Alan J. Pakula
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
The Parallax View
June 1, 2020
ne of the most striking images in Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) is photographed from above. We’re inside a giant
auditorium, next to some stage lights. Below are rows and rows of tables tidily draped in red, white, and blue tablecloths. Later, a senator is going to give a keynote here. Before we can get there, though, chaos descends on the dress rehearsal. Here comes that striking image:
at the rehearsal, a golf cart, driven by that senator, accidentally crashes into these rows of tables, forcing their straight lines askew. It's inarguable that the image, and what it's trying to say, is on the nose. Still, it memorably visually encompasses the mindset of the movie, which has decidedly lost its faith in the sturdiness of the tenets America is supposedly built on.
The Parallax View is the second film in Pakula’s well-regarded "political paranoia" trilogy, which is made up of jaded conspiracy-minded thrillers steeping in Watergate-era ambivalence. Preceded by the 1971 detective thriller Klute, and succeeded by the biographical 1976 journo-drama All the President’s Men, The Parallax View is perhaps the most wild-eyed of the bunch. It's without question the most conceptually audacious: it gives credence to the idea that certain political killings are, in fact, inside jobs.
The film begins atop the Seattle Space Needle in 1971. There, a presidential candidate is giving a speech. It’s prematurely cut off when, mid-thought, the hopeful is fatally shot by a gunman disguised as a waiter. Our purview is suddenly taken up by his blood, which splashes the building’s windows. A governmental committee soon after decides that this assassination was a one-man job perpetrated by the waiter, who subsequently fell to his death.
Complicating ideas are brought to the fore. Just before the murder, Pakula draws attention to another "server" who leaves the scene with a gun. After the committee has come to its conclusion, the film picks up in 1974, where a TV anchor and witness to the assassination, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), shows up at the apartment of her ex and the movie's protagonist, small-time newspaperman Joe Frady (Warren Beatty). She claims that six other witnesses of the event have died mysteriously in the last few years; she's positive that she will be next. Carter posits that the killing was actually a government job, and that while the committee covered tracks initially, there is more cleanup to be done.
Frady, who was also at the Space Needle in 1971, doesn’t believe Carter, and condescendingly tries to calm her down before she departs his flat, deeply frustrated. But when she dies under suspicious circumstances days later, just like the people she’s been keeping track of, Frady begins to seriously look into her claims, in part because this story, if true, could be a career maker for him. He soon finds that not only do they have validity after all — there actually exists
a slickly run, apparently governmentally financed company specializing in the killings of progressive public officials. It has its own manicured offices; we might have perhaps unsuspectingly seen their exteriors from the street. The advertised existence of this outfit is of course chilling, but there's something especially so about the way it’s run: it’s as if it were basically the same as a factory. Convincing enlistees to kill here is almost no different than training someone to use a conveyor belt at a chocolate-production plant. Frady gets frighteningly far into the recruitment process under the guise of someone else.
Pakula imbues The Parallax View with a sort of stylistic realism clearly designed to persuade — like he wants us to really understand that this isn't exactly supposed to be an escapist fantasy. It's undeniable that government-sanctioned killings happen all the time, so would it be so crazy if there were something like this murder company doing work? The storyline itself is so rife with close calls and contrived developments, though, that I ultimately enjoyed The Parallax View not as I would, say, All the President’s Men, which was as mistrustful as it was plausible-feeling. It's more like fretful, intelligently designed pulp fiction with a not-unbelievable conceit that can still, at times, feel a little too unbelievable for its own good — like a conventional psychological thriller.
Otherwise, The Parallax View engages. Beatty is effective as the ever-hungry movie journalist who enviably seems to never have to file anything to his editor (Hume Cronyn) ever. And Pakula’s visual sensibility is especially strong toward the movie’s end. More and more, we enter big spaces, from auditoriums to expansive offices, photographed in a way that emphasizes their largeness. We, alongside Beatty’s character, are meant to feel increasingly oppressed, able to be crushed by a thumb. This is not a subtle trick on Pakula’s part, just like the golf-cart-through-the-tables tableau, but it's an as-efficient one. By the time the feature’s deliciously downbeat ending came, I felt ready — almost eager — for the blow it delivered. The Parallax View's overarching cynicism is, I think, more affecting than a lot of its finer points. But there is such certitude in and force behind that cynicism that we can't forget it — just like how the doomed characters in the feature will not forget what they saw and what it cost them. B+