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 shot from above. We’re inside an auditorium, next to some stage lights. Below are rows and rows of tables tidily dressed 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 dress rehearsal. What we will remember most is a shot of a golf cart, driven
by that senator, accidentally crashing into these tables, resetting their straight lines askew. The image is on the nose. Still, it memorably visually encompasses the mindset of the movie, which decidedly has 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 steeped in post-Nixon-induced skepticism. 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 paranoid, wild-eyed of the bunch. And the most audacious: it gives credence — and credence delivered with a naturalistic aplomb that sometimes undermines it — to the idea that certain political killings are, in fact, inside jobs.
The film begins atop the Seattle Space Needle in 1971, where a presidential candidate is giving a speech. It’s prematurely cut off when he’s fatally shot by a gunman disguised as a waiter; our purview is taken up by red paint suddenly thudding against 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. But other ideas are brought to the fore when we catch a glimpse of another armed server leaving the scene with a gun. And when, three years later, a TV newswoman and witness, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), shows up at the apartment of her ex and the protagonist of the movie, small-time newspaperman Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), claiming that six witnesses have died mysteriously in the last few years. Carter is positive that she herself is being hunted. She posits that the assassination was actually a government job being methodically covered up.
Frady, who also witnessed the candidate’s death, doesn’t believe her, and condescendingly tries to calm her down before she departs his flat deeply frustrated. But when Carter turns up dead days later — under odd circumstances, 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 pillar. He soon finds that not only do they have validity after all — there actually is a slickly run, apparently governmentally backed company that specializes in the killings of public officials. It even has its own manicured offices; we might have perhaps seen their exteriors from the street. The advertised existence of this outfit isn’t as chilling to me as the way it’s run: it’s as if it were no different than a factory. Getting people to kill here is no different than training someone to use a conveyor built.
Pakula tries to inculcate “The Parallax View” with a sort of realism clearly meant to persuade. The storyline itself is so sated with close calls and contrived developments, though, that I enjoyed it not as I would, say, “All the President’s Men,” which was as paranoid as it was unremittingly plausible-feeling. "The Parallax View" is more like fretful, intelligently designed pulp fiction. Pakula doesn’t direct it as if it were the latter; the movie instead has a documentary-like finish, which makes the film feel awkwardly self-serious in moments. It tries to make the illogical logical.
But otherwise “The Parallax View” engages, and Beatty is effective as the ever-hungry movie journalist who enviably seems to have the luxury of not having to file anything essentially ever. And Pakula’s visual sensibility is especially canny toward the movie’s end. More and more, we enter big spaces, from auditoriums to expansive offices, photographed in a way that really emphasizes their largeness; we, and Beatty’s character, are made to feel increasingly oppressed. This is not a subtle trick on Pakula’s part, just like the golf-cart-through-the-tables tableau, but it’s as efficient. By the time the feature’s deliciously downbeat ending comes, we feel ready, almost excited for the blow it delivers. The movie’s cynicism is more affecting than its melodramatically explored ideas, but that’s just fine. B+