[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, May 15, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View
presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors
for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for
the 1996 primary season, and if the populace is unaroused, U.S. senator Jay
Bulworth (longtime Democratic activist Warren Beatty) is downright unhinged.
His marriage is a charade, his brain long since pickled by rhetoric, his soul
in fealty to fat-cat lobbyists. His effort to pour his old liberal wine into a
new conservative bottle may get him reelected, but will that help him live with
himself? Not really. After taking out $10 million in life insurance for the
sake of his daughter, he applies to a shady sort named Vinnie to arrange a
“special research project”—a contract on … Jay Bulworth!
Warren Beatty turns 80 next year, and he’s been talking about directing a film on Howard Hughes for decades. So we’re allowed to assume that Rules Don’t Apply might have the air of a grand opus about it, that it would wear the sobriety suitable to an Oscar-winning filmmaker and elder Hollywood royalty. And that assumption would be wrong. Because whatever else is going on with this movie, it’s quick, jokey, and lively as hell. At times it seems as daffy as the oddball billionaire depicted, but it generally has something thoughtful to say—when it comes to Hughesiana, it’s a more original project than the Scorsese/DiCaprio Aviator.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.
Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.
The timing wasn’t planned but it is fortuitous. The Fortune (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), a screwball comedy directed by Mike Nichols, debuts on Blu-ray a month after Nichols passed away. The 1975 production is set in the 1920s and stars Warren Beatty as a con man trying to get his hands on the fortune of a madcap heiress (a bubbly Stockard Channing in her first major film role) and Jack Nicholson as his dim-witted stooge who slowly figures out he’s really a partner in crime. Beatty plays it like a second-rate con man’s idea of what a cool customer acts like and Nicholson is a greedy, lazy idiot with a maniacal grin who thinks he’s clever but panics at every disaster, and truly every attempt to knock her off is a disaster.
The film was major flop, quite a surprise given the talent at work here, including screenwriter Carole Eastman (under the psuednym Adrian Joyce, which she also used on The Shooting) and production designer Richard Sylbert, who gives the west coast settings a low-rent, sun-baked handsomeness. Maybe it was the odd sensibility and collision of old Hollywood screwball and contemporary sensibilities; the jazz age was all the rage apparently after the successes of Bonnie and Clyde (with Warren Beatty), Chinatown (with Jack Nicholson) and The Sting. This isn’t really a black comedy, as Channing’s dizzy dame seems all too willing to fall into every scheme and the not-so-wise guyes are too incompetent to pull any of them off, and the timing doesn’t match the screwball situations, though all three are game to play their parts with all the screwy idiosyncrasies and big character flourishes of thirties movie stars and that is a pleasure to see.
The film has never been on DVD in the U.S. and it makes its disc debut on this Blu-ray-only release. It’s a great looking film, with cinematography by John Alonzo who even makes the California hills look like they cam from another era, and the disc preserves the period colors and tone of the film along with the crisp image. It includes Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
[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 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.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
TheParallax View is an interesting suspense thriller with a thin plot involving a newspaper reporter named Frady (Warren Beatty) and his independent investigation of an employment bureau for assassins.
TheParallaxView is Alan Pakula’s hommage to Alfred Hitchcock, employing many of the Master’s techniques and devices, particularly his penchant for experimenting with different kinds of suspense and various ways of fulfilling—or not fulfilling—audience expectation. Pakula primes us for Hitchcock allusions with his precredit sequence, a high-altitude assassination and fistfight culminating in a fall from the Space Needle. The Needle is used even more casually than Hitchcock used the Statue of Liberty (Saboteur) and Mount Rushmore (NorthbyNorthwest).
Like much of Hitchcock’s best work, and like Truffaut’s LaMariéeétaitennoir, The ParallaxView works consistently against its soundtrack. The film’s most arresting sequences take place while the track booms away irrelevantly with parade marches, political speeches, patriotic music. There is almost no crucial dialogue, and whole scenes—most notably one aboard an airplane threatened by a bomb—are played out against a subdued jumble of background noise. Later, a politician is murdered while his pre-recorded speech drones on. But while a blind person could not begin to follow the film, neither could a deaf person fully grasp its impact; for the ironic contrast between sight and sound in The ParallaxView significantly amplifies the film’s theme of deliberately deceptive appearances. Michael Small’s sparse music score nicely reflects this irony in its use of a quick series of falling notes for solo trumpet. At its best moments, it calls to mind heroic aspirations echoing ineffectually off the spacious, sterile architecture that becomes the film’s principal and most memorable visual image.