By Craig Leask
By the 1970’s, the American public had survived the shocking 1963 assassination of JFK with the implausible Warren Committee conclusion of a lone gunman having committed the deed – a simpleton by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald. Add to this: the murder of Oswald (televised live) by Jack Ruby (who perished a few years later while in police custody); a hastily revised motorcade route; the conflicting details surrounding unnaturally ricocheting bullets; a “Badge Man” and the grassy knoll. A short five years later there was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and Senator Robert Kennedy, both in 1968; the hangover phase of an increasingly unpopular Vietnam War; the release of the Pentagon Papers (1971) which contradicted official government press releases pertaining to the U.S. involvement in the war; and the commencement of the trust crushing Nixon Watergate scandal (1972). It is not hard to understand the basis then of a frenzy of conspiracy theories feeding a growing mistrust in government by an increasingly weary American public. All of which created a ripe market for political thriller films.
Produced and directed by Alan J. Pakula and based on the Loren Singer 1970 novel, The Parallax View was one of several films which capitalized on this surging paranoia of government mistrust. Starring Warren Beatty as Joe Frady, an investigative reporter enticed to follow up on the mysterious deaths of witnesses to a prominent Senator’s assassination. His investigations unveiling “The Parallax Corporation”, a clandestine organization involved in the recruiting and training of political assassins.
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the definition of Parallax is “the difference in apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points not on a straight line with the object”. This term could not be a more captious and fitting title for a film dominated by opposing and conflicting views and ideas on what is happening.
The film opens with the very public assassination of Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce) and the immediate (also public) death of his assassin on the roof of the Seattle Space Needle. This is followed by a scene constrained by a harsh black frame, of an official committee sharing their conclusion that the assassination was completed by a lone gunman, dismissing claims of a wider conspiracy. Following the committee’s findings, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a television reporter and witness to the Senator’s assassination, frantically approaches Frady with suspicions regarding the mysterious deaths of all other witnesses to the assassination, and fears for her own life. Frady quickly associates her paranoia with her history of drug and alcohol abuse, dismissing her and putting the situation out of his mind. A short time later, Lee’s dead body is found, with a cause of death determined to be either a suicide or an accidental overdose. This startling news causes Frady to revisit their conversation, launching his own investigation, which leads him directly to the doorstep of the Parallax Corporation.
The underlying malevolent purpose of The Parallax Corporation is alluded to quite early in the film, but its nefarious role in politics is revealed slowly, one layer at a time, requiring the viewer to assemble the pieces on his own and arrive at his own conclusions.
Through a complicated series of connections, changing identities, faked aptitude tests and a convoluted trail of breadcrumbs, Frady is sought out by Parallax and offered an opportunity to take a psychological exam at their facilities. Pakula brilliantly pulls the audience into the mind of Frady, seamlessly allowing the viewer to take the exam, which consists of a lengthy visual slideshow, right along with the main character, understanding and experiencing firsthand the transition and confusion a candidate is experiencing. The test is a visual montage designed to manipulate and distort the values and beliefs of a candidate, allowing him permission to question the influences from those around him, and the common perception of doing what is right. Images of patriotic backgrounds, anonymous people, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, Pope John XXIII, and a murdered Lee Harvey Oswald flash rapidly across the screen in the darkened room. These images are interspersed with the repeated words, including: LOVE, MOTHER, FATHER, ENEMY, ME. The scene appears to have been structured in such a way to have the viewer start to question what his own take away from the session might be.
The beauty of Beatty’s character (Frady) is in his flaws. Believing he is much smarter than those around him, as well, his underestimation of the magnitude and reach of Parallax, renders him a perfectly unwitting candidate for the Corporations recruitment program. As Frady, Beatty presents the persona of a perfect loner and underdog, brilliantly conveying an everyman’s sense of disenchantment and paranoia of the 1970’s, while maintaining the perception of being one step ahead of his pursuers until the final moments of the film. The stress Pakula is able to create through this approach demonstrates his brilliance in his craft. The viewer never quite knows who is chasing who, who knows what or who is really in the right.
The film, and in particular the ending, is stressful and as mentioned, poses some uncomfortable and unanswered questions. Did Parallax realize that Frady was an investigative reporter, or was he simply hired to be a patsy positioned to take the fall for a killing? The conclusion has an unyielding realism to it, both suggesting how an establishment might get away with murder, while laying out the platform for a hypothesis of how a loner could carry out the killing of a highly protected, high ranking official, seemingly without assistance. Without giving anything away, Pakula’s direction requires the viewer to answer these questions, fill in the gaps and form their own conclusions.
As with all directors, Pakula had a choice in how he wanted to tell this story. He could very easily have made this into intense action-thriller such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) or The French Connection (1971), or an in-depth moment by moment thriller, presenting the facts and details in an organized fashion such as his All the Presidents Men (1976) or The Post (2017). The approach he took with The Parallax View is, in my opinion, far more compelling, mainly in what he doesn’t reveal in his telling of the story. This unique approach makes it very difficult to determine what is true, who is lying and who to believe. To me this is a much more captivatingly “real” and unsettling film than films with succinct plots which leave little to no room for doubt.
The Parallax View is the second in Alan J. Pakula’s trilogy of Political Paranoia films, which included Klute (1971) and All the President’s Men (1976). The Parallax View is the only one of these films not to have been nominated for an Academy Award.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.