News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: The Parallax View

This week’s movie was actually Klute, but once again, having posted on that great film already, we decided to take the opportunity to talk about the next entry in Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoid trilogy”—The Parallax View.  (All the President’s Men would round out the set.)  One of the great paranoid thrillers of the seventies (possibly the greatest, but we have a soft spot for Three Days of the Condor), Parallax boasts a remarkable array of talent on both sides of the camera.  Written on spec by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (whose credits include Pretty Poison, The Drowning Pool, Condor, and, of course, fourteen episodes of Batman!), David Giler worked on the subsequent draft and shared official credit for the script. But the screenplay was also revised before and then during production by Pakula, leading man Warren Beatty, and supporting player Hume Cronyn (an accomplished writer); Beatty affiliate and script-doctoring legend Robert Towne also lent an uncredited (and, in the midst of a writers strike somewhat controversial) hand. The result is as finely polished as one would expect from such efforts, and after so many revisions, happily, the film bears almost no resemblance to the dismal novel that provided the source material. The spectacular incident at the dam is about all that remains, and, not surprisingly, that scene is better in the film, which adds the essential business with the fishing rod. (This seemed like a lovely homage to Out of the Past, but in an interview with us several years ago Semple said that was not his intention.)

The Parallax View was shot, spectacularly, by “prince of darkness” Gordon Willis (the contributions of production designer Gordon Jenkins should also be acknowledged), and if you have any doubt as to how important the legendary cinematographer was to the film, consider the opening credit sequence: Paramount Pictures, Alan J. Pakula, Warren Beatty, and then Title, immediately followed by “Director of Photography Gordon Willis”—a remarkable and uncommon honor. In addition to all the enveloping darkness (at one point Pakula called for a bit more light, complaining that he was directing the shadows instead of the actors), Pakula and Willis subtly unnerve the viewer with unbalanced widescreen compositions, and the repeated introduction of long shots and long takes that inevitably if unconsciously instill the feeling that someone is watching. (There is also something particularly unsettling about another visual motif: not having access to the content of conversations seen taking place.)

Pakula’s greatest accomplishment in The Parallax View is his use of silence—which we will go so far as to call Hitchcockian in its execution.  These silent passages are featured throughout the film, and some are justly famous, such with the visual “test” that Joe Frady (Beatty) is subjected to.  (We find the initial, written test as effectively chilling—and oh my, viewed today it suddenly and horrifyingly looks like it could easily be the application form favored by the current administration).  But Pakula’s silences are ubiquitous, and impressive from start to finish, including a remarkable twelve minute sequence involving an aircraft with a bomb on board. In fact, for the entire second half of the film, the dialogue is minimal and except for one brief conversation inconsequential—again, as with much Hitchcock, it would play successfully as a silent film.

Parallax begins with the assassination of a Bobby Kennedy type figure (the novel invoked JFK but the New Hollywood, and Beatty, leaned Bobby); the movie then tracks the conspiracy theories, cover-ups and investigations that follow a few years later—though in the age of Woodward and Bernstein, our hero is a shaggy-haired journalist, not a cop or a private eye. Shot as the Senate Watergate hearings were taking place, Parallax perfectly captured the paranoia of the late-Nixon era, and ends as a seventies film must. By the way, ever wonder if Frady passed that second parallax test, and if so, what that might mean?  Well, “if the picture works,” Pakula explained, “the audience will trust the person sitting next to them a little less at the end of the film.”

Space Needle

Assassination at the Space Needle

 

Shades of Bobby

Shades of Bobby 

 

Dambusrt

Death by Dam-burst 

 

Cronyn

Hume Cronyn, as Frady's Boss

 

Parallax Test

The Parallax Written Test – In Use Today?

 

Tucker

Austin Tucker (William Daniels), Wants No Part of It

 

Note

Frady (Warren Beatty) Pens a Desperate Note