Criterion offers up a revisit of the ultimate in 1970s film paranoia.
The Parallax View has always occupied a sort of split place in film history. It fits perfectly with the kind of daring and bold filmmaking happening during the 70s through its mesmerizing visual style and its chilling screenplay. But there’s also the sense that despite the names of director Alan J. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis attached (not to mention the megawatt presence of star Warren Beatty,) The Parallax View has enjoyed an afterlife full of admiration more than praise. The film sits smack dab in the middle of Willis and Pakula’s “paranoia” trilogy, coming on the heels of Klute and bowing a couple of years before All the President’s Men. But while those films made money and won Oscars, The Parallax View was a flop that the Academy all but ignored.
As riveting today as it was in 1974, The Parallax View follows Joseph Grady (Beatty), a newspaper reporter who is very nearly washed up. When a fellow journalist (Paula Prentiss) tries to convince him that she’s about to be killed due to the fact that she was one of the now-deceased witnesses to the assassination of a prominent politician three years earlier, Joseph shrugs her off. After she turns up dead, he traces her clues to Parallax, an ultra-secret organization specializing in assassinations.
The irony of it all when it comes to watching The Parallax View today is that the film is undoubtedly the one of the three in the “trilogy” most seeped in paranoia. The film preys on the mafioso-like feeling ushered in by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Watergate (the hearings were actually taking place during filming) that had quickly become synonymous with American life. There’s a frightening reality absent in the likes of Klute or All the President’s Men, but which can’t help exist here, growing stronger and stronger throughout the course of this film, that it can’t help but be defined by it. The presence of patriotic music and symbols signifying the value and safety of Americana populate The Parallax View, becoming more pronounced and almost menacing the more vibrant they become. However, what really gives the film its true eeriness is the ongoing confirmation that America has entered into a new realm filled with fear and uncertainty that will remain with us forever. Ultimately adding fuel to the fire of paranoia is the witnessing of the hero’s dark fate and the fact that the movie never really reveals who is behind it all, making for a cinematic experience that’s just as stirring all these years later.
It’s hard to think of too many behind the camera relationships which worked as well as that of Willis and Pakula’s. Both cinematographer and director not only found the same subjects interesting, namely that of the darkness permeating through society, but they both seemed to revel in finding out how far reaching that darkness was. There’s a true fearlessness to their collaborations, regardless of tone or plot, that only happened when they came together on a project. Known as “the prince of darkness,” Willis is one of the few cinematographers whose choice of lighting could instill a certain mood that was at once both hard to define and totally unmistakable. He was the perfect match for Pakula who always sought out stories with hidden truths which never ceased to point to the secret worlds hiding and operating under society’s noses. It was the distance between the image and the audience, the relentless feeling of unease and the act of questioning it all which were their specialties. The belief that it should always be that way if it’s to remain a story made all of their collaborations (including and especially The Parallax View) as chilling and enthralling as they remain today.
Of course, The Parallax View owes as much to its leading man as it does to the talents of Willis and Pakula. While Beatty had managed to establish himself as a force in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera thanks to the success of Bonnie and Clyde, his follow-up projects sort of pushed him back a bit. The Only Game in Town and $ were star vehicles which felt like they belonged in a pre-Bonnie era and depended more on his chemistry with leading ladies Elizabeth Taylor and Goldie Hawn, respectively than anything else. Meanwhile, his collaboration with director Robert Altman in the western McCabe & Mrs. Miller resulted in poor early reviews and paltry box-office until the film was given a second look years later. It would then make sense as to why Beatty (by then already famous for his political opinions) would be interested in the danger of a script like The Parallax View. The film has him be both an actor and a movie star, adopting a sort of everyman persona and mixing it with a quiet intensity like none he’d been asked to do before. Beatty pulls this off with a magnetism and fearlessness. Through his embracing of Joseph and the danger he’s pulled into, The Parallax View is made all the more harrowing.
Although Pakula and Willis would later re-team on the Jane Fonda western Comes a Horseman and the Harrison Ford vehicles Presumed Innocent and The Devil’s Own (which served as a swan song for both men), none of those collaborations ever matched the power of their “trilogy.” In a lot of ways, the films the pair made during the decade greatly represented how people felt about the decade, namely the high levels of mistrust and anxiety that ran rampant during that time. Watching the film today, it’s easy to see how it’s both totally of its time in terms of plausibility while seeming not too not far-fetched at all by present day standards. While Klute and All the President’s Men are both staples, in many ways it’s The Parallax View which remains the masterpiece of the trio because of what it says of the times through its downbeat ending, lack of clear answers, the way it’s continuously shrouded in mystery throughout and especially in that uneasy feeling that lingers once it’s finished.
The Parallax View is now available on blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.