The Parallax View (1974)

*. This is a movie that, once you see it, stays in your head a while for all sorts of reasons. I hadn’t seen it in years before this most recent revisit and two things struck me.
*. First, I was surprised to find that Alan J. Pakula actually made it a couple of years before he made All the President’s Men. I was sure it was the other way around, which would have made more sense: first the reality and then the expanded, paranoid fantasy.
*. But The Parallax View, which is based on a novel published in 1970 (before the Watergate break-in), isn’t a Watergate movie so much as a JFK assassination movie. Yes, Beatty’s Joe Frady is a dogged reporter with a crusty editor, and yes Michael Small’s score sounds a lot like what David Shire would do for All the President’s Men, but as a conspiracy thriller it’s all about grassy knolls and lone gunmen. Roger Ebert thought it would remind audiences of Executive Action, which came out around the same time and was a fitting referent then. Today I don’t think many people have seen Executive Action.

*. Already in 1974 it could cast a cynical eye on conspiracy. Even though the assassination of the senator is supposedly his beat, Frady wants to blow off Lee’s fears as paranoia. He’s not a conspiracy nut, but he knows there are conspiracy nuts out there.
*. The other thing that struck me is how good a movie this is. Two things in particular I thought were worth noting: the silence and the photography.
*. It’s amazing how much of this movie plays out in silence, or perhaps more accurately with no dialogue but only background noise or meaningless chit-chat. The great scene in front of the dam, for instance, is noisy (the alarm and the roaring water), but silent in terms of anyone saying anything (after the sheriff’s wonderfully apologetic “Actually, there just ain’t no Buster”). The whole business on board the plane as Frady tries to warn the crew about the bomb plays out with almost no dialogue. Ditto the end, where Frady is trying to escape.

*. There are two things that make the silence particularly effective. In the first place, sudden noises interrupt the silence in dramatic ways. There’s a moment of quiet on the boat, a long shot, and then boom! Frady is running for the doorway when it pulls open and boom! End of the line. Frady is going through the sheriff’s drawers when the deputy enters, silently. Then the phone rings and it’s like an alarm has gone off. What makes this last scene so brilliant, however, is that it’s only when Frady hears the deputy answer the phone that he knows he’s in trouble.

*. Silence also compounds our sense of unease and mystery. Bill McKinney has no lines at all, which makes him seem all the more dangerous. But then, aside from the recruiter, we never hear any Parallax voices. What are they up to? We never know, and still don’t know at the end. But silence makes us suspicious. It’s like Austin Tucker’s bodyguard. Does he say anything? He seems so damn weird the way he just steers the boat, looking at Frady.

*. Then there is the photography by Gordon Willis. There’s a particular type of shot that’s used throughout, setting up a strong visual motif. It has a dark foreground and a spotlight somewhere in the distance. This is introduced with the opening shot as we draw toward the lit judicial chamber down what seems to be a dark tunnel (a movement that’s reversed at the end). The same sort of thing provides the film’s climax, as Frady runs in the dark toward the brightly lit doorway that opens ahead of him. But as I say, it’s a motif that we see throughout. It’s in the shot of the morgue, for example, and the scene on the children’s train coming out of a tunnel, and the shot looking out the main door of the convention centre, and the interior of the sheriff’s house.

*. The montage is an odd piece of work, again effective for being so enigmatic. Can it be reduced to a specific message? It seems as though patriotic and family values are being undercut by dark, repressed forces (Nazism, racism, even gay S&M images). But then the viewer is supposed to identify with those same dark forces. Is Thor a holy avenger, or a Teutonic warlord? Or are they the same thing?

*. Is it weird that Parallax applicants need have no skills at all but only be disaffected losers? I guess not if they’re just being recruited as patsies.
*. Warren Beatty’s hair. What can you say? His next movie would be Shampoo.
*. I find it a bit curious that there appear to be no women in the Parallax Corporation. In much the same way it’s not clear that there are any women “seconds” in Seconds. But this is one of the great strengths of the film, the way Parallax remains so opaque. Silence is maintained and we never see behind the curtain.

*. There are so many moments in this movie that are unforgettable: the scramble on top of Seattle’s Space Needle, the incident at the dam, the overhead shot of the golf cart rolling into the perfectly arranged red-white-and-blue tables on the floor of the convention centre. Add to that the smart, minimalist script, wonderful photography, and solid lead performance from Beatty playing a man with attitude who is frustrated and baffled, and I think this is one of the classics of political paranoia. That it’s not better known may be down to it’s not having had a decent DVD release. Alas, now that DVDs aren’t such a big thing any more it may have missed its window for reaching a wider audience. That would be a shame.

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