Posted in: Essays

The Parallax View: An Introduction

[Originally published on the Turner Classic Movies website on March 2009.]

Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, a political thriller with an unmistakable resemblance to the Kennedy assassination, was not the first conspiracy thriller to emerge from Hollywood – you can trace the lineage back to The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 – and it was not a hit when it was fitfully released in 1974. But its reputation and stature has only grown in the years since and it is arguably the definitive conspiracy thriller of the seventies.

Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady
Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady

Warren Beatty stars as investigative reporter Joe Frady, though when we first glimpse him in the film he’s merely a face in the crowd around Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce). He tries to bluff his way into an exclusive gathering for the Senator at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle but is rebuffed and thus left on the ground when the Senator is shot and the gunman killed in an escape attempt. “There is no evidence of a conspiracy,” concludes a panel of judges, who proclaim it the work of a lone gunman. (We, of course, know there was at least one accomplice who slipped to safety.). It’s the film’s answer to the Warren Commission and Pakula shoots the tribunal floating in a sea of shadow, a tiny image that slowly, ominously grows larger as the credits roll. By the end of the sequence, they fill the screen with an image as distorted as their conclusions.

In those first few minutes, Pakula establishes an atmosphere of unease and a distrust of authority that never lets up. When we catch of with Frady three years later, being hounded by the police for his investigations into drug crimes and enforcement, he comes on like a dogged reporter from a thirties newspaper drama with seventies style, a mix of old school and modern sensibility. But even he is dubious of conspiracy claims until fellow reporter and ex-girlfriend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) turns up dead (a suicide is the ruling, but Frady doesn’t buy it). She’s the seventh of twenty witnesses to the Senator Carroll shooting to die in the three years since, and once Frady takes up the case, he discovers that he is also now a target. With the tacit support of a paternal editor (Hume Cronyn), Frady follows his clues to the mysterious Parallax Corporation and, with the help of a former FBI agent (Kenneth Mars) and a psychologist (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), catches the interest of a sinister recruiter (Walter McGinn). “If you qualify, and we think you can, we’re prepared to offer you the most lucrative and rewarding work of your life.”

The film, based on a novel by Loren Singer, is most assuredly of its time. Pakula described the film as “sort of an American myth based on some things that have happened, some fantasies we may have had of what might have happened, and a lot of fears a lot of us have had.” The story comes right out of the suspicion with which many Americans viewed the Warren Commission investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the growing cottage industry of conspiracy theories of organized plots and high-level cover-ups. The atmosphere of suspicion and corruption could be Pakula’s response to the growing public distrust of government, brought to a head by the revelations of criminal misconduct by the Nixon administration (which Pakula tackled directly in his subsequent film, All The President’s Men).

The Parallax View marked Beatty’s return to the screen after two years of political activity, raising money and actively campaigning for presidential candidate George McGovern. He had been developing Shampoo with Robert Towne, a project he would produce and star in, but he had committed to acting in The Parallax View first. “I wanted to come in and work as an actor with a director I liked,” he explained in an interview. But even though Beatty was not a producer on the project, his creative involvement went beyond simply acting. A writers strike stopped all work on the screenplay and, due to Beatty’s limited window of availability, the film went into production without a completed script. The script is credited to Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and David Giler (who was brought in for rewrites before the strike), but dialogue was often worked out with Pakula and the actors sometimes as little as a day before shooting and Pakula spent much of the production rewriting the script. Some of his more substantial changes include adding the assassination that opens the film and turning the character of Frady from a cop to a reporter (at the suggestion of Beatty and Giler).

The Parallax View reunites Pakula with Gordon Willis, his director of photography on Klute and perhaps the greatest cinematographer of the seventies (his work in the decade include The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, All The President’s Men, Annie Hall and Manhattan – and none of them, astoundingly, nominated for Best Cinematography!). Willis had earned the nickname “The Prince of Darkness” for his distinctive use of dark and shadows. Here he shrouded many of the scenes in an ominous darkness. Pakula and Willis create a visual style that favors alienation and a sense of helplessness over conventional scenes of tension and action. “The Parallax View was a whole other kind of filmmaking for me,” recalled Pakula. He shot key scenes in extreme long shot to view characters overwhelmed by their surroundings and caught alone in the middle of vast, empty areas, vulnerable and isolated.

It’s especially effective in the film’s climax, where another assassination attempt is planned on a powerful politician in a massive conventional hall and Frady has arrived to stop it. The scene was originally supposed to occur at a crowded rally but Pakula saw the potential of the empty auditorium and reworked the scene to use the vast empty space to create a feeling of isolation and alienation. The prerecorded speech echoing through the empty hall only accentuates the eerie, surreal quality of the scene, as does the anthem-like score by composer Michael Small. It creates a surreal atmosphere and an almost abstract drama with a hero who has no personal life or definition beyond his job and his drive to discover the truth.

“If the picture works the audience will trust the person next to them a little less,” Pakula reportedly told Beatty. On that score, the film works remarkably well. The seventies was rife with films, both fictional and factually based, that played off suspicions of authority and fears of conspiracy, from The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor (also scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.) and Pakula’s follow-up film All the President’s Men to the Kennedy assassination thrillers Executive Action and Winter Kills. None have those films have the sense of helplessness and eerie dislocation, of being played by powers beyond your control and seeing it all unfold with a hopeless inevitability, that Pakula gives The Parallax View.

The original article can be found here.

The Warren Commision seen through the Parallax View