There’s an old joke about a paranoid man being the only person who really knows what’s going on in the world. So what’s to worry about? Gina Haspel, the woman due to be confirmed as new director of the CIA, admitted destroying videotapes of detainee interrogations at a secret Thai prison in 2002. Recently, the American Environmental Protection Agency were found to have buried a study about contaminated drinking water throughout the US because it would be a ‘public relations nightmare.’ In 2018, governments are no longer held to account, and worse, they don’t even care. Clearly, we’ve passed through the looking glass, when a porn star called Stormy Daniels has become a cheerleader for truth and justice. In times like this, it’s perfectly okay to be paranoid.
Which brings us to director Alan J. Pakula. He made 16 films before dying in 1998, including enjoyable but forgettable fare like Presumed Innocent and The Pelican Brief. But he achieved his best work in the area of the paranoid thriller with a trio of remarkable films, Klute, All The President’s Men, and The Parallax View. All are required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in the era of New American cinema.
Oft considered the mother of conspiracy films, The Parallax View remains Pakula’s greatest achievement, a nightmarish thriller which shines a light into the darker corners of American life, revealing the sinister figures who help shape the modern political landscape. The title refers to the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer.
Pakula wanted the film to start with ‘sunlit Americana, the America we’ve lost.’ In the opening scene, independent Senator Richard Carroll arrives in Seattle for a campaign visit. ‘Show don’t tell’ is an oft-repeated screenwriting maxim: David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Junior’s script (legendary scribe Robert Towne did some uncredited rewrites) is good on telling details: we know Carroll is a man of the people because he arrives not in a limo but on a horse drawn fire engine. ‘He’s so independent, many people don’t know which party he actually represents’, gushes star-struck reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss).
Carroll is shot atop the Space Needle, and after a short rooftop chase, the supposed killer falls to his death. He’s just a patsy; the real assassin (Bill McKinney, best known for shouting ‘squeal like a pig’ in Deliverance) makes a leisurely escape as the sun sets on another day of American tragedy. A clueless congressional committee concludes that this was the work of a lone assassin, motivated by ‘a misguided sense of patriotism and a psychotic desire for public recognition’ (which, in a nutshell, is Donald Trump’s entire CV).
Three years later, Carter visits her former boyfriend and colleague, newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty). She believes that someone must have been behind the Carroll assassination as six of the witnesses have since died; Carter is convinced she will be next. Frady mocks her fears, in a way that resentful ex-lovers lacking a degree of closure will readily understand. ‘You don’t care!’ she screams. Later, she is found dead in what is officially ruled a drugs overdose. Frady begins to suspect that the mysterious Parallax Corporation (‘specialists in human engineering’) may be involved.
The Voight Kampff in Blade Runner was used to gauge empathy levels. The questions in the Parallax application are designed to test psychopathy: ‘I do not like to see women smoke’; ‘I have never cried’; ‘There is something not right about my mind.’ Frady fakes his answers, and gets a personal visit from a company representative, Jack Younger (Walter McGinn), who is impressed by his scores. As Frady continues to investigate, others who share his suspicions start turning up dead, including newspaper editor, Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn). Frady uncovers a wider conspiracy, and sets out to prevent the corporation’s next big hit.
What elevates this film to the level of art is the contribution of legendary American cinematographer Gordon Willis. Oft dubbed ‘The Prince of Darkness’ – due to his magical ability for working with shadows – Willis not only lit the Godfather 1 & 2, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan, he also worked with Pakula on Klute and President’s Men (who knew a conversation between two men in an underground car park could be so engrossing). The distinctive anamorphic photography used in Parallax – long lenses, unconventional framing, and shallow focus – is queasily disorientating: We are not spectators of Beatty’s journey through this dangerous landscape but fellow travellers.
One of the pleasures of The Parallax View is the cast. A succession of great American character actors – Hume Cronyn, Kenneth Mars, Anthony Zerbe, William Daniels – appear in small roles: you will recognise the faces if not the names. Prentiss is only in three scenes but leaves behind an affecting imprint; her death finally motivates Beatty’s character into action (he did care after all).
Like Ryan O’Neal and Robert Redford, Beatty’s handsomeness has often obscured his abilities as an actor. He doesn’t really do vulnerable – I can’t recall ever seeing him cry in a movie – and his CV is filled with bizarre, often exasperating choices: for every Bonny and Clyde there’s an Only Game in Town, and an Ishtar. But in the right film, he has a compelling charisma, and the role of a headstrong, slightly self-destructive journalist fits him like a glove. Beatty has never been a traditional action star but here he steals a Police car, and has a bar-fight with a redneck deputy sheriff (‘Don’t touch me unless you love me’, he deadpans before the first punch is thrown). Beatty has always maintained strong liberal beliefs, even campaigning on behalf of democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern in the early 70’s. A film about politics, even if it is a thriller, was something for him to be passionate about. There’s a quiet urgency to his performance, which wins us over.
The scene where Frady sits through a bizarre recruitment video has passed into cinema lore. Composed entirely from still photographs, it initially presents a Norman Rockwell view of American life: God – love – happiness. There are images of children holding hands with parents, young couples, and family gatherings. Things switch from the personal to the political, with photographs of historic figures like Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, and Pope John XXIII. There’s a shot of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot, and comic hero Thor smashing his hammer. The montage becomes more violent, with KKK meetings, and murdered men hanging from tree branches. Photographs of imprisonment and torture accompany the word ‘ME’. Who stole the American Dream, it seems to imply. The montage closes with a shot of the Statue of Liberty and the word ‘HAPPINESS.’
This five-minute sequence is uninterrupted; there are no cut-aways of Beatty. It’s the sort of thing which could easily ignite an angry, feeble-minded person, looking for a system or individual at which to direct their festering disappointment with life. If you stick a MAGA baseball cap in there, it’s a 2020 Republican Party commercial.
Pakula stated that President’s Men represented his greatest hope, whilst The Parallax View was his greatest fear. ‘As American as Apple Pie’, said the poster tag-line. There hasn’t been a political assassination in America since Robert Kennedy in 1968 but considering the current climate, it feels horribly inevitable. Almost 45 years on, the power of The Parallax View remains undimmed.
ARTICLE BY STEVE TIMMS
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