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“The Parallax View” (1974): A paranoid political thriller

Michael Mollicone

Business Manager

Image via imdb.com

After recently revisiting “The Parallax View,” I realized that the same feeling always resonates with me. Although director Alan J. Pakula mesmerizes in this suspenseful, second chapter of his Paranoia Trilogy, it still remains somewhat rough around the edges. Perhaps I’m overly-critical because I enjoy the film or maybe it’s that I prefer Pakula’s beautiful subtlety with the thriller genre. Either way, while still riveting and entertaining, “The Parallax View” lacks that subtlety that the other Paranoia films possess, proving to be more of a fast paced and active political thriller.


Warren Beatty takes the helm as a sub-par journalist, Joseph Frady. Following the assassination of a presidential candidate on the Seattle Space Needle, witnesses of the incident in-turn start to croak. These mysterious deaths raise Frady’s suspicions, compelling him to investigate the possible conspiracy. Not long after, he discovers the ominous Parallax Corp, whom he suspects is a front for paid assassins. Although the odds are against him, Frady infiltrates Parallax, posing as a mentally frustrated man who has a bone to pick with the world and the potential to be a hitman.


Beatty was truly a star of his day, while surprisingly not having as beefy a filmography as you’d think. He’s surely convincing in this leading role, and provides the character immense justice with his performance. Because Frady is one of the only consistently present characters in the film, Beatty’s skills as an actor hold great weight. Facts are uncovered through his actions and the plot only progresses from his quick decisions. Although facing the monster Parallax Corporation single-handedly, Frady is able to remain brave in the face of danger. He makes risky, radical decisions and charms the audience with sharp wit and dialogue.


Instantly the film hooks you, kicking off in with a bang when you least expect it. Not only is the viewer thrust into suspense right away, but the feelings of paranoia are immediately instilled from the eerie cinematography by Gordon Willis and the patriotic score by Michael Small, reminiscent of something that would play at a military funeral. The first five minutes alone of “The Parallax View” are phenomenally crafted, enough to grip your attention for the remainder of the film.


After the story settles in and Frady starts to investigate the deaths, the film slightly changes tone. Frady’s clues lead him to a rural country town called “Salmontail” which kicks off an action-packed sequence including a bar fight, murder attempt and a car chase with slow-motion stunts. Sure, it's all fun and entertaining enough, however it drastically differs from the ominous paranoid tone that was already established. Personally, I think Pakula does his best work when the action and tension is nuanced and not so outright. Salmontail does offer some great developments and exciting moments with Beatty in the end thankfully.


Post-Salmontail, the film somewhat snaps back to how it started, growing darker and much more mysterious as revelations start to unfold. By far the greatest content within “The Parallax View” comes when Frady infiltrates the Parallax Corp and undergoes a screening process by the shady company officials.


Clearly, Parallax is up to no good, and as the audience we know this. But, in order to grow a criminal enterprise like Parallax, they can’t simply grab people off the street and hire them. A series of questions and video material is used to test the inner aggression of their potential employees, determining whether they’re really hitman material. An incredible sequence is filmed in which Frady watches one of these sensory videos. It results in a display of flashing images, both disturbing and hypnotizing, blurring and warping lines between politics, family and turbulent parts of American culture. If you’re reading about “The Parallax View” you will most likely read about the unsettling nature of this incredible scene.


In the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, Americans began to feel uneasy about their government, giving birth to political conspiracy thrillers like “The Parallax View.” The most terrifying aspect of the film is that by the ending, we really know just as little about Parallax Corp as when we began. The finale is handled with the same powerful kick as the start. Mystery and ambiguity remain as the climax wraps itself with a neat little bow. Overall, Pakula fully embraces the thriller genre in “The Parallax View” in a way that wasn’t as flushed out in his previous paranoia film, “Klute” (1971).


However, although being more of a thriller than “Klute,” I feel that the film would’ve been more successful had its tension remained nuanced, and some cheesy action been removed. Regardless, I strongly recommend this gripping piece of cinema, however, you won’t see me going into politics anytime soon.

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