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.

Lenny (1974)

Bob Fosse | 1hr 51min

There is something of Lenny Bruce’s rebellious, unorthodox style in Bob Fosse’s 1974 biopic of the comedian’s life which mirrors his own manner, shunning the usual biopic genre conventions to capture the same unruly wit which defined his controversial stand-up routines. Even though his style of black comedy influenced such famous comedians as George Carlin and Bill Hicks, his name is not one often heard today, perhaps since his career preceded theirs by a couple of decades. None of them ever had to wrestle with the same level of cultural conservatism though, and it is in this conflict that Fosse uses Lenny to confront the legacies left behind in the fight for free speech.

It is somewhat baffling that Dustin Hoffman’s performance here is rarely mentioned in the same breath as The Graduate or Rain Man, but evidently Lenny is a little more difficult to digest than either. There is a visible transformation in his physicality and energy, right from Lenny’s early days of bad celebrity impressions to his spiral downwards into addiction, and Hoffman falls into each stage of his life with ease. Most impressive of all is his pure verbosity, leaving audiences hanging on his every word through fast-paced joke setups and then delivering punchlines with a disarming laugh.

The lighting in Bruce Surtees’ black-and-white cinematography is jaw-dropping, often framing Lenny at its centre.

But Fosse is always sure to keep a distance from the comedian, looking in from the outside through staged documentary-style interviews with his loved ones and associates trying to make sense of his difficult legacy after his death. In this way, there is a lot of Citizen Kane present in Lenny, and Fosse wields a similarly steady control over this ambitious narrative structure as Orson Welles. What would have otherwise been a rather traditional rise and fall character arc thus becomes an examination of a person who might have always been destined for an early grave, simply due to his own self-destructive tendencies.

Beautiful shots persist even beyond the clubs and bars, this one capturing a gorgeous frame of Honey visually trapped in a doorway from an extreme low angle.

Interweaved among these two timelines is one specific stand-up show from the 1960s, in which a bearded Lenny turns his personal struggles into fodder for comedy. Fosse’s editing is a marvel here, as he deftly cuts between dour scenes from the past revealing a failing marriage and a future set that humorously picks apart his own flaws, notably analysing his Madonna-whore complex as well as his proclivity for cheating. There is no doubting his intelligence in the way he analyses his own weaknesses, but it is also evident that his attempts to use comedy as a coping mechanism does little to resolve them in any meaningful way.

Even within each scene though, there is an energetic rhythm to Fosse’s editing, turning each stand-up show into a sort of call-and-response performance between Lenny and his audience. Fosse’s background in movie-musicals is evident here, as is the influence he would have on Damien Chazelle’s own style decades later in Whiplash, as he ricochets all across Lenny’s stage and catches his laughing audience in close-ups, feeding off the man’s exuberance. After Lenny gets in trouble with the law at one point for public obscenity, the police who start lining the walls of the club become part of this dance as well, and the editing becomes a little more tentative in its velocity. That is, until Lenny takes back control of the room’s atmosphere, slyly pushing the boundaries of censorship while incisively deconstructing the very notion of it, and we find ourselves back at the comfortable, kinetic pace we have grown accustomed to.

Fosse is one of the leading innovators of montage editing of his era, using his musical inclinations to draw out remarkable rhythms that would go on to influence Damien Chazelle.

The beautifully lit black-and-white cinematography from Bruce Surtees here shouldn’t be lost in amongst the praise for the editing though. In clubs and bars, pitch black backgrounds are pierced by spotlights centring Lenny as the target of everyone’s attention, bathing him in wafts of smoke floating languidly through the air. Whether he is caught in close-ups or wide shots, everything in these rooms directs all attention towards him, from the blocking of the audience to the framing of the room’s architecture.

Magnificent silhouettes crafted from these stunning lighting setups and the smoky settings.
The audience and the architecture becoming one in these wide shots.

This becomes especially important towards the end in what is certainly the longest take of the film, when a strung-out Lenny delivers a disastrously lacklustre set while high on morphine. No longer are we rapidly cutting around the room or watching excited reactions in close-up, but instead we sit back in a wide and simply observe this barefoot, coughing man in a trench coat mumble his grievances to an unreceptive crowd. The two minutes we remain sitting in this shot feels like much longer, as gradually we begin to notice the silhouettes of audience members get up and leave, and yet we can’t tear our eyes from him.

This movie as a whole has a rather low ASL (average shot length), but this shot here purposefully breaks that pattern, as Fosse refuses to cut away for two whole minutes, sapping Lenny’s final stand-up performance of all energy.

Given what we have just witnessed, his death that occurs not long after doesn’t come with any great revelation. It is a development Fosse has prepared us for all the way through in the post-mortem interviews, recognising that this bright spark of life could have only ever sustained itself for so long. At the same time though, it is also within this superb narrative structure that his animated verve is kept at the forefront of our minds, as Lenny never stops demonstrating the magnificent power of an act that can reconcile life and entertainment in moments of comedic harmony, no matter how transient they might be.

Lenny is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.