‘Parallax View:’ Paranoid as ‘American as apple pie’ 35 Years Later

Retrospective by Henry B. Rosenbush
Updated and expanded; May 10, 2009

Spoiler Alert: analysis requires divulgence of crucial plot developments.

The Parallax View (1974) Directed by Alan J. Pakula from a screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer; cinematographer, Gordon Willis; composer, Michael Small; editor, John H. Wheeler; and production designer, George Jenkins. Rated R for Violence, Profanity and Adult Themes including disturbing imagery. Running Time: 1:42. Originally seen at The Bama Theater.

Still available on Paramount Pictures 1999 DVD release in a no frills (only extra is the superb original theatrical trailer) Widescreen (enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs) Dolby Digital version with French subtitles. Some DVD players will playback English subtitles while others may not. There is an optional French audio playback but the accompanying French subs are not always reliable translations into English. This film would have benefitted immensely from a commentary, but with the exception of actor Warren Beatty, the principal crew are all deceased; director, cinematographer, composer.

Warren Beatty: Joe Frady
Hume Cronyn: Editor Edgar Rintels
William Daniels: Austin Tucker
Paula Prentiss: Lee Carter
Bill McKinney:Art, an assassin

One-Sheet Tagline: Picture of Warren Beatty in a high powered rifle bullet reflection: “As American as apple pie”

There are many definitions to paranoia but there is a tendency to coalesce perceived irrational behavior with mental illness. In the thriller genre it can accentuate a realistic portrayal of suspiciousness or mistrust of individuals or groups, sans psychological problems. The Parallax View film is entirely different than The Parallax View novel, written and published in 1970 by Loren Singer. Character names are different, there is a romantic subplot missing in the filmization and the climax and ending completely unlike the tome. In fairness, romantic subplots often slow a film or take it in directions to the detriment of the main theme. Pakula avoids most genre extraneous subplots but there are a few scenes worth discussing later that could perhaps been edited out or trimmed.

Although not a documentary-style film there is an undeniable, tangible and disturbing realism. Within the usual parameters of movie authenticity there is enough valid subtext to consider afterwards that will leave the viewer with a sensation of horripilation. If you don’t have gooseflesh after PV then you probably don’t subscribe to governmental malevolence at the highest levels. For 1974, it was a dark film that had difficulty finding an audience. When I saw it theatrically, I was the only patron in the cavernous Bama Theater. (I will later recount how being the lone audience on this particular Friday afternoon matinee added a level of movie experience that has never been duplicated.)

Within the first 10 seconds we are drawn to a low angle shot of the Seattle Space Needle; the narrative begins straightforward with KOMO Channel 4 journalist Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) reporting that political candidate Senator Charles Carroll (Bill Joyce) is celebrating Independence Day and espousing that the senator is “…so independent that some say they don’t know which party he belongs to.” She then interviews the politician’s political advisor Austin Tucker (William Daniels) who tosses aside any assertion that Senator Carroll may want the nomination. While it appears to just be a re-election affair there is the seed of possibility this senator is being groomed as a presidential hopeful. Soon enough the senator and his wife arrive in a parade and in a brief exchange with Lee thanks his constituency for their support.

Senator Carroll enters the ground level elevator of the Space Needle surrounded by well wishers and black sunglasses-wearing escorts. We are briefly introduced to Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) as he tries to follow but is turned away when Lee claims they are not together. It is obvious she knows him but Frady is left behind as everyone follows the entourage to the restaurant.

During the reception we see a fleeting glimpse of a waiter, portrayed by Bill McKinney who is easily remembered as the backwoodsman who anally rapes Bobby (Ned Beatty) in John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). McKinney, with his rough complexion often played menacing characters especially in a number of Clint Eastwood films: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Gauntlet and the Every Which Way films, to name a few). At least in Bronco Billy he was a likeable, if one handed, supporting cast member.

While the main action surrounds Senator Carroll we see a busboy (Chuck Waters) hand a tray of drinks to McKinney, who is credited as Art, an assassin, and walk off camera. Senator Carroll is inside the restaurant while Lee and Austin are outside watching him from behind a sheet of glass. With his back facing Lee, Senator Carroll begins to thank the group for inviting him to Independence Day and as he says it is a day “…very meaningful to me because sometimes I have been called to independent for my own good” he is shot twice presumably by the busboy who is holding a pistol. In the mêlée, as horrified onlookers attempt to subdue him, we also see Art cautiously holstering a gun inside his red jacket and he calmly leaves. Quick viewers will see smoke near the barrel of the busboy’s gun so there is little question as to who shot the senator.

The busboy makes a grave movie error; he runs onto the top of the Needle where a brief skirmish with Secret Service men ensues culminating with them “allowing” the busboy to fall to his death. We see Art at street level with the Needle looming in the background smiling sardonically after he has made a surreptitious getaway.

What adds immediate subtext to the elements of paranoia and as to whether or not the assassination is conspiracy or red herring is the announcement by a seven man unnamed governmental assemblage that

“…after nearly four months of investigation followed by nine weeks of hearings it is the conclusion of this committee that Senator Carroll was assassinated by Charles Richard Linden. It is our further conclusion that he acted entirely alone, motivated by a misguided sense of patriotism and a psychotic desire for public recognition…there is no evidence of a wider conspiracy, no evidence whatsoever.”

In a great swipe at the media, that still holds resonance today, the committee chastises the press: “It is our hope this will put to an end the kind of irresponsible and exploitive speculation conducted by the press in recent months…”

Michael Small has composed a varied soundtrack that is equal parts haunting and mysterious and when needed, patriotic or humorous. The late composer was also responsible for Pakula’s Klute (1971) which was the first of the director’s “Paranoia Trilogy” which ended with “All the President’s Men,” with Parallax fitting nicely in the center.

During this opening scene the music never swells above the significant, albeit uncomplicated dialogue, being presented; while seemingly innocuous it is prescient to the overall plot and especially the film’s intentionally repetitive and subdued coda.

The filmmaker establishes the serious tone while cinematographer Gordon Willis makes great photographic use of production designer George Jenkins’ minimalist committee chamber. Jenkins has a basic set up with the seven men sitting at a U.S. Supreme Court-style bench, except Willis uses available light from two sources only illuminating the wall behind the group and the actors. To that end, the eerie utilization of total blackness enveloping the room gives omnipotence to these proceedings. Since the audience already knows that at least two people were involved in the Carroll assassination this committee’s assumption brings memories of the real life Warren Commission’s report on JFK’s lone-killer-no-conspiracy theory.

Willis uses this 2 minute 9 second scene, with a dolly shot emphasizing a sensation of unseen depth as it begins at the rear of the room and slow tracks forwards, center screen. By the end of this shot the camera will be directly on the committee chairman, capturing his self-satisfied expression as he sits in judgment directly behind a large American eagle perched above a seal of the Scales of Justice.

While many movies of the Seventies included complete credits at the beginning and a character/cast scroll at the end PV included the briefest of opening credits so as to not slow down the significance of the pre-credit action.

We are immediately “Three Years Later” and are further introduced to Frady; Beatty’s performance is played straight with all the foibles of a small time guy looking for the big story. Frady persuades a couple to let him into their home under the facade that he has lost a parrot. Seconds later, while he stands on outside the home on a terrace, undercover narcotic officers arrive to arrest the couple on suspected drug charges. The next scene introduces Frady’s editor, Edgar Rintels (the always reliable Hume Cronyn), as the reporter harasses the undercover cops about trying to get “my sources” before being bailed out for his intrusion into the drug bust.

Back in the newsroom, of an unspecified northwest newspaper, we get information about the self-possessed reporter and bits of information that Frady is a recovering alcoholic and that his series on local drug problems is over. “We’re in the business of reporting the news, not creating it,” decries Rintels. Frady has apparently worked for Rintels before having been in trouble six years earlier.

He was rehired under the condition he stop drinking, which he has, and to “curb your talent for creative irresponsibility,” which clearly he has not.

The newspaper is another nice reproduction with the newsroom and offices conveying the proper feel of many small town 1970s newspapers and scenes devoted to Joe’s apartment and later another dingy low rent residence, the Parallax Corporation’s headquarters and the climactic scene in a massive convention center each add to the story’s verisimilitude. As the second of the director’s paranoia thriller, Jenkins was involved in the other two, Klute, as Art Director, and one his lone Oscar in 1976 for Best Art Direction for All the President’s Men.

In the book there are unexplained deaths and even attempts at preventing more and much like the John F. Kennedy assassination, for which this film more than a little borrows, witnesses to the crime begin dying under suspicious circumstances. Enter Lee, who has become unhinged due to six deaths, all witnesses to the assassination. Prentiss, who was an accomplished actress is barely in long enough to fail at soliciting support or empathy from Joe, with whom she once at an affair. Her next scene is on a slab in the morgue and we hear the coroner tell Frady that she overdosed on barbiturates and alcohol at the wheel of a car.

Lee’s only thematic purpose was to further the plot and give Frady the newspaper clipping about a drowning in Salmontail and impart that Austin Tucker believes “we all saw something up there.”

In an amusing but credible single scene, Kenneth Mars (so hilariously over the top in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?, 1972) is an ex-FBI agent who is convinced by Frady to help him establish an alias and the ex-agent replies by urging him to have two in the event the first one is blown. Frady does not explain what he is planning.

Here is where the film begins shifting gears. Frady has until now been callous and disinterested and Lee’s visit only maintains his disbelief in a conspiracy theory. His logic is flawed, of course, but he begins investigating with the recent death, in Salmontail, of Arthur Bridges. While he does not find Tucker he meets Red (Earl Hindman, Mr. Brown in the superior subway thriller, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, 1974) cast as a violent miscreant deputy, who starts a barroom fight with Frady while the Sheriff L.D. (Kelly Thorsden) watches. The fight is actually necessary to promulgate Frady as a short-tempered misfit, similar to Red.

The next scenes support the conspiratorial premise when the sheriff befriends the undercover reporter by taking him fishing at the scene of the drowning, a dam, where he reveals his intention to let Frady drown, too. In a bit of a stretch, Frady who is at gun point and several feet away strikes the sheriff with the fishing pole and both men end up in the water. Frady survives while the sheriff drowns.

The first evidence of Parallax is found in a brief case in the sheriff’s house, but when Red shows up unexpectedly a needless and destructive car chase in two police cruisers allows Frady to conveniently escape with the brief case containing evidence of payoffs and testing materials from Parallax.

He visits the editor and learns there are no warrants for his arrest in Salmontail and Rintel tries to diminish Frady’s story that witnesses are being systematically murdered. There is a throw away yarn about the sheriff and two deputies indicted on utilities fraud and that no one wanted more publicity as the reason the murder was attempted.

At this point in the film the audience must accept Frady’s next decisions which are both audacious and impulsive; he has what he believes are entrance exams to recruit assassins and he wants to go deep undercover to expose Parallax Corporation. This is PV’s deus ex machina, while the reporter thinks he knows more than anyone there is already the sense that Parallax knows all about him.

Nelson (Anthony Zerbe, usually a heavy) has a nice brief bit as a university center for the study of violence researcher, first seen playing computer hockey against a chimpanzee! The tests are finally glimpsed with detailed questionnaires from the Parallax Corporation, Division of Human Engineering Personality Inventory. This inventory predates the 1980s Keirsey Temperament Sorter, albeit darker. The temperament sorter reveals the types of observable personality traits and Parallax is looking for candidates with anger, repression and anti-social characteristics.

Frady wants help answering the test like a real violent person and gets assistance from the most unlikely character;

“Fuck it, we’ll let Ernie take it. He’ll blow them right off the graph. He hacked up his great aunt and killed two ticket takers at the auto show.”

Any observant viewer will realize this unwise decision will propel Joe Frady down a labyrinthine path for which there is no return.

Enter Will Jordon, Tucker’s aide, who provides some subtle 1970s homosexual context as the others’ lover. Tucker believes something sent Frady to look for him and isn’t happy he traveled 1,300 miles after two attempts on his life before he left town. Daniels delivers some key dialogue when he replies:

“Will you stop acting like you’re on the New York Times, for christsakes. You’re a third-rate journalist from Oregon or wherever the hell you’re from.”

Frady refuses $10,000 hush money claiming that “…this story is going to mean more to me than ten thousand dollars” to which Tucker replies: “Fellow, you don’t know what this story means.”

Later, on Tucker’s yacht Frady is shown some pictures from the Space Needle, including one with Art. Moments later in a nice long shot a bomb explodes killing Tucker and his aide while Frady, at the other end of the boat, is thrown into the ocean by the concussion of the blast. In an earlier scene, prior to the trio heading out to sea, we see an unknown man working beneath the yacht while it is out of the water. Perhaps, placing the bomb? It is left intentionally vague.

Frady returns to visit the editor, who informs that the world thinks he is dead, leads Frady to make his second and most crucial error in judgment; only Rintels knows what he is doing. This mistake is exemplified by a death similar to one recounted by the ex-FBI man earlier; a heart attack brought on by a drug, in this case in his food, delivered by, unsurpringly, Art.

Frady from this point on is alone and up against an organization that while always remaining vague in its purpose is clearly connected to recruiting social misfits as pawns to be sacrificed much as many believe JFK’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was.Walter McGinn adds subtle menace to his role as Jack, a rep of PC who visits Frady in a rundown one room apartment. It appears that Ernie’s test scores revealed the kind of characteristics needed for employment through Parallax. The explanation of Parallax, to both Frady and the audience, is that it handles high profile security and hires people who’ve been deemed unemployable.

The film loses at bit of rational thinking here as Frady commits to visit the LA Offices of Parallax (they may be in other cities too) and submit to additional testing. While the testing is not seen on camera what is depicted is PV’s high point; a 5 minute film that combines stock news footage in a slowly evolving and wickedly conceived warping of the Norman Rockwell world.

When I saw the film in the theater, as recounted earlier, I was the only viewer and when Frady sits in a darkened room, once again photographed as minimalist darkness, one feels as if they too are observing this perverse short. With fingers placed intentionally on what is presumably a sensor to record data relating to the experience, we are urged to relax and enjoy it.

Once you see this short you will always remember it as it begins with a humming score that soon become frenetic in its portrayal of images rearranged and designed to discover inner emotions through the subliminal. There are stills of family and country and romance following one word descriptions; Love, Mother, Father, Me and so forth. What makes the film more disturbing is how sex, violence, bigotry, incest, pornography, greed and subversion are entwined with the original images. To this end, suddenly a picture of a mother is followed by sexual imagery that merges oedipal mythology. Kudos go to consultant designer Don Record and De Forest Research who contributed to the Parallax Test, which is seen below in its entirety:

The film shifts gears again, and for some tastes, in a decidedly ridiculous direction. As Frady exits the building he is followed by Art, who for all too obvious reasons leads Frady to the airport where he gets luggage containing a bomb on board. Frady, too, gets on board and is able to alert the crew through a bomb threat written on a napkin. This scene seems forced; when Frady returns to his apartment to find Jack waiting for him with the inquiry: “Who are you?” Jack alludes to how opening the front door is unwise and we know Parallax has kept Frady under surveillance throughout.

The second alias, pegging Frady as a sex offender (flasher), seems to work and he is given an immediate job. Even a casual moviegoer knows that Frady is now just another easily manipulated misfit being framed for the film’s climatic assassination of another politician, George Hammond (Jim Dale, head of the clan in TV’s Dallas.

In a predictable, but implausible turn, the deputy Red shows up and Frady calls his hotel room and pretends to be a Parallax rep and sends the man to Hawaii. It seems Joe Frady wants the story all to himself, but in the end he is the story.

Frady follows Art unto a catwalk and is locked inside where he finds a high powered rifle. After a high school band plays patriotic music, Hammond is shot by an unseen gunman while he is riding in a golf-cart style vehicle. Naturally, Frady is seen and as he runs towards and opened door he is shot gunned to death.

Rather than show the gunshot hitting Frady, we seen the whiteness outside the previously closed door, almost as if it is the tunnel of light many claim to see when they die and are resuscitated. As he runs towards the doorway we see him a darkened figure step into the light and Frady’s image freezes to an edit of the blast. On freeze frame, the killer is not Art, but another of Parallax’s assassins.

The film ends with a return to the beginning; another committee, another chairman detailing a 6-month investigation with 11 weeks of hearings concluding: Joseph Frady was obsessed with the Carroll assassination and “in his confused and distorted mind seems to have imagined Hammond was responsible for the senator’s death.” This subcommittee, as with the first one, misconstrues purposefully or ignorantly that this assassination is another lone gunman and “…there is no conspiracy.”

As with any great film, resolution is not always tidy or fully determined and the coda with another nameless body of bureaucrats deciding what does and does not constitute conspiracies is as chilling today as in 1974. The stratagem is complete with Parallax Corporation succeeding in its dark deeds.

I have always preferred darker more believable endings and knowing Frady could have exposed Parallax Corporation only added to the dreadful prospect of being manipulated so well you were forever be labeled a misfit and political assassin.

In 1999, Jeff Bridges, who also starred in another outrageous 1979 black humor-laced, but seldom seen all-star paranoia thriller, Winter Kills, co starred with real life far leftist Tim Robbins in Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road which uses a similar dramatic arc wherein a group, in this case, home grown terrorists, manipulate a college professor (Bridges) into an Oklahoma City-style bombing climax. The irony in this film is as dark as any pre-9/11 film can muster; Bridges was married to an FBI agent who is killed by right wing terrorists at the outset of the film and his surviving son is taken in by the couple (Robbins and Joan Cusack) after the bombing!

In a future retrospective, I will review both films, which while different in tonality each use paranoia, conspiracy theories and assassination motifs to nefarious ends.

Repeat viewings give the sense that while we do not see a preponderance of surveillance devices we always know Art, or another Parallax employee is scrutinizing Frady’s every move. The fact he escapes death a couple of times does not dissuade him from writing the big story.

As a former journalist who went to the uni during the Watergate Scandal I still remember how the number of students suddenly wanting to major in Journalism soared after The Washington Post reporters broke the story; it was bizarre to watch people suddenly believe they could “break the big story.”

With Watergate Scandal looming over political mistrust and the realization it was unstoppable; PV was, and still is, the perfect paranoid political thriller. Despite the suspension of disbelief as to whether or not anyone could singlehandedly expose Parallax, much less disassemble, such a powerful and organized corporation is a mute point. The earlier suggestion that it could be a clandestine wing of the FBI or CIA is not ludicrous but provocative.

Like Alfred Hitchcock’s repeated use of the MacGuffin, it is a central and important plot device that is in reality nearly forgotten by the film’s end when Frady is framed for the assassination. Much like the downbeat coda of Arlington Road, which ends with Bridges’ character portrayed as an unbalanced man blamed for the bombing, Frady is easily manipulated by his own belief that he is bigger and more clever than the organization which clearly is designed to exploit human weakness.

Another satisfactorily thought out plot device is to never reveal more of Parallax than needed. We only learn what Frady does, as he learns it, and we are not privy, thankfully, to any perceived Draconian board of directors telling shareholders the true purpose of their conglomerate.

While not successful theatrically it deserves re-release. The worldwide stage is far more dangerous than in 1974, although it was not cake walk in Viet Nam or Berlin, either, but PV, like Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) becomes more frighteningly relevant with each passing year.

George Orwell’s classic 1984, was ahead of its time but much has transpired since it was first written. Both theatrical film versions, especially the Michael Radford version released in 1984 with John Hurt and Richard Burton toplining, were slightly behind where the book theorized the world would be.

But only slightly.

The left wing media promotes plenty of intentional sensationalized televised fear while the right wing isn’t much better at a pointing an accusing finger at their leftist counterparts for the state of affairs in America; surveillance is worldwide with few places left where citizens are not under some form of constant recorded scrutiny, whether it be at a traffic light or in a supermarket; government-controled wire-tapping of telephone conversations is no longer a paranoid dream; and between 1% and 5% of the world population is ultra wealthy and controls the other 95% in totality.

Could Parallax Corporation survive today in 2009? For the answer look no further than at how the government bailouts of automotive industry, banking, mortgage lenders, credit card companies and the media’s spin that we are in a recession when unemployment is getting worse and the Great Depression of 1929 is only referenced to instill confusion in average citizens by claiming it isn’t as bad!

Worldwide hunger, race and gender-biased hatred, serial killers, rapists, child molesters, corrupt politicians and powerful lobbyists are rampant. The environment and animals are not faring much better and tomorrow’s leaders are ill-prepared for the daunting task of putting Pandora back in the box.

Parallax has been outsourced to the Middle East and television commericals aren’t too far from the subliminal film viewed by Frady when one realizes advertising still wants men to drink beer and drive pickup trucks while women want to be thin and have cosmetic surgery and all our children are no longer allowed to be losers so they can not appreciate what winning means.

Parallax is alive and well.

2 thoughts on “‘Parallax View:’ Paranoid as ‘American as apple pie’ 35 Years Later

  1. gary matson

    – i very much enjoyed your essay about ‘the parallax view’, a movie i have watched many times — and despite multiple viewings, i still wonder at what point in the story the parallax corp. is on
    to frady —
    – do you know the name of the actor who played ernie? — (i was searching for that info when i found your essay)

    – thanks

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