Paranoia strikes deep! Alan J. Pakula made THE Watergate-era conspiracy creepshow in this sinister extrapolation of political trends. Warren Beatty’s investigative reporter thinks he has an inside track to expose and destroy what looks like a shadow assassination bureau. If the technology of 1974 could be made this efficient, our own Brave New World of ‘truth control’ seems even scarier. Pakula and cameraman Gordon Willis found a Panavision style that fully expresses the faceless corporate menace; the ‘Parallax Recruitment Montage’ is still the most terrifying piece of psych-out Agit-prop ever assembled.
The Parallax View
The Criterion Collection 1064
1974 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 102 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date February 9, 2021 / 39.95
Starring: Warren Beatty, Hume Cronyn, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels, Jo Ann Harris, Walter McGinn, Jim Davis, Stacy Keach Sr., Ford Rainey, Richard Bull, Kenneth Mars, Bill McKinney, Craig R. Baxley, Anthony Zerbe.
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Film Editor: John W. Wheeler
Production Design: George Jenkins
Original Music: Michael Small
Written by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. from a novel by Loren Singer
Produced and Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Around 1996 or so the Los Angeles County Museum of Art put on a film series honoring the creative use of the widescreen (anamorphic) screen shape. I missed Garden of Evil but caught the incredible The Parallax View on the Leo S. Bing Theater’s ultra-wide screen. I say this because Panavision and CinemaScope movies always looked wider at the Bing, and Parallax seen there was a different experience entirely. Alan J. Pakula and Gordon Willis really did make exceptional use of the Panavision format. More on that below.
‘If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.’ — Michael Corleone
The political assassinations of the 1960s are horrible events clouded by time, cover-ups, conveniently dead witnesses and all manner of journalistic obfuscation. One could argue that Oliver Stone’s supposed exposé JFK also functions as a coverup, unintentionally muddying the discourse with yet more questionable ‘insight.’ But the Watergate years provided the perfect mood for a paranoid political conspiracy film. The clumsy burglary, dirty tricks and petty conniving of All the President’s Men resembled the work of a bush-league Impossible Missions Force. Conspiracy theories gained momentum with screen help from the likes of Executive Action and The Day of the Jackal. The ultimate paranoia presented by Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View no longer seemed wholly fantastic.
Why has violence become a given in American politics? Three years after an assassination atop Seattle’s Space Needle, ambitious reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) assembles a paranoid theory of his own. Fellow witnesses to the killing are becoming the victims of all-too coincidental accidents. With the aid of fretful Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), recluse Austin Tucker (William Daniels) and small town publisher Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn), Joe comes to believe that a mysterious corporation called Parallax is in the business of recruiting assassins.
Matching his wits against an organization that permits no loose ends, Joe Frady surely sees himself as a modern hero. He’s closing in on the scoop of a lifetime, a political conspiracy of monstrous proportions. If he can break the story he will be the most famous newsman of the century. Nothing can stop a righteous American’s fight for truth and justice, right?
The fun in a good suspense thriller is usually the suspense itself, divorced from grim political realities. Alfred Hitchcock purposely made most of his escapist ‘man on the run’ thrillers be essentially about nothing — the MacGuffin concept. The Parallax View takes the risky opposite tack of being both topical and controversial. The show doesn’t avoid commercial content — one set piece is a fight in a bar, and another scene concludes with a spectacular explosion. A highway chase features an obligatory early- ‘seventies shot of a car vaulting through the air. But even those clichés run against expectation. At a certain point we begin to fear that shadowy Parallax operatives are leading Frady down a well-concealed garden path.
Warren Beatty must really have believed in this movie — it may be his only feature in which he doesn’t bed the leading lady. In fact, there’s nary a leading lady in sight: Joe Frady’s one potential sack-mate exits the story faster than you can say Marion Crane Likes Hot Showers. Parallax instead cuts to the core of existential paranoia. It hasn’t the fantastic remove of the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and it doesn’t offer the sly satire we enjoy in the superb The Manchurian Candidate. Joe Frady pulls some clever tricks to hoodwink the minions of Parallax, but he doesn’t realize to what degree he is being manipulated.
Parallax is the visual-thriller equivalent of Kafka’s The Trial as filmed by Orson Welles. Joe Frady is always on the move, furiously trying to get ahead of the game. Joe can see ‘the frame,’ but is it just the frame Parallax wants him to see? Welles’ sad mastermind Mr. Arkadin used a truth-seeking investigator as a tool to hide the truth, just as Parallax apparently uses Frady to locate the elusive Austin Tucker. Frady remains convinced that he’s the pursuer, that he can bust the conspiracy wide open.
The script by David Giler & Lorenzo Semple, Jr. gives us a few characters living independent, semi-isolated ’70s lifestyles. Free agent Joe Frady scoffs at Lee Carter’s hysterical perception that she’s about to be murdered. A hard cut at the end of the scene skips twenty minutes of ‘will she or won’t she?’ narrative ambivalence. This conspiracy is so tight, its victims never know what hit them. We learn no specifics about Parallax and must instead judge its nature through its functionaries, who seem alternately efficient (Bill McKinney) and dumb (Earl Hindman). They’re just people, so that makes Parallax vulnerable… right?
Joe Frady’s prime contact is the warm and friendly Jack Younger (Walter McGinn), a recruiter/manager for Parallax’s carefully chosen borderline psychos. Part best friend and part father figure, Jack is the ideal ‘valued employee’ of the corporate future. Want to succeed in the new business order? Make sure that you’re exceptionally talented and/or very lucky. If you’re neither you’ll need to cultivate the kind of corporate sincerity that Jack Younger emanates at all times. No wonder so many people are paranoid at work.
The uncommonly clever Frady is sufficiently naïve to believe he is the man to bring Parallax down. He isn’t as deeply flawed as Warren Beatty’s John McCabe or even Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer, egotists that comprehend ‘the big picture’ only when it’s too late to do anything about it. As in Quatermass 2, Parallax already so firmly entrenched in high places that Joe will likely get nowhere, even if he manages to make what he learns public. Working from doctored evidence and scenarios, sober Assassination Commissions will continue to blame political killings on rogue madmen. The commission could very well be honest — as in Quatermass 2 we don’t know how far Parallax’s influence has penetrated.
Celebrated lighting cameraman Gordon Willis finds an unaffected style to visually express an oppressive theme. Joe Frady spends much of his time pictured as an animal in a maze. When he’s not navigating corridors and catwalks and choosing what door to go through, Frady is stymied by the faceless corporate architecture on view. The modernist buildings seem designed to render the individual powerless, insignificant. The style’s graphic simplicity helps make the storyline easy to follow, with a minimum of expository declarations.
Because of The Parallax View I’m not sure I ever want to go to the top of Seattle’s Space Needle. With a drop as high as the one faced by Norman Lloyd’s Frank Fry or Martin Landau’s Leonard, the image of professional killers struggling atop the Needle’s sloping saucer-surface is the stuff of nightmares. Able to manufacture scapegoats and control news reportage of deaths and disappearances, the Parallax organization is on the brink of imposing a corporate political order so airtight, its existence need never be known to the public.
The film’s centerpiece is a disturbingly unique ‘Parallax Test’ film, an almost free-standing 3.5-minute montage. It’s a combo Rorschach Test and Orwellian audio-visual ‘Five Minute Hate,’ brilliantly constructed to tweak the raw nerves of the American political divide. Its visuals are a summation of the themes of American unrest. Raw concepts and key images — God, guns, sex, brutal fathers, suffering mothers, red meat, race lynchings, Nazi tyrants and comic book superheroes — collide in an update of Eisensteinian montage theory. The sensational ‘hot’ images become emotional buttons in a cinema machine that can control the minds of men.
This film-within-a-film is a subjective experience but not in the Hitchcock sense. We don’t see Frady watching the film, but instead experience the provocative montage first-person, just as Frady does. One can feel the Parallax Test’s associative triggers tapping into one’s emotions. Watching this, we believe that cinematic theories about ‘visual-mechanical’ linkages to our unconscious minds are absolutely real.
The sequence may remind some viewers of interactive movie precedents. The rigged viewing chair is similar to the ‘Percepto’ gimmick for William Castle’s horror film The Tingler: “Place your hands on the boxes on the armrests.” The special seats also recall the marketing research theater on Sunset Boulevard called The Preview House. Each theater seat had buttons in its armrests for viewers to record their responses to movies and commercials. Joe Frady’s Guinea Pig situation also connects to the psychological torture endured by secret agent Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, and the involuntary reprogramming undergone by Droog Alex in A Clockwork Orange. What horrible things is this recruitment movie going to contain? Will Joe Frady be brainwashed by some unknown kind of Ipcress or Ludovico process?
The year before, the science fiction film Soylent Green showed Edward G. Robinson taking in a special ‘secret cinema’ movie, a blissful ‘golden handshake’ experience granted only to volunteer suicides. As in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Parallax blurs the line between voyeur and participant: we see exactly what Frady sees. There is an unspoken cinematic tension, the element of danger associated with viewing ‘forbidden’ films of various kinds. Remember those Red Asphalt – style highway gore movies back in High School? We were subjected to them for our own good, under the watchful supervision of our teachers. Remember the dread / thrill of anticipating what we might see?
The sequence has a terrific music score that begins in sweetness and light (as did Soylent Green) but turns more dynamic as the images become more emotional and chaotic. Raw text titles confront us with word/idea associations: ‘MOM,’ ‘DAD,’ ‘GOD,’ ‘LOVE,’ ‘HAPPINESS.’ The word/ideas at first harmonize with the images around them. They soon become disordered and finally turn dark and violent. In 1974 we associated this form with the samples of Marxist propaganda we’d seen in film school — Cuba must have sent their filmmakers to study in Moscow. To a lesser degree they recalled the political films of Jean-Luc Godard, when his text inter-titles stopped being playful and began aping Soviet agit-prop. Having one’s emotions and reactions guided and sculpted in such a rigid manner feels like indoctrination, or brainwashing.
This uniquely sinister piece of screen horror from the ‘Division of Human Engineering’ ought to make us more aware of filmic-psych indoctrination. Marketing scientists have apparently decided that sales resistance to TV advertising is a myth — they can prove statistically that their methods achieve results. The best indoctrination simply reinforces beliefs we already hold, of course. I’d say that Parallax is looking for a specific group of non-achieving male malcontents. The ideal candidate feels he’s been victimized and driven into a corner by ‘isms’ coming at him from all sides. He’s just idiotic enough to fantasize that he can become the comic book avenger to make things right.
Nearly fifty years later we ought to be tired of lazy nihilism, the wails that evil politicians have everything rigged, that our future was sold down the river before we were born. The show is all about the trap; it’s a simple admonition for people to retain open minds. As a teenager I was implored to seriously question things by some of my High School teachers. RFK was killed near the end of my Junior year. So utterly disgusted was our social studies teacher, he simply dismissed class and told us to go outside and talk it over. The political sobriety lasted all of five minutes; I’m probably as easily manipulated as the next viewer/consumer.
A teacher that dared to be as conscientiously controversial today would likely be weeded out of his or her job — school districts are now corporate as well. This writer definitely feels the undertow. The corporate attorneys of one home video company insists on paper that I am not an independent reviewer but an indulged ‘influencer.’ The implication is that our relationship is a transaction, and that they are in control.
Operating way beyond today’s hollow thrillers, The Parallax View makes an anxious and uneasy connection to very scary political possibilities. If you are at all sensitive to the persuasive power of filmic propaganda, you’ll find it fascinating.
The Criterion Collection’s stunning 4K Blu-ray remaster of The Parallax View brings out much more color and detail than did the very good DVD from 1999. For the first time we can fully appraise the filmmakers’ effort to deprive the film’s visuals of anything reassuring in both content and composition. The very wide screen divides interiors into boxes and zones, seemingly enclosing its characters. Beatty is often placed to the extreme left or right of the Panavision screen, in complex compositions where it takes a second just to find him.
The claustrophobia indoors is matched by agoraphobia outdoors. Long lens telephoto views clutter the screen with flattened depth effects; they also make every shot seem the POV of a distant observer. Always at ease, the Parallax operatives wait and watch in Escher-like compositions of modern architecture. Chaos breaks out in absurd places, as when a runaway golf cart on the floor of a giant convention center ‘rearranges the deck chairs.’ By the time Joe Frady understands just how much trouble he’s in, he’s been reduced to a powerless creature with nowhere to run. No cardboard villain will pause to explain Joe’s mistakes to him. In fact, Joe never gets a clear look at his enemy.
The old Paramount DVD had no extras. Criterion’s producer Elizabeth Pauker assembles a list that’s short but ideal. Alan J. Pakula is heard in a 1974 talk at an AFI seminar, and in another taped AFI appearance from 1995. We learn that the show was filmed during a writers’ strike and that much of it was simply ‘winged’ without a real script… it’s amazing how well it holds together, with zero narrative fat. The famed cinematographer Gordon Willis is covered in a featurette that incorporates an archived interview. Willis would seem an ideal collaborator for the intellectually inclined Pakula — he can explain his visual strategies in plain, understandable words.
The unique appeal of The Parallax View comes across in two shorter, highly informative items. Alex Cox’s introduction relates the show to the wider political conspiracy culture — sixty years later, it’s painfully obvious that official accounts of the JFK and RFK killings are false. Just as desirable is a video piece with Pakula’s production trainee John Boorstin. Hired as an intern-observer, Boorstin witnessed the creative development of the Parallax recruitment film. It replaced an undesirable script scene in which Joe Frady proved his suitability as an assassin by killing a cat (which to me sounds like the old Nazi SS ‘shoot your dog’ story). Boorstin explains how he researched psychological tests to help come up with text questions for the Parallax ‘Personality Inventory.’ ←
The back page of the disc’s insert pamphlet duplicates the Personality Inventory flyer from the Parallax Corp’s ‘Division of Human Engineering.’ After a childhood subjected to weird public service announcements, thousands of hours of specious advertising and propaganda films about drugs and auto safety, we immediately understood the authoritative dread of that Recruitment Test film.
Adam Maida’s cover artwork is really good, better than any of the film’s original ad campaign concepts — it could pass for a typically radical Polish poster design.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Parallax View
Supplements (Criterion’s text) : New introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox; Interviews with director Alan J. Pakula from 1974 and 1995; New program on cinematographer Gordon Willis featuring an interview with Willis from 2004; New interview with Jon Boorstin, assistant to Pakula on The Parallax View. Plus a 24-page insert booklet with an essay by critic Nathan Heller and a 1974 interview with Pakula.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 7, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson