Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View” opens with a shot the Seattle space needle, an eclectic structure that towers over the citizens of the city below.
To be sure, beginning the film this way is not an accident. We push in on a well-attended and lively political rally for Senator Charles Carroll, whose beaming wife is beside him as he takes questions, shakes hands and mostly waves incessantly.
The function ends with Carroll assassinated, in a sequence with the same on-the-ground realism as Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” (1969).
Three years later, Joe, a trouble-making reporter (Warren Beatty) stumbles onto a vast conspiracy entirely by accident, as an ex-lover (Paula Prentiss, touching and vulnerable in her one big scene) begs him to look into the death of highly placed politicians.
A sudden death of a friend is all it takes to set Joe off on a trail of mysterious events, murder attempts and confrontations that he just-barely escapes from. Then, there’s the discovery of The Parallax Corporation, whose recruiting pamphlets don’t tell you everything about what services they require.
A few things immediately establish the effectiveness of Pakula’s vision from the very beginning: Michael Small’s sinister but quiet score is used sparingly, rarely cueing us in on how we’re supposed to be feeling from scene-to-scene. Then, there’s the gaze of the cinematographer, the legendary Gordon Willis, which, as in all great films, is a character itself, unseen and never noted but clearly an observer who sees and knows all.
Willis achieves a unique method early on of keeping the audience in a state of unease. Most scenes are filmed off center, with actors introduced on either the left or right side of the frame. Starting with the title appearing too far off to the left, the visual approach is subtle but consistent throughout the film.
The lack of symmetry creates psychological discomfort, as do the establishing shots filmed from far back, as though we were seeing the protagonist from a voyeuristic vantage point.
Like the other key Pakula/Willis collaborations during this decade, “Klute” (1971) and “All the President’s Men” (1976), many scenes are filmed from a distance with an emphasis on shadows, placing us in the vantage point of the unseen threat surveilling the protagonist. There’s a nice ode to “Psycho” at one point, where a likable character dies and the camera lingers on an envelope of untouched money left in their wake.
Beatty is often filmed against massive structures looming over him, emphasizing how small Joe and his quest are in comparison to the formidable grip of The Parallax Corporation. It’s a fitting recurring visual, as this isn’t about a man’s righteous crusade against an evil organization but how a secret, well-funded and protected system will either absorb or erase all who get in their way.
Joe doesn’t initially believe in a conspiracy involving the assassination in the opening, and his journey finds his skepticism met with witnesses who are terrified of being discovered, armed law enforcers all too happy to protect a big secret and clues that either vanish or become dead ends.
Released in 1974, “The Parallax View” gives us an outlook on a very different world, where one can walk on a plane and pay for a ticket while in mid-flight. Or, one could ask a hotel clerk for a guest’s name and actually get it. Made post-Watergate but during the Vietnam War, “The Parallax View” arrived when the notions of trust, national security and safety were in question.
Strip away Beatty’s bushy hairstyle and a few noticeably ’70s touchstones, this hasn’t aged but has actually become more probable and relevant than ever. It’s also, let it be noted, the most wildly entertaining of Pakula’s so-called “paranoia trilogy.”
Early on, we get one of cinema’s all-time greatest bar fights (the dialog Joe exchanges with a sheriff briefly turns this into a western). An amazing sequence follows, in which a dam unleashes a torrent that is intended to cover up a murder.
There’s a lot of scenes here that are perfect little mini-movies, flawless in their timing, staging and execution. Every performance is dead-perfect, with Beatty an ideal ’70s everyman, Hume Cronyn excellent as his boss and William Daniels especially memorable as a key witness.
Upon release, a few critics noted the similarities to “Executive Action” (1973), a widely ridiculed thriller depicting a conspiracy in the murder of President John F. Kennedy (Oliver Stone’s “JFK” in 1991 would emerge a far more respectable, successful and even more controversial take on the same subject matter).
If there’s one film that would make an ideal double feature and a fitting companion piece to “The Parallax View,” its William Richert’s “Winter Kills” (1979), a wacky but enthralling, all-star take on the Kennedy family and the assassination of the president.
Based on Loren Singer’s 1970 novel, this depicts a familiar world where the wealthy and entitled are in control, invisible but shaping the narrative of history. The manner in which assassins are recruited by The Parallax Corporation is downright quirky: it’s akin to joining a religious cult, as a recruiter meets and counsels a coveted newcomer.
This comes after taking a test that indicates how appropriately unstable the recruit may seem. It would seem satirical, only that Pakula isn’t joking around.
The test that Joe winds up taking, in which he’s strapped to a chair that monitors his heartbeat as he watches a montage of photos on a movie screen, isn’t entirely unlike Alex’s “attitude adjustment” in “A Clockwork Orange.” Joe silently watches the images and, because Pakula never cuts away from it, we witness the entire thing in real time. It’s an amazing montage that represents American identity, history and ideals.
While the photos eventually become repetitious, we see glimpses of Lee Harvey Oswald, Adolf Hitler and (no kidding) The Mighty Thor. This lengthy sequence (less than ten minutes but still extensive) is chilling, not only because its objective is never disclosed (how exactly does one pass this test?) but because of how the photos, most of which are iconic, all seem to naturally flow within each other.
Considering how views of America’s troubling past, as well as foreign dictators and scenes of violence, are interspersed with shots of pastoral grace and flying eagles, its unsettling to consider that the unseen monsters behind Parallax grasp how Americana itself can be a front for a darker truth.
In a way that won’t be clear until the film is finished, we observe a secret meeting on a dimly meet, odious platform, suggesting the similar arrangement from “The Star Chamber” (1980). It’s also visually reminiscent of the gradual unveiling of Blofield and his pin-drop quiet addressing of powerful men in “Spectre” (2015).
Note the very last image, once the end credits have finished, when the Parallax meeting platform dims its lights until they resemble a face.
“The Parallax View” is a disorienting experience, as most scenes unfold without a disclosed objective, until a shocker of a reveal hits and jolts our awareness. Seeing it twice is essential. Pakula doesn’t linger on spectacle, which can be frustrating, as some of the key encounters have arresting punchlines; its oddly similar to Gareth Edwards’s “Godzilla” (2014) in the way it shows you something astonishing, then quickly cuts back to the central human story.
In fact, Pakula cuts away from the action in a way that makes the “money shot” almost a subliminal image…not unlike watching that test from The Parallax Corporation.