The Parallax View (1974 USA)

At 12:30pm, 22 November 1963, Jewish rag trade man Abraham Zapruder shot his JFK film from one angle of Dealey Plaza, Dallas — and 12 other people also shot film or photos at the moments of assassination, all from different angles (or points of view). Not to mention the many other people who were present that day to witness it, who also saw things from their own point of view. Some folks saw movement in the grassy knoll, others didn’t. The Parallax View states that many conspiracies work because relatively few people are in on the whole joke; some are involved in the set up, some in the telling, and some in the punchline, but only a precious few are given the whole picture, making detection almost impossible. 

Director Alan J Pakula’s paranoid tale subverts the Hollywood paradigm. Creating an unreliable hero is only the beginning: it is difficult to tell who is lying, who is telling the truth – or how much of the truth they know. It’s a lot more “real” than one-track plots which leave no room for doubt. I have always thought it was influenced heavily by Costa-Gavras’s magnificent film Z, where conflicting versions of the central event are on display. Nevertheless, in Z, it adds up to a clear-cut conspiracy, even though not all the conspirators will be punished; here it adds up to a depressing but again “real” failure to get the evidence where and when it is needed. A collection of great writers – Lorenzo Semple Jr, Robert Towne (Chinatown) among them – put together this narrative, which is deliberately fuzzy.

Many film-makers would be satisfied to simply relate a script as good as that, but Pakula’s films always had a visual vitality that adds a further dimension. It’s supposed to be why we watch films instead of reading books. In this film, there is a valuable visual commentary on the plot, which will take the tale for the attentive viewer to another level. Heart-throb Warren Beatty gives his character of Joe Frady, a “third-rate” journalist, just the right balance of recklessness and determination to enable one to have faith in this man to uncover such shady, potentially threatening goings-on. Mr (or Master?) Beatty is ably backed up by the supporting cast, most notably Hume Cronyn as Frady’s editor, and Paula Prentiss and William Daniels as, respectively, a television reporter and columnist both in fear for their lives.

              (Ooooh!…Warren….. you are so much man – how could any woman resist you?)

The plot is given credibility by the inclusion of elements which are recognisable from the JFK assassination (more than one gunman involved and the untimely deaths of witnesses) and an investigator who like Woodward and Bernstein (in the case of the Watergate investigation) is a newspaper reporter. Furthermore, a powerful montage of images and titles which form part of the psychological test which Frady has to undergo in order to be recruited into the Parallax Corporation, shows a very simple method by which a candidate’s values and beliefs could easily be distorted. Sadly though, the film also has a rather significant flaw. Whilst it may have many subtle political messages, first and foremost, it is supposed to be a thriller and some could argue that it fails to deliver in this regard. The first half of the movie ratches up the tension nicely but, sadly, the latter part of the film doesn’t provide any major thrills.

So, although The Parallax View ultimately may lack the cohesion and cinematic rhythm to be an outstanding thriller or mystery – unlike the masterpiece that is Chinatown, for example – this unusual film still deserves to be regarded as a classic of the conspiracy genre. Composer Michael Small’s main theme (used at strategic points throughout the film and often playing on the traditional patriotic sound of the trumpet) has a quality both mournful and despairing that relates effectively to what we are watching. It is a rather sparse music score, but this seems to add to its power. Gordon Willis’s Panavision photography conveys threat in even the most everyday of locations (his rendering of modern architecture is especially strong in suggesting a faceless, omnipotent threat), while the editing rhythms and sound design contribute a great deal in throwing the audience off-balance. You won’t get any answers from this film because giving us definitive answers would be contrary to the entire point of the story. If you have a single definitive answer (or view), then you don’t have a parallax (view).

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Comments

  1. Excellent review, I’ll have to check this flick out. The caption on the Warren Beatty pic is comedy gold! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was pleasantly surprised by this film! I really thought I’d dislike it….

    Anything 70s and paranoia though…. The Conversation (1974), etc.

    Like

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