It wasn’t apparent at the time — it seemed merely to be a depressing new normal — but in retrospect, the era from 1963 to 1981 was the age of assassination in American political history. In just over 17 years, two presidents were shot, one fatally. Another narrowly avoided being shot at close range, and two major presidential candidates were shot, one fatally, not to mention the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Imagine an equivalent array of political shootings happening between 2002 and 2020 and you’re imagining a country with its nerves in a blender.
Only one film that I’m aware of really captured the feel of those beleaguered years, and it does so with breathtaking and unnerving skill. “Some nut,” says Warren Beatty in The Parallax View, “was always knocking off one of the best men in the country.” How did this keep happening? What if there was connective tissue that explained the age of assassination?
A flop at the time, director Alan J. Pakula’s creepy, unsettling conspiracy thriller (available on Amazon Prime, HBO Max, and several other streaming services) was overshadowed by three other films from the era that are far better remembered. Chinatown (released the following week in June of 1974 — summer movies were different then, eh?), a pastiche of Bogart detective movies livened up with lurid R-rated details, was the acclaimed noir thriller of the year. Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) approached the politics of the era satirically, and Pakula’s followup, All the President’s Men (1976), delivered a message that finally liberal good guys were right about a conspiracy theory, but they could uncover it and obtain punishment. Those three films combined for 24 Oscar nominations, which is 24 more than The Parallax View got. Yet it’s superior to all of them.
Unlike Chinatown, whose nudge-nudge channeling of pre-war shamus stories like The Maltese Falcon flattered the sorts of film buffs who are fascinated by movies about other movies, The Parallax View (written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Giler, from a novel by Loren Singer) is an original that lives completely in its chilling, baffling, conspiracy-minded moment, opening with a political assassination that evokes both Kennedy assassinations and the Warren Report, which declared only Lee Harvey Oswald responsible for John F. Kennedy’s murder. (Younger readers may not be aware of this, but for years liberals chided that report as a contemptible coverup of an obvious conspiracy. Woody Allen used to do a joke about reading “a nonfiction version of the Warren Report.” A penchant for conspiracy theorizing knows no party.)
Warren Beatty plays Joe, an investigative reporter who serves as the era’s version of a private eye, adopting fake personas and getting in a barroom brawl with a cop who calls him a girl for having shaggy hair. He is present for the murder of a politician in Seattle’s Space Needle and at first dismisses his hysterical ex-girlfriend’s claim that people who were present at the murder are being systematically eliminated in fake accidents. This element weakens the movie with its implausibility; the conspirators seem likely to attract far more attention for this elaborate, murderous cover-up than for the initial crime, which came off beautifully for them. A panel of mandarins has declared that one lone assassin, who conveniently was killed on the spot, carried out the killing. The audience knows something no one in the film has grasped: that there was a second assassin, who escaped the scene.
As Joe finds himself a target, he discovers a shadowy outfit called the Parallax Corporation that distributes a questionnaire designed to locate and encourage damaged men with psychotic tendencies whose energies might be steered to murdering on demand. Joe pretends to be a potential assassin and awaits recruitment. This leads to a sequence that should be as renowned as the brainwashing film in A Clockwork Orange: a nightmare reel that is meant to assess Joe’s sympathies to its demon vision. For the audience it’s a harrowing silent movie that summarizes everything dark and disturbing about the American soul, a twisted newsreel from hell, a cry from the throats of diseased and feverish souls like Lee Harvey Oswald’s that is far more disturbing than anything in Chinatown’s horizon of corruption. Pakula follows up this knockout sequence with another superbly crafted scene, in which Joe, without saying a word, discovers and attempts to foil an airline bombing. For 17 breathless minutes in the middle of the film, Joe essentially says nothing as Pakula keeps dialing up the tension.
Today the airplane scene carries information that wasn’t apparent in the Seventies: that America’s assassination problem was really just a security problem, which in turn was a naïveté problem. Joe dashes onto a plane the way you’d catch a bus, without even giving his name, then pays for his ticket in cash while aboard. A bag is on the plane that has not gone through a security screening and was dumped by a passenger who never boarded the plane. The defining noir mood of all-polluting evil is far more devastating in The Parallax View than in Chinatown because its shadowy forces control the historical narrative instead of just fattening their wallets in a municipal water deal. Parallax is taut and lean, and it’s pure cold dread, lacking anything as campy as Faye Dunaway’s unintentionally comical “She’s my sister and my daughter” shriek. The two consecutive set pieces in the middle of the movie, the dizzying fight on the roof of the Space Needle, the twinned Warren Commission parodies, and Joe’s dash for an illuminated doorway are all superbly realized, some of the most haunting images of Seventies cinema.
Such is the mastery of Pakula, and his cinematographer Gordon Willis, that even a scene of Beatty’s Joe on the move outside a skyscraper drips with unease. The building — 600 South Commonwealth Avenue in Los Angeles — is one of those featureless glass boxes that had recently come to define office districts in cities across the country. Its flat, unreadable surface is a visual analogue to the theme of the movie: anonymous corporate power behind unreadable facades plotting unanswerable schemes. “Parallax” is a marvelously apt word for the age of paranoid cinema, suggesting that if only you could shift your perspective from what’s been fed to all of us, you could prove the official story of everything was a lie. But Parallax Corp. will come after you if you try.