The Parallax View (1974)

 

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THE PARALLAX VIEW, poster art, 1974

Directed by Alan Pakula

Written by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., Robert Towne (uncredited)  Based on a novel by Loren Singer

Starring: Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, Hume Cronyn, William Daniels

Tagline: There is no conspiracy. Just 12 people dead.

Trivia: The original script was written with a police officer as the protagonist, at Warren Beatty’s insistence the character was rewritten as an investigative reporter.

Watching The Parallax View will induce paranoia.  You can have your Hunger Games dystopia and Zombie Apocalypse fantasies. Reality is more terrifying.

With Alan Pakula’s expert direction, stunning cinematography from Gordon Willis, and Warren Beatty’s convincing performance, The Parallax View takes you into deepest, darkest strata of the military-industrial complex.

The first five minutes are jarring.  In a sequence modeled on the Robert Kennedy assassination, a politician is coldly gunned down atop the Space Needle in Seattle. Then a terrifying showdown ensues on the roof.  Then a cut to Congressional Committee, obviously based on the Warren Commission, declaring with utmost confidence there was no conspiracy.

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Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, an investigative reporter working for a small newspaper in the Pacific Northwest.  Known for his reckless methods, he is protected by his editor Bill (Hume Cronyn) who serves as a surrogate father.  Early on Frady is visited by his reporter friend Lee (Paula Prentiss), who was present at the assassination and claims all the witnesses are turning up dead (an often made claim about witnesses to the JFK assassination.)  At first, Frady downplays her concerns as mere coincidence.

Cut to next scene: Frady identifies Lee’s body at the morgue, victim of an apparent drug overdose.

Convinced there might be something to the conspiracy theories, Frady begins to investigate on his own.  Eventually, he stumbles upon the mysterious Parallax Corporation. They seek out “antisocial young men” who have trouble conforming to society.  So he assumes a false identity and infiltrates the group.  In an unsettling scene Frady is approached by a “recruiter” late at night who promises the Parallax Corporation will guide him to his full potential.

During the subsequent “interview” Frady is seated in front of a large screen to watch a rapid montage of images. The words “ME” “FATHER” “MOTHER” “COUNTRY” “EVIL” “LOVE” appear and are then juxtaposed with images in a twisted game of word association.

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At first the pictures are peaceful, but gradually get disturbing, distorting the meaning of the the words.  Pictures depicting love are blended with violence and hatred.  It’s an obvious brainwashing technique designed to manipulate a sociopath personality into believing violence in the service of the state is a good thing. Orwellian.

Today we are all too aware of subliminal advertising and the perpetual onslaught of images thrown at us 24/7. Do these images manipulate us into submissive mindset?  Do political ads amount to Orwellian thought control?  Yes and Yes. Now, more than ever.

I suspect Beatty may have based his character on Hunter Thompson, a journalist who bucks authority and becomes a part of his own story.  Frady’s anti-establishment ethos makes him a personality attractive to the Parallax Corporation: he womanizes, drinks, and gets into fights.  But as viewers we know Frady’s not a violent sociopath, yet the powers that be can easily manipulate the public’s perception of anyone.

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So he gets in way over his head. As the film unfolds a powerlessness begins to take over. No one can challenge the complex nature of power, all leading to a shattering conclusion.

So much works in The Parallax View. The story and use of locations are endlessly compelling.  Large spaces are made to be alienating and claustrophobic. The odd geometry of each scene adds to the paranoia.  Michael Small’s minimal film score adds to the tension and sense of foreboding.

The Parallax View was way ahead of its time, anticipating The X-Files and the public’s growing skepticism on the nature of power in America.  The look and style of the film suggests a powerful reality exists beneath the shadows, using democracy as a con game to manipulate a passive populace. Often grouped along side the other great paranoid thrillers of its time like Three Days of the Condor and Taxi Driver, The Parallax View stands on its own as a unique achievement.

 

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