Friday, September 26, 2014

Guest Review: The Parallax View (1974)

by ScottDS

In the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and several assassinations, Hollywood films began to reflect a more cynical and paranoid culture, where the enemy was often not out there but perhaps right next door. Thus was born the conspiracy thriller. People often mention Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man, along with lesser-known films like Executive Action and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. But for me, the most unsettling film of the bunch is The Parallax View.

Presidential candidate Charles Carroll is assassinated at the top of the Space Needle. An armed man is chased and falls to his death, but another armed man gets away. A Congressional committee determines that the assassination was the work of a lone gunman. Three years later… one of the witnesses, TV reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), visits her ex-boyfriend, newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty). She explains that a number of witnesses to the assassination have died under mysterious circumstances – she fears she’s next. A short time later, she’s found dead and the police label it a drug overdose. Frady decides to investigate and finds himself in the small town of Salmontail where the sheriff tries to kill him near a dam as its floodgates open. Frady gets away and discovers documents in the sheriff’s house relating to the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Their stock in trade: recruiting assassins. Frady also talks to Carroll’s aide Austin Tucker but the boat they’re on explodes. Frady, presumed dead, applies to Parallax under an alias.
Frady is accepted for training at Parallax in Los Angeles. Apparently, he’s just what they’re looking for: a social malcontent with a chip on his shoulder. He’s shown a montage juxtaposing imagery (Americana, dictators, presidents, children, etc.) with words like “love,” “country,” and “enemy.” In the lobby of the building, Frady spots the gunman from the Space Needle and tails him to the airport. The man checks a suitcase but doesn’t board the plane. Frady manages to get aboard and slips a note to the flight attendant hinting at a bomb on board. The plane returns to the airport… as Frady and the other passengers walk away, all we hear is an off-screen boom. Frady’s investigation finally takes him to a political rally for candidate George Hammond. From the rafters, he spots several Parallax men disguised as security personnel. Shots ring out, Hammond is killed, and Frady is spotted. He makes a run for it but is killed by an unknown silhouetted figure. A Congressional committee pins Hammond’s murder on Frady.
There is a palpable sense of dread that surrounds this movie. It’s based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, who was inspired by the allegations of suspicious deaths of witnesses connected to the Kennedy assassination. The film was produced and directed by Alan J. Pakula who had previously directed Klute and would later direct the aforementioned All the President’s Men. (He also produced To Kill a Mockingbird.) I admit this film has lost a little bit of its impact in subsequent viewings, but the first time I watched it, I thought it was very effective. (It pretty much still is.) It does require some suspension of disbelief and if you’re looking for answers, you won’t find any. Only the political assassinations occur on-screen; we never see the other deaths. We also never get an official explanation about the Parallax Corporation and its activities. What are their goals? How do they get paid? Were they on to Frady the whole time? Who the hell knows? It’s all very… minimalist.
In Directing 101, they tell you that every element – art direction, cinematography, music, etc. – is there to serve the story, and this is one movie they can use as an example. The film was shot by Gordon Willis, who was known as “the Prince of Darkness.” (He also shot President’s Men and The Godfather trilogy.) This film has a naturalistic, moody style, with Beatty frequently dwarfed by his surroundings. There are shots toward the end of the film… mundane things like escalators and tile ceilings, but they way they’re framed (in full anamorphic widescreen), they take on a slightly more sinister appearance. Michael Small’s sparse score contributes to the uneasy feeling. There’s a theme, which works as a twisted anthem. The assassinations aren’t scored at all, nor is the sequence on the plane. And then there’s the Parallax test, which is given a folk melody with a male hum. The test took four months for the filmmakers to research and edit and it’s simple yet a little unnerving. (In the novel, the lead character simply reads words while his reactions are monitored with a special eyepiece.) And the first time I watched this, I nearly jumped out of my seat during the dam scene when the floodgate alarm goes off.
The acting is top-notch all around. This was Beatty’s first film after dabbling in politics (he worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign). I’m no Beatty expert – aside from Dick Tracy – but he’s very good, appropriately low-key and schlumpy. The doe-eyed Prentiss is only in the movie for ten minutes but her tragic performance certainly makes an impact. Frady’s ill-fated editor is played by screen veteran Hume Cronyn, Frady’s Parallax rep is played by stage actor Walter McGinn, and Anthony Zerbe and Kenneth Mars both make brief appearances. William Daniels plays Austin Tucker and he’s nothing but paranoid. A brief note: like many 80s/90s kids, I grew up watching Daniels as Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World. In addition to his voice work on Knight Rider, he was a prolific character actor. I particularly enjoy his appearances in two other Paramount films from the period: The President’s Analyst, in which he plays a liberal suburbanite, and Black Sunday, in which he plays a VA bureaucrat.

There might be a 70s vibe to the movie at times – the plane/bomb scene might be the most dated for obvious reasons – but it still holds up, though it’s not mentioned nearly as much as similar films from the period. I have no idea why. It’s very low-key, the character relationships are all very understated, and there’s no partisanship. (Frady doesn’t place blame on our government or any particular politician, and the Parallax Corporation goes after people of all stripes.) Pakula’s stated intention wasn’t to trash America but to simply ask what happened to it.

“We're in the business of reporting the news, not creating it.”

(Special thanks to Film Score Monthly’s online liner notes by Scott Bettencourt and Alexander Kaplan for the behind the scenes trivia.)


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for the review! I always enjoyed this one. And you are right, it is very minimalist and very paranoid. I think Beatty does a good job here. I don't think he's a bad actor at all, though I don't find him to be as charismatic as so many boomers do.

One thing I would say by comparison to Three Days of the Condor and the others, is that this one requires much more suspension of disbelief. The others are close enough to reality that you never doubt this could really be going on. Here, it feels a little more fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Re: Beatty, I've actually never seen Bonnie and Clyde, Reds, Shampoo, or Heaven Can Wait. I imagine those films will help me fill the gap.

I'll agree with the suspension of disbelief part and now I'm wondering why I didn't use that particular phrase!

Some of this is explained in the album liner notes I used for reference:

Pakula chose a deliberately elliptical style of storytelling for The Parallax View, leaving narrative gaps and allowing the audience to fill them in, much in the same way a conspiracy theorist has to connect the dots between facts: apart from the two assassinations that bracket the story, the main deaths (a framed busboy, Lee, the sheriff, Tucker, Frady) occur off camera. For Pakula, the film “depended on a certain kind of hypnosis to work. And if you stop and explain it to such an extent that you break the hypnotic rhythm of the film, you make it more believable on an intellectual level, (but) the thing that may pull that audience emotionally can fall apart.”

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - having lived through the whole 60's Kennedy assassination, Vietnam era, and decade spanning Watergate scandal, I think you may be a bit naive vis-a-vis the political ramifications. Perhaps this film was not quite as overtly political as some of them, but at the time it was certainly perceived as another big government corrupted by the military industrial complex. It is, afterall, Hollywood, and Warren Beatty was the Redford of his day. (This notwithstanding his early start in the first season of "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.)

I think the reason this one didn't get noticed more is that it was, like many in the genre, a quiet film in many parts. The stoner audience for whom it was intended may have fallen asleep at the dreaded 10:00 p.m. showings. Personally, I thought Seven Days in May, the original Manchurian Candidate, and "Z" were more memorable, at least to me.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

I'm sure it was, and I'm probably giving too much benefit of the doubt, but it is less overtly political/partisan than the other ones. And Pakula may have made some political films, but he wasn't exactly Oliver Stone. (I didn't want to make politics the point of the review, but you can't review a movie like this without mentioning it, even from a somewhat naive point of view.)

And I know you're being sarcastic but there were plenty of movies aimed at stoners back then - I doubt this one qualifies. :-D

I enjoyed Seven Days in May... I haven't watched the original Manchurian Candidate in years... and I've never seen Z. In fact, I've never seen any of Costa-Gavras' films. Missing is another one I need to see one day.

tryanmax said...

I’ve never heard of this, but I will try to search it out. On Beatty, I must agree, he is a talented actor but I would never seek out a film just because he’s in it. For me, Dick Tracy will always be his premier role. You should really see Reds, it’s an interesting case-study. The history surrounding the film suggests it was a love note to John Reed (Ten Days that Shook the World), and Beatty certainly fleshes out a sympathetic character, but at the same time, it reveals a man blinded by his own idealism. A strange homage, to say the least. That said, Beatty plays fair with the history. It’s no propaganda piece, though I suppose it is subject to very different interpretations.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - only partly sarcastic, though. Many films, then and now, were/are aimed at the young adult demographic, and at that time, a significant pepcentage of the young adult crowd was tokin' up and going to the movies. One of the well known properties of that drug was a boost in the level of paranoia; perfect for a conspiracy film.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

Now they just play video games. :-)

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

If you have Amazon Prime, you can stream it for free. That's how I watched it the night before I wrote this review. It also shows up on Netflix Instant now and then. The DVD is still in print but no Blu-Ray yet. (I'm hoping Criterion gets it.)

I rarely, if ever, seek out movies just to see any one actor. But yeah, Reds has been on the to-watch list for a while.

Kit said...


Thanks for the heads up, I might check it out.

Side-note: Interestingly, the most famous conspiracy thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, was released about 10 years before the Watergate scandal.

Anonymous said...

Kit -

You're welcome! And yeah, some movies can be kinda prescient in some ways.

wulfscott said...

Saw this in the theater while in college. I did not like it, although i would agree that it is a good film; the lack of answers is part of why it was a good film and why I didn't like it. obviously, I don't strongly dislike this one. That said, the paranoid atmosphere, the acting, the story - all very well done. I was a fan of Warren Beatty, he is a good actor. So I would say that , as others may have a different perspective on the film, it's probably worth a view. But i think Three Days of the Condor is better.
Anyway, just because I like a film doesn't mean that it is good (or barely above the level of awful - John Carter of Mars) and recognize that a film I don't like may still be a good film.
Jed - I would defend my generation against the scurrilous accusations about being stoners, but at times the dorm halls had a STRONG odor of burning leaves...

Anonymous said...

wulf -

Definitely worth a view. I've seen Condor a couple of times but I recall the film not engaging me as much as this one did. (Man, Faye Dunaway was hot back in the day!)

Perhaps I should see it again. It's also currently available on Amazon Prime.

And I liked John Carter... it wasn't perfect, but it deserved a better fate than what it got.

wulfscott said...

It has been a long time since I saw either Parallax or Condor. Maybe I should see Parallax again, I might like it better this time around. Faye Dunaway? - yes, she was - yow!

I liked John Carter, but it needed some serious editing.

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