BY ROB FELD
The Parallax View (1974) is the middle film of Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy, which includes Klute (1971) and All the President’s Men (1976). “The other two films are so tight and perfect, but this one is always a little overlooked. It’s a little more abstract and open-ended, without a resolution. It’s something I really loved,” says Marc Forster as he settles in to watch the film again in the DGA library.
All three films were released at a time when the Warren Commission report had left the country unsatisfied amidst further assassinations, and the Watergate scandal and revelations about the government’s secret wars only added to the national dis-ease. “The mystery Pakula creates with his design elements— the darkness and light, the camera angles, and the architecture—instantly drew me into this movie the first time I saw it. You are in the point of view of an observer, but he always lets you discover, rather than just showing you. It all influenced my style, even early on in Monster’s Ball and Stranger Than Fiction.”
Pakula’s adaptation of Loren Singer’s novel tracks journalist Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) as he attempts to link a series of assassinations of independently-minded politicians to the Parallax Corporation, a secret entity whose agenda is never really explained. Beatty is present at the assassination of a senator at the Space Needle in Seattle, but goes looking for answers only after his ex-girlfriend (Paula Prentiss), who was also present that day, later dies under suspicious circumstances.
In the opening shot, a Native American totem pole appears center frame against the sky, then the camera dollies and cranes down to reveal the Space Needle jetting parallel behind it. “You have indigenous versus modern symbolism; the new culture dominating,” explains Forster. “It’s framed at a low angle against the dominating tower in the background, which symbolizes modern achievements. The framing creates tension and imbalance; allowing an element of paranoia to creep in immediately. Pakula’s locations become characters themselves. It makes for an intriguing opening. When I frame shots, I am thinking in this way.”
Pakula cuts from the opening image to an Independence Day parade with Sen. Carroll and his wife entering on a fire department float. It’s a busy scene that throws the viewer into the narrative without explanation. The scene gives a barely noticeable glimpse of Beatty in the background, as Prentiss interviews the senator at the base of the Needle. But then we see Beatty from behind as he tries to follow the group into the elevator, and Prentiss tells security she doesn’t know who he is.
“I took a lot from how he introduces Beatty here,” Forster continues. “You see him from the back, which is a great introduction. In the 1970s, how you introduced your main characters was often subtle and fantastic. It’s amazing how subtly Pakula establishes a relationship here, and how thoughtful it is. From the looks Prentiss and Beatty exchange amidst the chaos of the parade, you connect the dots without a close-up.”
As we dissolve to a party in a restaurant atop the Needle, the camera’s exposure is set for the observation deck outside the panoramic windows, leaving the guests inside underexposed against the windows. Prentiss can be seen outside with Carroll’s adviser (William Daniels), as the senator works the room inside. “I would say Gordon Willis, who also shot Klute and All the President’s Men, was the greatest cinematographer of the 1970s,” says Forster. “His framing and lighting are mysterious, and he uses a lot of silhouettes. Unfortunately, on these HDTVs it doesn’t look right; it’s painful.”
SUSPICION: Forster says the opening assassination of a senator seen from the outside with blood splattering the glass (top to bottom) and the chase for the killer (top) atop the Seattle Space Needle sets the unsettling tone for the film.
Pakula cuts to Prentiss and Daniels on the outside patio and shoots them at a low angle, looking inside at the senator and his wife whose backs are to the windows. Then suddenly, blood splatters against the window as the senator is shot in the chest.
“First of all, you’re not with the senator when it happens, which is fantastic,” says Forster excitedly. “And Pakula doesn’t cut up the shot: he just stays in this angle with Prentiss and Daniels in the foreground when the blood hits the glass. You don’t even see the senator’s face. The way the shot is constructed creates mystery because something is hidden; the glass is in between you and the character who should be the center of attention, which makes you more of an observer than a participant. But it also makes you want to discover more.”
The assassin escapes to the roof of the Space Needle and is chased in a single wide shot, until he tumbles off and falls to his death. “I love that the chase is done in silence,” Forster observes. “If you look at action sequences, they’re usually overloaded with sound. Here, draining the sound works similarly to how the director uses images; instead of using sound to lure you in and make you part of the action to create tension, Pakula removes you and creates an objective point of view. He could have covered this entire scene with quick shots and had a big struggle. But in this wide shot without cuts, the fight feels real because it’s in real time, and almost a little clumsy. The combination makes it feel uncomfortable.
“Then he cuts straight to this beautiful image with the blood on the window,” Forster points out, as Prentiss gazes in shock through a smear of blood. “What is he setting up, with her behind the window? The assassin has tumbled off the edge with the three characters who chased him looking on, and we are told nothing. Pakula sets up the event, gives clues, and introduces our hero but it’s all abstract; we don’t know who Beatty is at all.”
In something of an expressionist turn, Pakula next takes us into a completely blackened room lit largely from above, where a sevenmember commission sits in the distance against wood paneling. The camera pushes in slowly as the men announce that no conspiracy was found in the assassination of Sen. Carroll, and that no questions will be permitted. A subtle score led by horns has entered the soundtrack, its hints of dissonance growing insistent by the time Pakula freezeframes on the five commissioners in the center.
“This low-angle dolly push in is about authority and government,” observes Forster. “Remember, this is a couple of years after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Pakula creates a tension and fear that ultimately there’s a higher power around us, and you never know what’s behind things. Pakula and Willis don’t move the camera much in this movie, only very slightly like this. Mostly it’s wide frames that might be punctuated with close-ups, always from behind or in silhouettes. They keep the same thematics, shooting through windows or curtains in order to obscure [the truth].”
The story now jumps three years ahead to find Beatty as a muckraking reporter in a confrontation with local police. Later, when Prentiss makes a surprise visit to Beatty’s apartment, terrified for her life, Forster’s attention turns to how Pakula handles the heavy exposition of their past relationship and the assassinations— the whys and wherefores, of which the film reveals precious little.
DOA: Pakula withheld information by shooting numerous scenes as if seen from behind a curtain, like this one (top) of Warren Beatty and his ex-girlfriend Paula Prentiss, who (bottom) turns up dead in the morgue in the next shot.
“Creating tension and an interesting scene while giving the audience information is the hardest thing to do,” says Forster from his own experience. “Directing it here, Pakula keeps the tension up by keeping the back of Beatty’s head to the camera while the information spills out. When Pakula has two people talking in this movie, he doesn’t cut back and forth. He shoots from behind, or in silhouette, or in the dark, and holds for a long time.
As the scene progresses, Pakula surprises us with a cut that finds her now standing outside, obscured through a white curtain. “You don’t see Prentiss walking out to the balcony,” says Forster, “she’s just there.” Beatty joins her and holds her quietly, but Pakula then jars us with another cut to a close-up of her face, dead on an autopsy table, and the ominous score returns. The camera tracks back out of the room and reveals Beatty as he steps to the table with an autopsy scale and a clock on the wall overhead.
“It doesn’t get much better, especially with the silence beforehand,” observes Forster. “You get chills instantly, and then again with this camera track out of the room. All the design aspects of the locations and sets dissolve to the point of disorientation. One of the strongest aspects of the film is the combination of design and light. The tension it creates draws one’s attention away from the script, something that can lack tension at times, to a sensation that you want to discover what’s around the corner.”
Now convinced of a conspiracy, Beatty starts following the clues, which lead him to a bar in a Western town where another unlikely death connected to the assassination has occurred. “The movie changes [tone] here a bit,” notes Forster, as Beatty finds himself in a bar brawl and later a car chase. “It’s interesting that the fight is really the only scene in close-up, whereas everywhere else Pakula lets you find things in wide angles. And there’s no establishing shot here, either: he just cuts to random locations where Beatty is frequently obscured. In these ’70s films, it’s constantly a puzzle; the audience participating, trying to figure out what’s really happening versus today, where you’re being shown too much.”
After the local sheriff tries to kill him for being nosy, Beatty finds a job application from Parallax. He applies for the job, answering the questions as if he were a cold-hearted assassin, and is brought in for an interview.
“It’s so mysterious and creepy here,” Forster says excitedly, as Pakula introduces a black frame. A single down-light fades up on a chair in the distance, and a disembodied voice gives instructions. Beatty enters and takes the seat. “It’s abstract and similar to the commission at the beginning [of the film]. And again, Beatty enters the scene obscured in silhouette.”
What follows is an immersive montage of images edited to music—parents and children, pies and wheat fields, American monuments, Nazi rallies— contrasting the patriotic, sentimental, erotic and brutal. The words “Love,” “Father,” “Mother,” and “God” flash on screen. Beatty’s responses are measured to see if he would make good assassin material.
“I love this montage,” says Forster, his eyes glued to the screen. “It goes from a classical score to dissonant, with a sarcasm to it. At the beginning, it’s slower and then as the montage progresses, the cuts become faster and subconsciously repetitious. At the beginning, it’s absurd and funny, and then the feeling changes to melancholic as Pakula manipulates your emotions, like the montage is reflecting our world, and it’s unpleasant. It definitely influenced my title sequence for World War Z.”
THE VERDICT: (top) After infiltrating the Parallax Corp., Beatty is subjected to a chilling montage of patriotic images from pies to wheat fields to American monuments; (bottom) blind justice is served when a commission declared Beatty guilty of murder.
Alone in his office, Beatty’s editor (Hume Cronyn) listens to the interviews with Parallax that Beatty has been secretly recording. The editor’s usual dinner is delivered, but it turns out to be his last meal. Pakula cuts to the artifacts of the editor’s noble life of truth displayed on the walls and shelves of his office. Accompanied by soft horns, the shot pans slowly until the camera finds Cronyn dead in his chair of a heart attack—though we know he was poisoned.
“That transition is so good,” says Forster. “Pakula takes you back in time with the pictures, to the memories of his life, then forward again to his body. It’s like his life from beginning to end, and the horns make it heroic. It’s economical and emotional.”
Building to the climax, Beatty follows an agent from the Parallax office to a convention hall, where a political candidate is rehearsing his entrance for what appears to be a fundraiser that night. Beatty scurries around the catwalks above in the dark, as Parallax men, masquerading as security, have conversations we can’t hear. In the brightly lit hall below, a brass band plays and the next victim practices his speech. “Pakula brings us back to the beginning again with the band,” notes Forster. “He creates an upstairs and downstairs with the light. Look—the politician drives in and the door closes on us, cutting us off from the outside world. The tension is tremendous, and up top Beatty is silhouetted again.”
Forster leans forward, bracing himself for what he knows is coming. The politician is hit with a gunshot as he’s driving his golf cart away, and swerves through the red, white and blue banquet tables in a great wide-angle shot from above. “The American colors,” he says. “It’s so sad. And then he cuts to the murder weapon, a rifle on the catwalk, with Beatty up there with it; he’s been set up perfectly by Parallax. Wide shots like this are so effective. They’re really designed for the cinema, not for how we’re watching it.”
Beatty runs for the light beyond an open door, but he is shot by a shadowy figure that appears out of nowhere to block his escape. The gunshot is still echoing through the hall as Pakula cuts to the same committee we saw earlier, proclaiming again there was no conspiracy in the assassination of the candidate, concluding that Beatty is to blame. This time the camera dollies back and into the darkness and the committee members disappear into thin air, leaving only empty chairs.
“How it’s composed as a bookend is really powerful,” exhales Forster, releasing the tension. “The power of government and the shadow world. We didn’t know what was happening, and we still don’t know. Pakula hasn’t really revealed anything through the plot, so we still don’t know what this organization is about behind the closed doors. Our hero never gets to the open door where the light is. It’s daring that the film doesn’t satisfy you completely. The way Pakula shot it keeps you in the darkness, which is the theme of the movie: we never really see what’s happening.”