Film Review: The Parallax View (1974)


Mainstream media have decided that conspiracy theories represent such danger for the world that anyone who could be branded “conspiracy theorist” deserves Internet equivalent of death penalty. However, despite their associations with “fake news”, propaganda and destructive psychological manipulations, conspiracy theories actually owe their existence to certain very real conspiracies and very real cover-ups that were gradually revealed in United States during 1960s and early 1970s. Those revelations produced only the tip of much bigger iceberg, but they were enough to create almost complete distrust of the government among American public. This coincided with the New Hollywood and larger creative freedom, as well as film-makers’ desire to exploit the phenomenon by producing political thrillers dealing with government conspiracy. Those films, which certain critics even grouped into specific genre of “political paranoia”, usually pitted single individual against faceless, but brutally efficient organisations with assets in all elements of government and society in general, making protagonist’s cause look not only dangerous by hopelessly quixotic. Few films provided audience with the essence of the genre as The Parallax View, 1974 thriller directed by Alan J. Pakula.

The plot, based on the novel by Loren Singer, begins in Seattle when the presidential campaign of popular candidate Charles Carroll (played by William Joyce) is violently ended during the visit to Space Needle. The assassination was the work of lone individual, who also died during the event. At least, this is the conclusion of US Congress committee that formally investigated the matter. Lee Carter (played by Paula Prentiss), television reporter who witnessed the event, thinks otherwise and, three years later, becomes disturbed after finding that other witnesses have recently died in mysterious circumstances. She tells her former boyfriend, newspaper reporter Joe Frady (played by Warren Beatty), that she might be next, but he dismisses her claims. When she is found dead after apparent drug overdose, Frady changes his mind and decides to investigate the matter, beginning with the death of another witness. Trail leads him to small town where he barely survives attempt on his life, but manages to find clues about mysterious Parallax Corporation that apparently recruits potential assassins. Frady ultimately uses opportunity to fake his own death and use assumed identity to infiltrate Parallax as one of its potential recruits. He discovers that another popular politician, Senator George Hammond (played by Jim Davis), might be Parallax’s next target, so he tries to prevent history from repeating itself.

Even those viewers that are only slightly familiar with United States history won’t fail to recognise that the inspiration for the plot was the real life assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in Dallas 1963, followed by assassination of his brother Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Both events, conveniently blamed on single individuals acting without sensible motive, left many questions unanswered and the speed which the American political establishment tried to sweep those questions under the carpet created fertile ground for conspiracy theories, usually associated with military industrial complex or what is these days known as the Deep State. The premiere of The Parallax View coincided with the unfolding of Watergate scandal, and public, already accustomed to the prospect of highest government officials being involved in nefarious activities, didn’t need much effort to connect the dots between the dark and depressive fiction on the screen and equally dark and depressive reality in the newspaper headlines. That might explain why the film initially failed at the box-office and among the contemporary critics; its message was too close for comfort in a time of Vietnam fiasco, scandals and emerging economic crisis, when people didn’t need nor want reminder of those sad realities. It isn’t surprising that the reputation of the film grew only later, when critics and film scholars, unburdened with its proper context, found the proper value and discovered it as one of the most underappreciated gems of New Hollywood.

Even without its context, The Parallax View represents very good example of the thriller genre. Script by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr., with uncredited addition of Robert Towne, skilfully reconciles the complexities of a wide-ranging conspiracy with a simplicity of single individual’s investigation. Director Alan J. Pakula, which two years earlier employed similar style in his thriller Klute takes cold, almost Kubrickian, approach to the characters and story and even when something spectacular – like assassinations – happen, they happen very quickly and people react to them naturally. Pakula generally avoids experimental style that was very much in vogue following successes of French New Wave, apart from using split screen. An important exception could be found in film-within-film, which appears in the scene where Parallax handlers test Frady as potential subjects by providing him with audio-visual stimuli in the forms of iconic images. Montage works both as an illustration of brainwashing techniques or the closest the film authors come to explicit socio-political commentary. The Parallax View could be the perfect film, if not for Michael Small’s music soundtrack which is at times too distracting.

Those who like to find flaws in film might find something in the casting or the way it was used. Apart from the protagonist and his former girlfriend, all characters are not only easily disposable and one-dimensional. That includes the lack of strong villain; instead we are presented with sometimes menacing, but mostly faceless and forgettable cogs in much larger machine. Warren Beatty, who was the height of his New Hollywood fame at the time and enjoyed reputation of one of the greatest screen idols, might not look like the best choice for Hitchcockian concept of “ordinary man in extraordinary situation”. But his starlike persona is exactly what this film needs; the audience, at least those viewers accustomed to Hollywood standards, must believe that a single individual could have some chance against all-powerful organisation. Beatty as a star serves that purpose and the script cleverly uses his character’s ingenuity to make the film interesting by hinting that The Parallax View might at the end of the day have conventional Happy End. When it turns out that both protagonist and the audience have been manipulated, the result is one of the most effective and the most disturbing endings in the history of cinema.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of The Parallax View might be found in its basic concept being somewhat dated. It is hard not to think that the entities like Parallax corporation exist in today’s world. But their methods have apparently evolved. When faced with “problematic” individuals that stand in the way of their sinister plans, there is less need for complex assassination schemes that might leave too much incriminating evidence. Recruiting a Twitter mob and start “cancelling” campaign is today much cheaper, simpler and apparently more efficient. In this context, The Parallax View might look both more and less disturbing than half a century ago.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

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