The Parallax View (1974)
Written by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Robert Towne
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Since the colonial period, conspiracy and paranoia have been foundational to the American psyche. Europeans crossing the Atlantic to rape & pillage grew to fear Indigenous people whether they were an actual threat or not. This would continue as closed religious communities struck out against themselves (see the Salem Witch Trials), and Westward Expansion bolstered bootstraps ideology which led to further social atomization.
By the 1970s, America had been fully saturated in John Birch nonsense. It didn’t help that one president, John F. Kennedy, was killed by the U.S. government, and another president, Richard Nixon, was revealed to be a completely craven insecure power monger. This effect on a mentally unwell nation led to a sort of chain-smoking, pinboard & string, wild-eyed crazy person. Yes, you should not trust the government but not because they are lizard people; it’s because they are greedy assholes.
Filmmaker Alan J. Pakula felt this paranoia in the air, which led to his trilogy on the matter: Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men. The Parallax View begins with presidential candidate Charles Carroll visiting the Space Needle in Seattle. His visit is attended by a host of national and local press who witnesses his assassination by one of the catering waiters. Moments later, the assassin throws himself to his death off the Needle. Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is a Seattle-based anti-authoritarian journalist whose ex-girlfriend, Lee (Paula Prentiss), was there and witnessed the killing.
In the three years that followed, Lee became convinced that the mysterious deaths of her journalism colleagues were linked to their presence that day and seeing Carroll’s murder. Frady is more skeptical until Lee turns up in the morgue under mysterious circumstances. This sets off a descent down the rabbit hole as Frady convinces Bill (Hume Cronyn), his editor, to help him investigate the killings. It leads him to The Parallax Corporation, which administers a strange personality test for “prospectives.” What Parallax is looking for in the minds of these people and their plans to use what they find reveals a nightmarish shadow government to Frady that will shake his foundations to their core.
One of the elements of American cinema in the 1970s I enjoy most is the hopeless feeling. That might seem odd, particularly in a society where eternal cheer and toxic optimism rule the roost in so many corners. I love that mainstream films openly acknowledge the rotten core of American culture, that life is often a brutal struggle. People live under the boot heel of powerful, evil institutions seeking to keep them disoriented while fruitlessly laboring. The Parallax Corporation is such an entity, placing newspaper ads designed to appeal to loners, the insecure, the incel type we can see today are lured so easily into the web of white supremacy. The further into mental isolation & terror a person is, the more viable a candidate they become.
The Parallax View is an extremely straightforward movie, which might be surprising with the esoteric nature of conspiracy theories. Beatty doesn’t have much meat to chew on and serves mainly as a primary male lead, while Pakula does the heavy lifting through his direction and the cinematography, courtesy of the legendary Gordon Willis (The Godfather series, Annie Hall). One of Willis’ common techniques in the picture is to film Beatty from a distance, juxtaposing the actor against vast urban and industrial landscapes while subconsciously reinforcing the notion that Frady is being watched by the ever-present eye of Parallax.
The most striking element you’re likely to remember from the picture is the brainwashing film sequence. Frady gets deep into the Parallax process and is shown a film intended to prepare a candidate for the final horrible stage. Images of Americana and patriotism are juxtaposed with atrocities. Nixon, Hitler, The Pope, and Lee Harvey Oswald make cameos but also Jack Kirby art from his Thor comics. That latter piece links Parallax’s agenda with the same mysticism that fueled the Nazis and all strains of white supremacy. After this sequence, the resulting feeling you have is nauseous, disturbed, and left disconnected from iconographic Americana. Pakula intended the film to reflect the post-Kennedy incoherence of society, unmoored from the empty promises of the American Dream, and now face to face with the nightmare of the United States.
The Parallax View feels like a wonderful film framework but not a complete experience. It’s probably Pakula’s most distant from his protagonists and more concerned with the broad ideology beneath things. It’s certainly a watch if you want to evoke that uneasy paranoid sensation, but there isn’t enough meat on the bones. I wouldn’t mind the choice to keep an arm’s length between the audience and Frady if the production had leaned more into rich atmosphere building. Nevertheless, it’s very much worth a watch as a clear commentary on the popular mood in the United States.
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