by J.D. Lafrance
The 1970s was an era where disco tortured our eardrums and nihilistic cinema ruled an American landscape riddled with a deep distrust of the government brought about by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X, which were still fresh in people’s minds. When The Parallax View was released in 1974, America had just come out of a long and costly war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal would soon leave the Richard Nixon presidency in tatters. It would be the second film in an unofficial trilogy of paranoid thrillers made by director Alan J. Pakula that included Klute (1971) and All the President’s Men (1976). With these films he was commenting on the times in which he lived – dark and rife with fear and loathing. And Pakula wasn’t alone. The ‘70s was an era that featured some of the best political thrillers ever made with the likes of The Conversation (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and Winter Kills (1979). Arguably, The Parallax View is best of the bunch as it incorporated affectations of a surrealistic style with archetypal thriller conventions to produce a film where nothing is what it seems and good doesn’t always triumph over evil.
Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce) is an ambitious independent politician rumored to be seeking the Presidential nomination in the coming year. It is July 4 and he’s doing a meet and greet at the Space Needle in Seattle when he’s shot and killed by two assassins dressed as waiters. One of them is killed trying to escape while the other (Bill McKinney) sneaks off in the ensuing chaos and confusion. After months of investigation, an unidentified government committee releases a report that states Carroll was killed by a lone assassin with no evidence of a conspiracy. At the time, this must have reminded people of the findings by the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which found Lee Harvey Oswald to be the only gunman acting alone.
Three years later, we meet muckraking journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) as he disrupts a police bust in order to get the inside scoop on a story he’s been working on for weeks. His editor, Bill Rentels (Hume Cronyn), refuses to publish the article because, as he tells Joe, “We’re in the business of reporting the news not creating it.” Out of their discussion we learn that Joe had a drinking problem and it got him fired from his job at the newspaper. He appears to have gotten it under control and has since been rehired. Joe lives in a motel where he meets Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a television reporter that witnessed Carroll being assassinated. She claims that someone is trying to kill her.
Lee and Joe had been romantically involved in the past and have a long history as evident by the way they interact with one another. Initially, he doesn’t believe her despite claims that six people who witnessed the Carroll killing have since died. Lee seems genuinely upset but Joe remains unconvinced. That is, until Pakula cuts to the next scene and we see her dead body in a hospital, bathed in a sickly blue-green light. A doctor informs Joe that she died from a possible alcohol and drug overdose. However, to someone like him, it is too much of a coincidence and so the newspaperman does some digging, starting with Carroll’s former aide Austin Tucker (William Daniels) who Lee believed was living in the small town of Salmontail, the kind of place where a city slicker like Joe sticks out like a sore thumb with its honky tonks populated by cowboys and running afoul of a belligerent local deputy and the sheriff (Kelly Thorsden) who tries to kill him. Joe survives and uncovers a conspiracy that involves the Parallax Corporation, an enigmatic organization that recruits political assassins.
Throughout the film, Pakula obscures what we are seeing as he plays with the notion that things aren’t always what they seem. Early on, Lee is doing a story on Senator Carroll and a parade goes on in the foreground. When the senator is killed it occurs in the background behind a pane of glass. In another example, Joe observes a police bust behind patio doors. Later in the film, Joe is visited by a representative from the Parallax Corporation and during the scene Pakula frames the shot so that the man is obscuring our view of Joe. By doing this visually, Pakula forces us to question what we see much like Joe is forced to as he digs deeper into the Carroll assassination.
Warren Beatty had just come off a three-year break from acting when he appeared in The Parallax View. He had been working on George McGovern’s campaign for President. The actor is excellent as investigative journalist Joe Frady, a man who gets in way over his head with a story that has far sinister implications then he initially suspected. The actor plays a flawed character but one that we empathize with once people he knows start dying off while others are trying to kill him. Beatty conveys a shrewd intelligence that is quite believable. At first, Joe comes across as an arrogant journalist but as he gets involved in the Carroll assassination and the conspiracy that surrounds it, he becomes much more responsible because he realizes how much is at stake – not just his life but that of others.
He’s helped immeasurably by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Giler’s tightly-constructed screenplay, which presents a complex conspiracy that is never difficult to understand but rather becomes more fascinating and involving as Joe uncovers layers upon layers over the course of the film. Some of the best moments are the brief insights we get into the Parallax Corporation and how they select certain people to become assassins. Ironically, the script was never completed before filming and was largely a rushed patch job by Pakula and Beatty!
The Parallax View features some incredible cinematography by Gordon Willis who expertly uses the widescreen format, like in a scene where Joe searches the sheriff of Salmontail’s house and one of his deputies enters. On the left side we see Joe snooping around in one room and the deputy enter the house on the right side. The tension in this scene is accentuated by the fact that we can see both men in the same frame while only one of them is unaware of the other who is trying to escape undetected. This is also captured in one, uninterrupted take! It is also worth noting that Pakula refreshingly relies on very little music and instead uses ambient sounds in this scene and it only puts us more on edge because we don’t have a musical cue to tell us how to feel.
Lorenzo Semple Jr. adapted Loren Singer’s 1970 novel The Parallax View into a screenplay and gave it to executive producer Gabriel Katzka. He in turn gave the script to Warren Beatty and Alan J. Pakula, who liked its “bold sketches and almost expressionist quality.” The director was drawn to the project because he felt that America had “become a world in which heroes didn’t necessarily win … We live in a Kafka-like world where you never find the evil. It permeates the society.” He was also drawn to the film because it afforded him the opportunity to make an action film (a genre he had yet to tackle) while also incorporating elements of surrealism into the film’s style. He wanted to contrast this with realistic performances from his actors.
At some point, David Giler was hired to work on the script but he was unable to finish the job because of a Screenwriters Guild strike. Pakula wanted to delay filming until the script was completed but Beatty’s salary was guaranteed regardless of whether the film was made or not and he was set to make Shampoo (1975) next. Feeling the pressure, Paramount Studios insisted Pakula begin principal photography in order to capitalize on the actor’s window of availability. He only had a few scripted sequences and was forced to work with Beatty on scenes in the morning and then use them during the afternoon’s filming.
This resulted in several departures from Semple’s original script. At Beatty’s request, Joe’s profession was changed from a police officer to a newspaper reporter. Originally, the Carroll assassination was not shown and instead it referenced the JFK killing but Pakula did not want to mix reality with the fiction of the film he was making. The role of Lee Carter was originally written as a tough, older woman but Pakula was impressed with the young Paula Prentiss’ vulnerability and cast her in the part.
The film’s centerpiece is a famous sequence in which Joe infiltrates the Parallax Corporation as a potential recruit and is subjected to an audio/visual slide show reminiscent of the one in A Clockwork Orange (1971) – albeit with very different intentions – in that the images start off pleasant enough, categorized in groupings entitled, FATHER, MOTHER, COUNTRY and ME, but get gradually more disturbing and provocative. In the original script, it was just a simple test and Pakula even shot a sequence where Joe was interviewed by a Parallax employee but the director wasn’t happy with the result. The actual five-minute montage was assembled in post-production over four months. Pakula asked his assistant to collect photographs for him that would provoke all kinds of emotional responses and once he had a decent collection the director spent a long time trying all kinds of sequences of images.
Pakula had previous worked with Gordon Willis on Klute and wanted to take his dark, shadowy cinematography even further in order to evoke the felling that “the unknown is indeed threatening, that there is something out there that you can’t see that could destroy you.” One gets this feeling in a scene where Joe encounters one of the Parallax representatives at his apartment and, at times, we only see the protagonist in silhouette. Pakula and Willis also decided to play with scale, showing Joe being dwarfed by his environment, like the scene where he narrowly escapes being drowned by a dam flooding or the climax in the convention center. This is done to symbolize just how much the film’s protagonist is at the mercy of his surroundings, which along with its inhabitants are out to destroy him at every turn.
The Parallax View was not a commercial success. At the time, Beatty was busy making Shampoo and unable to promote the film. Paramount Studio head Bob Evans was more interested in promoting the film he had produced, Chinatown (1974), than Pakula’s. In retrospect, a film that featured such a nihilistic ending wasn’t going to appeal to a mainstream audience and so it really isn’t surprising that it failed to connect with moviegoers.
While The Parallax View was not a commercial hit one can see its influence in later films like The Star Chamber (1983), Arlington Road (1999), quoted to comic effect in Zoolander (2001), and, more recently, The International (2009) – all of which owe a debt to Pakula’s film. The notion of a shadowy corporation employing assassins to alter domestic and foreign policy was ahead of its time and seems prescient with scandals like Iran-Contra that came to light years after the film’s release. And yet, the events in it never seem unbelievable thanks to Pakula’s grounded direction and the well-written script. In keeping with the pessimism prevalent in a lot ‘70s American cinema, The Parallax View ends on a downbeat note as the conspiracy is not exposed and the system triumphs over the individual. The film’s ending reflected the prevailing mood in the United States at the time as many people felt betrayed by the government – that our best and brightest leaders were being killed for trying to change things. The film ends much as how it began with the same anonymous government committee stating that another political assassination was the result of a lone killer, the only difference being that we now know the truth because we’ve witnessed all the events leading up to it. It leaves one slightly depressed but also oddly empowered with knowledge.
The production information in this article comes from Jared Brown’s excellent book, Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life.