The only conspiracy thriller so opaque you need to invent a conspiracy theory just to explain it to yourself.
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Written by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and (allegedly) Robert Towne (based on the novel by Loren Singer)
I wonder if The Parallax View plays better today, right now—45 years after its release—than it did in 1974. Of course, in a manner of speaking, it's just an objective fact that it does: it's one of those movies that was received with something of a baffled shrug upon its release, only to be rehabilitated as a cult classic a little later, with its status as maybe-a-masterpiece eventually following on. It was arguably influential, but I suspect that's mostly just correlation, especially when talking about the near-term. Some things are just bound to happen, and after twenty-six years of Cold War hysteria, nineteen years of Vietnam, eleven years of assassinations, and five and a half years of Nixon, The Parallax View's particular wave of so-called "paranoid thrillers"—that most quintessentially 70s of all the 70s' several cinematic movements—seems so overdetermined as to be damned near inevitable. And so the JFK assassination how-about-this?, Executive Action, not even a year old when Parallax came out: paranoid, but not quite a thriller (and not quite a good movie, either, though one that's easy to enjoy for the comical sobriety that it applies to what amounts to gonzo exploitation), it was at least evolving towards the subgenre. Meanwhile, The Conversation would've existed regardless, entering theaters just months after Parallax, and subsequently earning the Best Picture nomination Parallax deserved. It also pays to recall that The Manchurian Candidate was already thirteen years old—The Ipcress File, nine—and those are just the movies Parallax effectively knocks off.
No, if there's an innovation in Parallax at all (on the level of its plot, anyway), then it's that it relieved the conspiracy thriller of its reliance upon secret Nazi bünden, Reds hiding under beds, and homegrown reichwing zealots. It replaced such identifiable, colorful bogeymen with the faceless edifice of American capitalism, without much of any grand vision to it at all, a beige eminence that has no particular identity, but clearly finds itself best served by a broken status quo. I don't know if Parallax was the first to do that, but Parallax may be the best at it—it's almost as good as it could be, given that it embraces one of the least pleasing things about so many of the conspiracy theories that arose during the bitter end of the American midcentury, that is, their conclusion that everyone is compromised and nothing matters. Even so, I guess it really did capture the spirit of that age. Thankfully, it's the one thing that our age—in its guise as The-70s-As-Farce—has not recapitulated. At least not so far.
The initial rehabilitation of Parallax occurred relatively quickly as these things go, not least due to the influence of Robert Redford, who loved it, and who tapped the fellow who directed it—a certain Alan J. Pakula—to make another paranoid thriller for him. All The President's Men, 1976's greatest darling, was a cause to reevaluate its immediate precursor—though I have to admit I don't care for it nearly as much. I mean, man, if you want to talk about overdetermined, consider Pakula's cinematic saga of Woodward and Bernstein: it has its merits, but there's not a lot of paranoia to be wrung out of a conspiracy thriller based on a true story written by the heroes, which ended with the villain in disgrace, and which concedes, explicitly, that its conspirators were never very bright guys. Parallax is fiction, and a whole order of magnitude freer. Indeed, it goes hog-wild, which is one reason why I'm so impressed with it, but also why I don't necessarily blame anyone for all of those baffled, sometimes-hostile mid-70s shrugs. At first glance, it's arguably not even a particularly good movie.
It's riddled with cliché just to start with (even back then, it was cliché), and it compensates for that with one of the most startlingly obfuscatory screenplays possible, credited to David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., which, amongst other things, betrays the latter's history as a writer for the Adam West Batman. Greenlit in a state of avowed unreadiness, and then filmed in the midst of a writer's strike, whatever quick doctoring an uncredited, scabbing Robert Towne managed to effect on-set (alongside Pakula and his friend and Parallax's star, Warren Beatty) it's certainly not always noticeable. And therefore so much of what's so compelling about the film really might just be by accident. The thing that's struck me the hardest about all the latterday odes to The Parallax View is that absolutely none of them ever mention that it's so damned funny, to the point that a whole lot of the movie—big lumps of an awfully lumpy first half, and frequent beats even in the more serious, more self-consciously arty second half—play as stonefaced, automatic parody.
This does not, necessarily, include the chilly brutality of the pre-credits prologue. But even here, parts of our introduction to the off-kilter world of the Parallax Corporation must've been built to be laughed at, albeit maybe by people watching it almost a half-century down the line—which is to say, people for whom Robert Kennedy was just some attorney general who was considered handsome for a politician, rather than a Christ figure who died but never came back. Nevertheless, it takes no history degree to see RFK in Parallax's opening assassination, veiled with the gauziest of fiction, including an eyerolling Bipartisan Party gloss for the stalwart Democrat.
Hence presidential candidate Charles Carrol, "so independent they don't even know which party he belongs to!" according to vapid reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), offering a reminder for our century to never indulge in nostalgia for any vanished age of "good journalism." Carrol has descended upon Seattle to soak up the adulation of his people, whoever they may be. Besides Carter, there's another reporter who craves access to the candidate, a certain Joe Frady (Beatty). But Frady doesn't quite manage to brazen his way in. So he's not at the top of the Space Needle when one waiter paints the windows with Caroll's internal organs, and another, presumably a co-conspirator (though later events shall call this into question), flees to the top of the Needle, where a desultory melee results in a fatal fall.
Arriving now at the actual credits sequence, a long, glacially-slow push-in toward an abstract nightmare version of "Congress"—old men sitting on a dais floating in a sea of darkness, dispensing sneers at the very idea of any conspiracy more complex than a single lone nut who got it in his head one day to pop a potential president—The Parallax View has laid out about as much of its fully-parsable meaning as it will ever get to, and has certainly already revealed its priorities. This vision of a Congressional hearing hanging in the void is probably the film's most overt anti-realist gesture—one that will be repeated in reverse, as the film's downbeat mythic cycle concludes—and everything else that happens does so in more-or-less physically-explicable places. Yet the interest it reveals in the curve of the Space Needle's roof—that is, in the ways that the inhumane geometries of Space Age architecture can generate visceral feelings of wrongness, especially when intensified by the kind of framing that seems indifferent to any humans it incidentally captures—this interest is an abiding one.
Soon enough, though, it's three years later, and Frady is surprised when Carter pays him a visit, almost in tears—and she will be by the end of their meeting—telling him that, of the eighteen people in the room when Carroll was shot, a full third of them have died from "accidents" and "heart attacks," and she's certain she'll be next. (And so JFK is given the nod as well, with shades of Executive Action's own pile of "eighteen material witnesses," though in this case, sadly, none of them were killed by a karate chop.) Frady barely manages not to laugh in her face (in fact, he might have laughed in her face), so it's less a surprise than it is a grim confirmation when this scene cuts immediately to her body in the morgue, dead of an "overdose." This sends Frady on a hunt to uncover the secrets behind the Carroll conspiracy, a trek across America that winds up developing a rather substantial body count for a journalist's investigation, and which soon leads him into a psychiatric labyrinth overseen by the so-called Parallax Corporation. Parallax, it seems, is a firm that specializes in finding assassins—or maybe just aggressive, anti-social, self-involved and self-regarding men, whom the competent authorities would easily believe could have been assassins—and, well, guess who just came knocking on their door?
So the strange thing about Parallax, obviously, is that it's so easily divided into two halves, separated by Frady's contact with the Corporation, and marked by the film's literal centerpiece sequence. Both halves hang together sufficiently to be called a single character's arc, though there is scarcely a character there: Frady, who winds up going by several different names over the course of his investigation, is pretty much as stock as they come (a recovering-alcoholic journalist who harasses his editor (Hume Cronyn) in the middle of the night for petty cash to pursue a scoop...), and the role calls on Beatty to genuinely act pretty much only when Frady himself is putting on the performance of another identity, and it's arguable that in these scenes he's actually trying too hard. (There are many who will hail this as a great performance from Beatty, but personally I've got no opinion on it one way or the other: Beatty's star power is useful enough to fix your attention, but the role could plausibly have been played by just about anybody.) It's still interesting, though, and as I said, extremely funny, as Frady is thrown through a series of increasingly-nonsensical scenarios that feel more like they came out of one of the contemporary Bond movies that had tried to engage with 70s grit and/or hicksploitation, except Parallax is vastly more successful at it. This first half includes a barfight that seems to last five straight minutes, and has Frady smashing through a wall like the Kool-Aid Man. It's shortly followed by a sequence where an evil redneck cop (Kelly Thorsden) attempts to kill Frady with a hydroelectric dam, and then a car chase that is objectively boilerplate but remains absolutely scintillating in its sheer zany 70sness when it's been set against your fair expectations of a grave portrait of American anxiety. Altogether, it's hard not to read it all as parody, and if it is a parody of the trope of the crusading American journalist—or more encompassingly, the American Hero in general—then, ultimately, that dovetails with Parallax's other preoccupations very nicely indeed.
For what gets Frady into Parallax is a psychological profile he finds in the evil redneck cop's house (and yeah: this is the only contrivance, in a film full of contrivance, that feels lazy rather than intriguingly deliberate), this being the diagnostic tool Parallax uses to recruit its potential killers. And Frady definitely passes, whereupon Parallax invites him in, and this is the moment the film just stops making sense, inasmuch as it made any sense before.
The breakpoint is one of the most stunning five minutes of the 1970s, a "test" undertaken by Frady, and by the audience, that feels far more of a piece with a pulp fiction brainwashing session, though its true purpose is never wholly clear. It is rightfully famous, a masterful exercise in film language, close to pure cinema despite not having actual moving pictures, a series of increasingly sharply-cut, increasingly terrifying still photographs, played out against what I would have to describe as an unlikely brand of patriotic prog rock which maintains an insidiously upbeat tenor even once the montage arrives at, for example, Hitler. It deploys as viscerally as anything ever has Kuleshov's well-known theories of generating meaning out of unrelated images by editing them together; but it never relies upon them. Despite being darkly psychedelic, it is not at all inscrutable. It offers up subject headings by which we are meant to understand its categorization of images. Of course, those subject headings—LOVE, MOTHER, FATHER, HOME, HAPPINESS, COUNTRY, ENEMY, ME—are the most upsetting part of it, once they start pointing to the opposite of what you want them to, and now images of sex and abuse, of money and destitution, of America and Nazis, of mystic uru hammers and murderously powerful guns, all become inextricably intermingled. It's essentially a five minute barrage of dank memes that in combination arrive upon the conclusion that only the superman (ME) can rise above these contradictions, a superman embodied here, fittingly enough, by nothing less than a Jack Kirby Thor—one imagines because Jack Liebowitz at DC said "get the fuck out of my office" whilst Stan Lee said "sure! it's not like we're ever going to have any other ancillary revenue streams." But of course it works better as Thor, the go-to deity for Nazi occultism. It works better still when you know that the Thor comic it's from is itself a tale of brainwashing, of aliens infiltrating human society, and of Thor taking their spaceship to ride into the heart of their empire alone, i.e., the plot of The Parallax View.
What Parallax becomes afterward is, not to put too fine a point on it, mostly a disconnected series of thriller modules, particularly a scheme to put a bomb on a plane to kill another presidential contender, George Hammond (Jim Davis), interspersed with scenes of Frady's enthusiastic Parallax handler (Walter McGinn) wondering aloud who he really is, while giving him self-esteem boosting peptalks. And though it's not been exactly subtle so far, the second half is where the visual scheme of the film really kicks in, too, with Gordon Willis' black-drenched cinematography smashing Frady into darkness in nearly every interior shot, while even the sunniest exteriors are wracked with paranoia, dominated by machinery and architecture, and with a tendency toward shots so wide that the barely-visible humans in them look like ants that we're observing because we find their behavior curious.
That's an impression helped along by the constantly-recurring motif of grids, which the film is downright freakishly obsessed with, though it likes to interrupt them with various "incorrect" elements, alluding toward an oppressive, strangling regime of order while always doing something to make them chaotic and wrong. (The most impressive is a series of placard mosaics of dead presidents at the rehearsal for Hammond's rally, with a hideous rendition of Theodore Roosevelt standing out as particularly gruesome. The rehearsal itself pulls double duty, naturally, defined by the boredom of its participants and emphasizing Parallax's notion of the hollow business of American politics.) Yet even now, the film is still funny, in a decidedly odd manner, like the way it follows Frady following a guy up an escalator for, like, a solid minute of screentime, both a suspenseful shot and so unaccountably and unnecessarily long it's difficult not to laugh at it, in large part because both men treat it like a ride rather than stairs that just happen to be moving; the death of Hammond on a slow-moving golf cart plowing through patriotic tables is, likewise, laugh-out-loud hilarious.
It's clear enough, despite large parts of the story falling into the giant holes that the screenwriters and Pakula have placed in it, that the driving force of the second half is the plot to kill Hammond. What Parallax does not let you know is why he's going to die or who is going to kill him, though it certainly seems like Frady will take the fall. And it could be that, but the really great thing about Parallax—beyond Pakula's tight direction, Wheeler's bizarre editing, Michael Small's offbeat score, Willis' command of light and darkness, the beautifully-ugly real spaces that Pakula found to represent this world—is that it's the conspiracy thriller that demands that its audience invent their own conspiracy theories about it. With this in mind, it seems like "Parallax used Frady as a patsy" must be the dullest of all possible ways to resolve the film's ambiguity. Far more fun is to conclude that Frady was brainwashed, and the gun he sees before him his gun, fired in a dissociative state of total cinematic subjectivity, and so that the assassin he's been striving to stop this whole time was his own shadow. (The futility of individual heroism is a theme the film enunciates far more clearly than it ever does its plot.) However, the most fun of all is to wonder if Frady's terrifying video experience was only a tune-up; if he's getting confused because Parallax keeps giving him all these new names. Because even during the first, "normal" half of the movie, when Frady was still Frady and still righteously investigating the Carroll conspiracy, he was already a precipitous dick, and literally every witness he dug up wound up dead almost the moment they saw him. Did we see what truly happened? Of course not. The film was never in one take, nor in real time. We only saw pieces. What we ultimately make of them can only be what we wanted to see.
The Parallax View is a marvelous puzzle. Capable of being "solved" in so many different ways, none of which is ever definitively "true," it reflects the structure of a conspiracy theory in ways I'm not sure any other conspiracy film has even attempted. Now, it is the case that this makes it more of an intellectual exercise, rather than an emotional one. It does not invite you to invest in the paranoia of its hero, whom it marks out as a satirical construct and pawn; because of that, it's not actually even the very best of the 1970s conspiracy thrillers (that's Blow Out, which is only of the 1980s by an accident of birth). Yet it may be the most fascinating of them, anyway.