur dealing with professionals, taking the precarious position of a lone wolf, a man on his own fighting against the darker sides of evil. What he gets himself into in the final sequence is a trap, beautifully set up at another patriotic venue (where the villains hide behind the patriotic music), the afternoon dress rehearsal at a large convention center for the political rally for Senator George Hammond (Jim Davis), with Parallax agents stationed high above in the rafters, as if providing security, where Frady, following them, finds himself alone up there with no way out, ensnared in their deceitful web, unable to prevent yet another political assassination that takes place right before his eyes, yet he’s paralyzed, helpless to do anything about it. Much of the beauty of the film is in what is left out, remaining puzzling throughout, told in an intentionally oblique manner, where part of the fascination with the film (and perhaps the Warren Commission as well) is the realization that we’ll never know the real truth, that government and corporate prowess may have ingeniously mastered the art of cover-ups and deception behind the scenes, leaving us in a state of permanent frustration with lingering unanswered questions. The existence of the Parallax Corporation is largely an imaginary power that exists behind the public face of government, one that operates in total secrecy, but may be the real power lurking behind elected power, like a secret government, as has been suggested in various theories behind the Kennedy assassination, that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, yet he was the fall guy for the real unnamed powers behind the assassination of a sitting U.S. President. Much of this was also suggested in Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) as well, especially in the precision of a hired CIA assassin (Max von Sydow) who works both sides of the East/West divide, but is paid handsomely for his unmatched expertise. Frady can’t complete at that level, turning this into a more cynical, downbeat finale, suggesting a bleaker worldview, yet he symbolizes the lone voice of journalism fighting against the darker impulses of authoritarianism.