The Parallax View (1974)

Alan J. Pakula | 1hr 42min

Floating somewhere in a vague, black void, a committee of seven indistinct men sit on a panel delivering a public statement on the recent political assassination of presidential candidate Charles Carroll, describing the deceased killer as a psychotic, misguided man acting out a violent vendetta. The official narrative is that tragedies such as these are aberrations of a dignified society that strives to protect its citizens, governing them under fair, democratic processes. Any suggestion that they are more akin to covert cogs in a rigged machine working exactly as intended can easily be brushed off as a ridiculous conspiracy held by a select few obsessive recluses. As the middle part of Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy though, that is exactly the perspective that The Parallax View takes in following its tightly wound narrative of collusions, false identities, and government corruption, stoking the embers of bitter mistrust burning through 1970s America.

This ambiguous committee announcing the official narratives of political assassinations. They are boxed into this dark space like puppets on a stage, their strings pulled by whatever shady forces lie just outside its boundaries.

The second and final time we are brought to the official committee we met at the start is in the final shot of the film, though whatever faith we might have once put in their words has been well and truly eradicated by this point. Now, this official-looking bench looks a lot like a stage upon which these men sit as empty puppets, the darkness around them concealing whatever secretive forces are pulling their strings, and as Pakula’s camera dollies back to shrink them into the abyss, they suddenly disappear from view, bringing this performance to a close. It is tough to imagine this scene being as ominous as it is had it been shot by anyone other than Gordon Willis, whose cinematographic credentials as the Prince of Darkness are backed up here by the pervasive silhouettes, shadows, and dimly lit interiors concealing the horrific secrets that one plucky journalist seeks to expose to the public.

Joe Frady’s interest in the seemingly coincidental deaths of six innocent Americans who collectively witnessed a political assassination three years prior is only piqued when his ex-girlfriend, Lee, becomes the latest victim. It is a harsh cut that Pakula uses in transitioning from their meeting to the reveal of her cold, dead body, but it is the jolt we need to land us in the grip of a mystery that compels Frady to chase answers through American cities and rural towns, each one infested by the long, sticky fingers of the furtive Parallax Corporation. Pakula stages his investigations upon miniature railways, beneath bursting dams, and in expansive buildings where Wellesian low angles impose rigid formations of ceiling lights upon characters, setting them against the heavy weight of bureaucratic structures fighting to keep them down in their pursuits of truth. Bit by bit, small pieces of information come together to reveal the corporation’s methods of recruiting psychologically troubled men and converting them into political assassins, carrying out watertight schemes that cover traces and frame easy scapegoats.

From rural to urban America, Pakula makes brilliant use of his modern architecture like Michelangelo Antonioni, carving out a harsh culture of domineering constructions that consume and shrink its citizens.
There is plenty of Antonioni present in the mise-en-scène, but Pakula doesn’t hold back from Wellesian low angles of magnificently imposing ceilings either, weighing down on his characters.

Those bright, open spaces where psychopathic murderers seamlessly blend in with ordinary Americans are unsettling enough on their own, but the sharp contrast they draw against shots where Pakula’s camera disappears into darkened rooms makes the lighting schemes of both environments all the more disturbing. The Parallax View is flooded with compositions that have entire segments blocked out by patches of darkness, carving them out from the geometric shapes of backlit furniture, and at one point using a wall to draw a sharp divide right down the middle of the frame, keeping the adversaries on either side suspensefully unaware of each other’s presence. The scene in which Frady arrives home only to find Parallax recruiter Jack Younger waiting for him makes especially excellent use of Willis’ beautifully sinister photography, with the vague light reflection off his polished boots perched on a table being the only indication that there is anyone lurking in this stifling darkness. Later when Frady is forced to improvise a new lie for his blown cover, Pakula in turn keeps us at a tense emotion distance by silhouetting his profile, concealing any potential giveaways written on his face.

Gordon Willis can manipulate the light and darkness of a shot like few other cinematographers in history, using patches of black space to split frames down the middle and wrap around characters in isolating compositions.
A vague reflection of light off polished boots, the only unsettling indication that there is someone lurking in this darkness.
Warren Beatty’s face is silhouetted when his first lie is caught out, keeping his facial expressions impossible to read and driving up the suspense in a huge way.

Frady’s successful entry into the organisation does not immediately herald an abundance of answers, but Pakula provides us with just enough to lead us towards assumptions about the psychological manipulation taking place there. For several minutes we are forced to watch the same video montage that all new applicants are subjected to, cutting together words and images intended to inspire intense emotions across the spectrum of the human experience. Pakula orchestrates a deranged emotional conflict here in opening with shots of children, American icons, and picturesque landscapes, before dotting in images of the Hitler and guns, running at an accelerating speed towards sex, hate groups, and violence, and then finally pulling back into the initial peaceful imagery. Whether this is some sort of brainwashing or profiling isn’t entirely transparent, but the implicit values of the corporation ring out clearly. Insensitivity and contempt towards one’s fellow citizens are essential qualities for potential assassins, whose anger can easily be manipulated for political purposes at the discretion of the wealthy elite.

A disturbing rhythmic montage mixing wholesome, patriotic imagery with violence and evil. It lasts for several minutes as well, fully subjecting us to the Parallax Corporation’s murky ethics and ideals.

There is also a sensationalism present in this suspenseful narrative though which shouldn’t be brushed over, because as much as Pakula is drawing Antonioni and Welles in his arresting modern architecture, there are set pieces here that are distinctly Hitchcockian in their suspenseful plotting and staggering pay-offs. Early on, a thrilling wrestle with a suspected assassin atop the Space Needle draws in the iconic monument to highlight the uniquely American characteristics of this corruption and paranoia. Later, the silent pursuit of a potential bomber at an airport feels like a high-stakes spin on the stalking scene in Vertigo, anxiously cutting between close-ups of Frady’s face and his point-of-view shots until an explosion punctuates its climax.

A Hitchcockian set piece in using the sheer height of the Space Needle to send someone toppling to their death. A gripping scene to open the film.

Pakula reserves his greatest set piece of all for the final scene though, harshly painting out the duality of American civilisation at the dress rehearsal for Senator George Hammond’s political rally. The patriotic red, white, and blue of the auditorium’s circular tables arranged in orderly grid formations clash right up against the sinister darkness hanging above them, where Frady pursues shady figures setting the politician up for murder. From these daunting heights, Pakula often slices his frame horizontally, with the top half imprinting black shapes of beams and light fixtures against the bright background, and through his manipulation of this lighting he leads us right into the chilling reveal of a silhouetted rifle sitting on the wire mesh above the hall below. Frady’s realisation that he has been scapegoated comes far too late, as his dash for a bright exit is only met by death, thus incriminating him as the likely culprit of Hammond’s assassination.

Silhouettes pervade the thrilling final set piece of the film, sharply separating America’s patriotic colours in the bright light from the sharp darkness hanging above it. Rafters, light fixtures, and guns become cutouts of negative space imprinted upon the assassination below.

The third and final instalment of the paranoia trilogy, All the President’s Men, may reflective reality more accurately in taking on the authentic investigation of the Watergate scandal, and yet there is something about the crushing despair and pessimism of The Parallax View which feels even truer to the psyche of Cold War America. For every great exposé of political corruption, there are hundreds of other scandals which never make it into the public eye, and which clearly haunt Pakula’s mind with the terror of the unknown. With Willis’ camera dwelling on those dark, apparently empty spaces, our suspicion of what lurks out of sight gradually becomes an aggrieved, quiet dread – not of some lonely psychopath seeking to kill innocent strangers, but of the establishments that swear to protect us from them.

A dash towards the light, only to be met by more darkness – pure pessimism in Pakula’s ending.

The Parallax View is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, or Amazon Video.

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