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The Parallax View (1974)
The Parallax View and All The President's Men are often linked in the public mind since they share director (Alan J. Pakula), cinematographer (Gordon Willis) and a paranoid, post-Watergate view of government and industry. But All The President's Men is based on fact while Parallax is based on theory, conspiracy theory, and it shows. Its mood is dark but its plot is hollow.
Lorenzo Semple Jr.
(from the novel by Loren Singer)
Alan J. Pakula
"Every time you turned around some nut was knocking off one of the best men in the country."
The film begins well. We get a ground-level shot of a totem pole while hearing drumbeats in the background; then, with a slight shift of the camera, modern-day Seattle and its Space Needle are revealed behind the totem pole. The drumbeats are part of a 4th of July parade honoring Senator Charles Carroll (Bill Joyce), a man, according to local news reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), so independent, "Some say they don't know what party he belongs to." Before the afternoon is through, Carroll will be assassinated by a waiter at the top of the Space Needle. The ancient savageries represented by the totem pole have been replaced by something larger, sleeker and more technological. Our savage drumbeat continues.
Cut to three years later. Third-rate reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), who has a talent for drinking and creative irresponsibility, is visted by former lover Lee Carter, and the two pick up a conversation they've obviously had many times before. Six of the 18 people at the Space Needle that afternoon have since died and Carter feels she's next. Frady dismisses her fears but the next time we see her she's a stiff at the morgue, and the story, and the paranoia, are now Frady's. He visits Salmontail (Salmontail?), the site of another witness' death, and mixes it up with lewd cowgirls and dopey deputies and a corrupt sheriff who tries to kill him.
Digging through the sheriff's desk, Frady comes across documents for something called the Parallax Corporation, and by and by he pieces it out. Parallax is in the business of recruiting assassins and Frady goes undercover to be their next recruit. Unfortunately he makes a bad undercover agent. With his foot in the Parallax door, he keeps dropping cover in order to follow the second assassin (or second waiter) at the Carroll shooting. Doesn't he realize Parallax probably has people following him? The plot meanders. We never get deep enough inside the corporation to make it interesting. At one point Frady is subjected to a slide-show that mixes sped-up images of Mother, Father, Country, Enemy and Me, but for what purpose? Is it another test for recruits (and if so, did Frady pass?), an attempt to brainwash recruits (and if so, did it affect Frady?) or merely the indulgence of the filmmakers to ape A Clockwork Orange? At another point Frady boards a plane but only figures out there's a bomb on board when he's airborne. He makes a bad protagonist: acting when he shouldn't, not acting when he should. The final assassination scene is interminable and frustrating. What is Frady trying to do among the shadowy catwalks? Does he know? Does Pakula?
Ultimately, The Parallax View is the left wing's wet dream. The unspoken fear among '60s liberals is that the greater freedoms they demanded let loose an anarchy upon the country that in turn knocked off their best leaders (JFK, MLK, RFK), but Parallax placates these fears. Not left-wing anarchy but right-wing conspiracy. Not lone gunmen but corporate murder. The film is based on the sudden deaths of JFK assassination witnesses, many of whom appeared to die of natural causes, but Parallax answers this with talk of heart attack pills and other quiet, subtle ways of killing witnesses. Which leads to another question: If you're going to assassinate leaders, why not do it in this quiet, subtle fashion? Why make a noisy, bloody mess at the top of the Space Needle?
January 7, 2001
© 2001 Erik Lundegaard