There are a number of classic paranoia films made in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s. The Manchurian Candidate is one of these, as is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.
The Parallax View (1974) by Alan J. Pakula clearly belongs on the list as well. It’s a classic, it’s memorable, it’s iconic. It has its finger on the pulse of a country and a culture where politics and murder have been intertwined for more than a century.
And sadly, I like it a lot less than those films.
To some extent, that’s a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” The Parallax View is undoubtedly an unsettling slice of paranoia, coming out of two decades that saw the assassinations of presidents, senators, civil rights leaders. It paints a picture of a world that is frightening and out of control, in which corporations recruit angry nihilists and psychopaths as killers, or as patsies: murders committed by a consultancy firm specialising in assassination. The film doesn’t even suggest that there is much of an ideology behind the Parallax Corporation and its amoral business: it’s just what they do, which means that outside the profit motive, there is no rhyme or reason to which public figure might get killed when. It makes them more frightening.
At the same time, while The Parallax View is without doubt a film that captures a certain mood, it doesn’t resonate with me nearly as much as The Manchurian Candidate, with its blend of black humour and genuine pathos, or The Conversation‘s more intimate tragedy. To some extent, The Parallax View has bought not just into its own paranoia but into its nihilism as well. Its protagonist, the journalist Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty), uncovers a conspiracy that has led to the killings not just of presidential hopefuls but also numerous bystanders, but he is powerless to stop the perpetrators and becomes a cog in the machine himself. There is a glibness to the world that Pakula depicts, a facile quality to its amorality, that makes it less perceptive than it may wish to be. The Parallax View clearly expresses something about the time when it was made, but it still resonates today, and part of the reason may be that it isn’t particularly specific: it taps into the Zeitgeist, but it doesn’t say much about it beyond “Trust no one.” Its paranoia is rarely any deeper as that of The X-Files’ Fox Mulder twenty years later. It’s pop-paranoia.
In addition, every time I’ve watched The Parallax View so far, I’ve always come away thinking that the production company, or perhaps the film’s star, Warren Beatty, had certain demands. There had to be action, there had to be opportunities for the leading man to show that he could beat up bad dudes and do car chases and escape exploding boats. There is a fist fight early in the film that seems to come out of an entirely different movie (possibly one starring Burt Reynolds in a cowboy hat). None of these scenes add to the paranoid atmosphere, if anything they undermine it – which is a shame, because especially the assassination followed by a cat-and-mouse chase of the protagonist in the dark catwalks above an auditorium at the end of The Parallax View shows that Pakula and his cinematographer Gordon Willis could stage a masterful action sequence that fit in well with the conspiratorial nature of the story they were telling. The bombast and noise of earlier action scenes make the shadowy Parallax Corporation less believable: if they are willing to kill this indiscriminately, bombing planes and boats, wouldn’t more intrepid reporters end up on their trail? Or do they orchestrate a complex deception for each and every one of them?
As it is, I can recognise that The Parallax View is a tremendously well made thriller, but it doesn’t resonate with me the way The Manchurian Candidate and The Conversation do. The Manchurian Candidate has its own flaws (and its own unfortunate fistfight bordering on the silly), but it has characters that are engaging, as does The Conversation. The main characters of The Parallax View remain relatively flat, and whatever qualities Joe Frady has, they mostly boil down to Warren Beatty, his charisma and his good looks.
However, there are moments in The Parallax View where in between the action and the glib nihilism I can make out a version of the film that I would like better, and these are perhaps best encapsulated by the scene in which Frady tries to get himself recruited by the Parallax Corporation and is shown a montage of images as part of his induction. This sequence itself already qualifies The Parallax View as a classic: it is strange and unsettling and tremendously well made – and we, the people in the audience watching The Parallax View find ourselves in Frady’s place, looking through his eyes and seeing… what? At first, the images, music and captions are clear: we’re seeing positively charged images, of love, family, home, success. And slowly these images become more loaded, the music less straight-forwardly wholesome. Images sneak in of violence, cruelty – or just strange images that we can’t quite place. The title cards become mixed up, so that images of love become images of cruelty. Images of politics, money, war, poverty. Images that seem to become infused with meaning beyond the surface, and those meanings seem more real, more true. What do we believe in? Who do we believe? Who’s trying to make us believe what? It’s all done so simply, but the process is insidious. It feels like our brains are first being de- and then reprogrammed. We undergo the test, we begin our own training. Are we assassins in the making? Patsies? Or just bystanders seeing images we don’t understand? Does it make a difference? What sort of little timebombs is the Parallax Corporation – and The Parallax View – depositing in our brains, delivered by our eyes and ears? And to what extent is the Parallax test, this deceptively simple training footage using the Kuleshov Effect and the essentially cinematic means of montage to great effect, representative of what cinema does with us every time we watch a film?
Verdict: Whether I like it as a whole or not, whether it resonates with me or not, The Parallax View is a classic of its genre. I may not like some of its action sequences, I may not find its characters particularly engaging, but Pakula and his collaborators, in particular cinematographer Gordon Willis, crafted a conspiracy thriller that has stood the test of time. It is somewhat let down for me by a script that should’ve been stripped of some of its sillier scenes – the bar room fight, the car chase, the exploding boat – because to my mind The Parallax View is strongest by far when it leans into the dark and unsettling, the things that are hinted at but not spoken out loud. (It’s difficult for an explosion or a fistfight to be dark and unsettling, I guess.) The film is definitely more of a thriller than other examples of the genre, and that’s not a bad thing, but it’s perhaps not what I respond to most. Nonetheless, The Parallax View is definitely worth adding to the collection, already for the supremely unsettling Parallax test. HOME, COUNTRY, MOTHER, FATHER, ME, LOVE, ENEMY, GOD, HAPPINESS indeed.
Note: I’ve not watched all of the extras on the Criterion disk, but the ones I’ve seen are… fine. The problem I have with some of the Criterion extras is that what they say about the film doesn’t go particularly far beyond paraphrase and repetition of the obvious themes, and that’s definitely an issue with some of the extras included with The Parallax View. Then again, I’ve not yet watched the interview with Gordon Willis, which I could imagine could be interesting and go more into the making of the film. So many films, so many extras, so little time…
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