Paranoia runs deep in Alan J. Pakula’s gripping thriller, “The Parallax View”

Updated: Mar 27


BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS

Warren Beatty, left, stars as journalist Joe Frady. While investigating a series of deaths and their ties to the shadowy Parallax Corporation, he’s attacked by a crooked sheriff on the company’s payroll.



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THE PARALLAX VIEW: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”


Blu-ray, 1974, R for mostly implied violence, brief nudity/sexuality, language


Best extra: “Pulling Focus: Constructing ‘The Parallax View,’” a new interview with Jon Boorstin, who was an assistant to director Alan J. Pakula








THE DICTIONARY lists several definitions for “parallax,” but the one that fits Alan J. Pakula’s mind-bending thriller refers to the apparent position and movement of objects when seen from different perspectives – like when you’re driving and utility poles seem to fly by while trees in the distance drift along.


Consider the opening sequence. A charismatic senator, riding with his wife in an open wagon in a Fourth of July parade, arrives at Seattle’s iconic Space Needle – and is gunned down by a waiter while greeting his supporters. His wife is splattered in blood. The waiter, apparently acting alone, runs to the roof and falls to his death.


End of story, right? That’s what the commission investigating the assassination decides.


The references to JFK and RFK are obvious, but as Pakula (“All the President’s Men,” “Sophie’s Choice”) points out several times in a 1974 interview that Criterion has included in the accompanying booklet, “The Parallax View” isn’t an exposé. It’s “a nightmare based upon the terrors of our time.”


(1-4) In a reference to the Kennedy assassinations, Sen. Charles Carroll (Bill Joyce) arrives with his wife (Bettie Johnson) at Seattle’s iconic Space Needle on the Fourth of July, where he’s gunned down by a waiter as he greets his supporters. The suspect runs but falls to his death; a commission investigating the killing determines that he acted alone.







It’s not even a political movie, Jon Boorstin, who Pakula hired as an intern on the film, says in an interview recorded last October.


“You never know the politics of the people being assassinated, and the feeling you get is that it doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s about the culture of control and how you can play on people’s fear and paranoia.”


And that makes “The Parallax View” just as relevant today.


Three years after the senator’s murder, journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty, “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Reds”), who was at the parade but barred from the reception, is visited by his colleague and sometimes girlfriend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss, “Catch-22,” TV’s “He & She”), who witnessed the assassination. She shows Joe a handful of stories about other witnesses who’ve died mysteriously since then and tells him that someone’s trying to kill her.


He dismisses her paranoia – until she dies days later. His investigation leads him to the shadowy Parallax Corporation, “a dehumanizing machine of corporate conspiracy,” writes The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller in his must-read essay, “that does dirty work while trading in illusions worthy of its name.”


Joe gets inside after having a convicted killer answer the “personality inventory” that Parallax’s Division of Human Engineering uses to recruit the sociopaths it manipulates. He’s soon trying to stop another assassination; Frady, though, doesn’t fit the mold of the mythical American hero – Hume Cronyn (“Brute Force,” “Cocoon”), as his editor Bill Rintels, is the story’s moral center. Instead, the film breaks the mold.


Another thing it does so effectively is involve the viewer. Pakula, Boorstin says had “this paranoid streak,” and his frequent cinematographer, the great Gordon Willis (“The Godfather” trilogy), was able to create the “visual analogies” that gave form to the director’s vision.


(1) Hume Cronyn, as Frady’s editor Bill Rintels, is the moral center of the film. (2-4) Paula Prentiss plays Lee Carter, Frady’s colleague and sometime girlfriend. A witness to the senator’s assassination, she tells him that someone is trying to kill her. Frady dismisses her paranoia, then begins his investigation when she dies days later.








The script was changed extensively but because there was a writers’ strike, Pakula and Beatty were doing it on the fly. Willis, Boorstin recalls, photographed his close-ups from exactly the same distance and used the same focal-length lens so that Pakula could jump from scene to scene by going from one close-up to another. The net? The narrative is solid and the camera, and viewer, become observers.


That’s due in no small part to the exacting composition of each frame and how Pakula and Willis divide the frames – the movie’s 2.39:1 wide aspect ratio is more associated with CinemaScope and other formats from the golden age – with walls, masts and telephone polls, creating boxes within a box.


Pakula also pulls viewers in when Frady watches the Parallax indoctrination film, a series of all-American catchwords and rapid-fire images that are benign at first only to become threatening, angry and vengeful. But unlike Malcom McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange,” Pakula never shows Frady’s reaction. It’s the viewer who’s immersed for the entire 3½ minutes.


(1) A former FBI agent (Kenneth Mars) shares information with Frady. (2-3) Kelly Thordsen plays Sheriff L.D. Wicker. His cooperation is a ruse; he confronts Frady while he’s fishing near a dam. (4-5) Frady tracks down the senator’s aide Austin Tucker (William Daniels, right), who has gone into hiding. He and his assistant (William Jordan) soon die in an explosion.







VIDEO/AUDIO

Remastered in 4K from the 35 mm original camera negative, “The Parallax View” boasts a bold, bright palette that suits the comic-book feel that Pakula wanted. But as it’s done with its other 4K remasters, Criterion didn’t invest in a High Dynamic Range upgrade. Again, the results aren’t bad by any stretch – detail is decent enough and contrasts are good – it’s just that they could have been better.


The audio – the original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm magnetic track – does the job, too. This is a quiet film, so depth isn’t a big issue. There’s plenty of room for the dialogue and Michael Small’s (“Marathon Man”) score.


EXTRAS

Boorstin’s insightful interview tops an impressive package and dovetails nicely with Heller’s essay and the Pakula interview. Also new are a feature on Willis that includes an interview from 2004 and an introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox (“Repo Man,” “Sid & Nancy”).


He gets hung up on the Kennedy connection, but is on the mark when he says that “the world Pakula and Beatty hypothesized about in 1974 is the world we live in now.”


Craig Shapiro


(1) Believing that he’s being recruited as an operative, Frady gets ready to watch Parallax’s indoctrination film. (2-5) When Senate candidate George Hammond (Jim Davis) ends up in the company’s crosshairs, Frady tries to stop the assassination.




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