Weekend Film Recommendation: The Parallax View

ParallaxView
Our month of the cinema of conspiracies and political paranoia continues this week at RBC (Johann kicked it off last week with the disturbing and powerful Conspiracy). The horrifying assassinations of the 1960s generated countless conspiracy theories that continued to rattle about in the 1970s, particularly after Watergate further damaged the public’s faith in once-respected institutions. During this period, Alan J. Pakula was arguably the film maker who most effectively translated the public’s anxieties onto the screen. The two best known of his “paranoia triology” are the Oscar winners Klute and All the President’s Men. This week’s film recommendation is the less commonly recalled but very fine member of the troika: 1974’s unnerving The Parallax View.

The film’s opening sequence, set at the top of Seattle’s space needle, grabs viewers by the throat. What seems a banal political event suddenly turns violent, and through a series of rapid cuts the audience is as disoriented as the terrified characters on screen as they wonder what exactly they just saw. In the ensuing months, many of the witnesses come to premature ends, leading raffish journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) to investigate, against the advice of his hard-headed, fatherly editor (Hume Cronyn, effortlessly at home in his role). Frady discovers that a mysterious corporation is recruiting sociopathic killers, and he goes undercover to investigate them. He seems to be making progress in infiltrating the nefarious cartel, but is he really just walking into the web of a hungry spider who is spinning all the strands?

The Parallax View provides moments of high suspense and also carries off well that essential of paranoia films: The exchanges between the lead character and the trusted friend who thinks the “conspiracy” is all imagined (Nice touch: Cronyn’s office is crammed with memorabilia from his work with the Boy Scouts). The performances are believable throughout, which helps the film survive its more credibility-straining moments.

The late Gordon Willis, one of the most respected cinematographers of the 1970s, gives the film a distinctive look appropriate to its tone. There are many long, lonely shots taken far from the action, along with Willis’ signature fondness for shadows. The opening and closing shots, of government investigatory commissions proclaiming “nothing to see here, move along, there’s no conspiracy” as the camera moves in and out, ultimately arriving at a dark, distorted anamorphic image, are perfect bookends for the film. Combined with the movie’s minimalist use of sound, Willis’ superb work suffuses the movie with a sense of unease.

The film is not without shortcomings. As in some other Pakula films (e.g., Consenting Adults), certain plot elements can’t survive strict logical scrutiny. How is it that second-rate journalist Joe Frady can drive like a NASCAR champion and fight like James Bond? Why doesn’t he ever have deadlines at his newspaper and why, beyond the needs of the script, does his editor keep handing him piles of cash to pursue his story? Another potential weakness: Joe Frady is not that appealing of a person, so if you really don’t like Warren Beatty as a star, you may not feel much sympathy for the protagonist.

Flaws notwithstanding, Parallax View is an effective, disturbing piece of cinema. Its perspective is ultimately gloomy, but that doesn’t diminish its entertainment value or emotional impact one iota. This is a movie that stays with you, like a microphone the CIA has attached to your cell phone.

p.s. For those of you who are not old enough to remember and therefore might find one key scene of this film unbelievable: In the 1970s, you really could board an airplane without a ticket and check luggage onto a flight on which you were not yourself a passenger. Also, there was good service in coach. Really.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Parallax View”

  1. " …like a microphone the CIA has attached to your cell phone." The cellphone comes with a microphone already. It's no longer paranoia but simple fact that the NSA can listen in any time it wants to.

  2. For some reason, I have paired in my mind Pakula's The Parallax View and Coppola's The Conversation. Something about me, probably, more than the movies.

  3. I like your P.S. Yes, I'm old enough to remember those days of innocence.

    "Pandora's Box" relates to things that, once released, can never be stuffed back into the box. This phenomenon–the loss of nice things we took for granted–could be "Arodnap's Box," the repository of things that, once stuffed in, can never be brought back out.

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