The Paranoid Style in Cinema: The Parallax View (1974, Alan J. Pakula)

The early ’70s offered one explosion after another. Investigative reporters released world-historical bombshells: Seymour Hersh’s reporting on the My Lai Massacre; Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times; Jack Anderson exposing Richard Nixon’s relationship with ITT. Most famously, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post played a major role in exposing Watergate while most newspapers dismissed it as a “third-rate burglary.” Once slightly disreputable, journalists now became unlikely heroes, bold truth-tellers capable of toppling governments.

The reporters relished the attention; Bob Woodward had already befriended Robert Redford, who wanted to adapt All the President’s Men into a film. But the journalistic establishment – publishers, editors and news directors – worried about pressing too far. Katharine Graham worried that “people do think we are unfair and too powerful,” while Ben Bradlee felt that the deference paid to previous presidents (he’d counted John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as friends) would make an attack on Nixon seem unfairly partisan. They also feared that probing too deeply would expose problems far deeper than one president’s crimes.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Of course, the Nixon Administration’s anti-media attitude – from Spiro Agnew’s imprecations against television’s “small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts,” to threats of revoking the FCC licenses of insufficiently deferential media outlets, to the variety of reporters on the Enemies List – was hardly a secret. Journalists faced surveillance, lawsuits, gag orders, lost employment, jailtime, even worse. Jack Anderson, the notorious Washington muckraker, was slotted for assassination by Gordon Liddy over his columns on ITT. Seymour Hersh, while researching the CIA’s domestic intelligence programs, endured long-term harassment from the Agency, who believed, without evidence, that Hersh was a Soviet spy.

Daniel Schorr, whose pugnacious reporting for CBS earned him the ire of Johnson, Nixon and his producers, summarized the fear such investigations stirred. “You peel off Watergate and you find the Plumbers and the Ellsberg break-in. Peel off the Plumbers and you find the 1970 Huston plan to use the CIA and FBI for domestic surveillance, wiretapping and break-ins. But,” he wondered, “what would you find if you peeled off another layer and had a close look at that secret world from which these things had been launched?” Indeed, America’s intelligence community, long treated with awe and deference, seemed capable of crimes the woolliest hippie wouldn’t have dreamed.

The FBI, once the hero of a thousand movies, TV shows and comic books (many overseen by J. Edgar Hoover himself), was badly shaken in 1971. That year, several radicals broke into a Media, Pennsylvania field office and discovered its COINTELPRO operations against Civil Rights and antiwar leaders. (The perpetrators were never arrested, their identities remaining secret until 2014.) Then came Hoover’s death in 1972, followed by the discovery of his “confidential files” on politicians, movie stars, reporters, activists and anyone worthy of blackmail. Then Hoover’s successor, L. Patrick Gray, connived in Watergate by destroying evidence and tampering with grand jury witnesses.

L. Patrick Gray
L. Patrick Gray

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, angry that Nixon and Henry Kissinger exempted them from foreign policy, used military intelligence to spy on Nixon’s White House staff, occasionally feeding information to reporters (notably Jack Anderson, whose Pulitzer-winning columns on Nixon’s tilt during the 1971 India-Pakistan War employed their leaks). Known to Washington insiders, this bombshell didn’t become public until the 1976 memoirs of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. Few Americans even knew about the National Security Agency, with its wide-ranging surveillance programs; Beltway wags quipped that its initials stood for “No Such Agency.”

Most suspicion settled on the Central Intelligence Agency, whose functions were little-understood by Americans. The public associated spies more with the glamorous escapism of James Bond than the CIA’s real activities, whether mundane (intelligence gathering and analysis) or illegal (domestic surveillance, unethical experiments, assassinations and coups against foreign leaders). Still, through the ’60s and ’70s, chinks appeared in its armor. Among them a 1967 Ramparts expose of Agency infiltration of university student groups; Seymour Hersh’s probe into Pinochet’s coup in Chile; the involvement of CIA veterans in Nixon’s Plumbers.

The CIA, like all of Washington, was rocked by Watergate. Richard Helms refused Nixon’s orders to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the break-in. Nixon, in turn, replaced him with James Schlesinger. During his eight months as Director, Schlesinger became loathed for his mass firings of veteran analysts; he received regular death threats and hired bodyguards during his trips to Langley. He also ordered the creation of a massive file documenting agency abuses, dubbed the “Family Jewels.” Still secret in 1974, as reporters and Congress scrutinized the CIA more closely, the Jewels became a loaded gun aimed at the Agency’s head.

James Schlesinger

Conspiracy theorists expand this to claim that intelligence agencies constitute a “secret government” or “deep state,” operating without oversight or accountability. This has shades of truth; it doesn’t take a paranoiac to see in Hoover’s fifty year rule at the FBI, or Admiral Radford’s mutiny against Nixon, troubling patterns of lawlessness. All intelligence agencies benefited from Congress habitually rubber-stamping national security budgets without scrutinizing their contents (“Just go ahead and do it,” John Stennis once told Schlesinger during a briefing on covert operations. “But I don’t want to know!”). But, as with most conspiracy theories, it’s both reductive and misleading about how the intelligence community operates.

Among other problems, the infighting between the FBI, CIA and NSA, each jealous of their prerogatives and power, made a cohesive “secret government” impossible. J. Edgar Hoover, with his deep loathing towards the CIA, was less likely to ally with Allen Dulles or Dick Helms than with Yuri Andropov. Certainly, the lack of inter-agency cooperation contributed to intelligence failures, from the Korean War through 9/11. And the “rogue elephant” theory conveniently dismisses presidential responsibility. This proved especially convenient for ’70s liberals hoping to downplay Kennedy and Johnson’s complicity in FBI wiretaps and CIA skullduggery.

Still, intelligence abuses were real (and frightening) enough, whether ordered by a President or an agency director. For now, these fears stewed under the surface as the nation fixated on Richard Nixon. Howard Baker, who suspected that the CIA played a broader role in Watergate than they admitted, commented that “there are animals crashing around in the forest. I can hear them, but I can’t see them.” It remained for Hollywood to bring these crashing animals to light.

Pakula Beatty
Alan J. Pakula and Warren Beatty

For years, Alan J. Pakula worked as a producer, collaborating with Robert Mulligan and Gregory Peck on To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Stalking Moon (1968). In 1971 he directed his second film, Klute, a thriller featuring Jane Fonda as a New York prostitute stalked by a serial killer. Here, Pakula established his moody, absorbing aesthetic: deep-shadow photography, menacingly off-kilter music, corporate corruption contrasted with commonplace crime, an obsession with tapes, telephones and snooping. But Klute works better as a study of Fonda’s Brie (she won Best Actress) than its thin whodunnit plot.

Feeling “a kind of despair and fear about our society,” Pakula wanted to make a movie reflecting his own disillusionment with his country. “We live in a Kafka-like world where you never find the evil,” he commented. “It permeates the society…a world of secrets, a world in which we can’t even find out who is trying to destroy society.” His thesis found a match in Loren Singer’s The Parallax View, published four years earlier to commercial success but no great acclaim…but whose paranoia seemed more relevant than ever.

Singer’s novel uses the “suspicious deaths” meme from JFK lore as its plot hook. Several journalists who saw a political assassination discover that several witnesses have since died mysteriously. They uncover the Parallax Corporation, which hires assassins for nefarious purposes, and seek to infiltrate it. Singer employs three reporter-protagonists rather than a solitary hero, with a plot broken up by discursive dialogue and action scenes. While deeply cynical, the novel ends optimistically, with the surviving reporters vowing to expose Parallax.

Pakula Willis
Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis

The script passed through various hands (Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Giler, with Robert Towne providing uncredited revisions), paring down Singer’s novel to a stark, expressionist tale. While early drafts strayed further from the source material (the protagonist was originally a policeman, the assassination victim killed in a JFK-style motorcade), the final changes are more elemental than mere plot points. Instead of Singer’s ensemble, the movie’s hero is Joe Frady, a slick small-town journalist who dreams of becoming the next Carl Bernstein. And in place of the book’s rambling exposition is a sparseness more redolent of European auteur cinema.

This attracted Warren Beatty, who already knew Pakula and wanted to tackle a socially significant movie. Like the stars of Executive Action, he’d been friendly with the Kennedys and felt a personal connection to their deaths; he told a reporter that Parallax was “an important subject and a film I respect.” And Beatty became increasingly active in politics: along with his sister Shirley Maclaine, he campaigned for George McGovern in 1972, temporarily putting his career on hold. While filming Parallax, he disclosed that he was weighing whether to run for Governor of California the following year. Asked whether this affected the movie, Beatty replied that “every film has some politics in it…whether you’re aware of it or not.”

Although filmed under what Pakula termed “hair-raising conditions” (Beatty argued at length with Pakula and the screenwriters about his character, Paramount rushed the shooting schedule, a writer’s strike forced last second rewrites of key scenes), Parallax wrapped in the summer of 1973, though it wasn’t released for another year. Pakula’s hope that “the audience will trust the person sitting next to them a little less” proved perhaps too prescient. Viewers who’d enjoyed Klute, or were fans of Beatty, expected a stylish but conventional thriller. Instead, they received one of the bleakest, most opaque films ever released by Hollywood. Parallax Needle

Parallax opens with deceptively reassuring images of Americana: a shot of an Indian totem pole contrasted with Seattle’s Space Needle, then a kitschy Fourth of July parade featuring presidential candidate Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce). Television newswoman Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) gushes over Carroll as “the ideal father if you’re young enough, the ideal husband if you’re old enough, and…the ideal leader of our country if you’re any age.” For now, the old dream that an idealistic politician could cure America’s woes remains very much alive.

While Carroll’s aide Austin Tucker (William Daniels) schmoozes the journalists outside, Carroll begins a speech atop the Needle, proclaiming his fondness for Independence Day, as he’s “too independent for my own good.” Two shots ring out; blood splatters the window glass; pandemonium reigns. Security guards chase a gunman (Chuck Waters) outside, grappling with him until he falls to his death. Meanwhile, a second assassin (Bill McKinney), disguised as a waiter, slips away undetected. Staged to recall Bobby Kennedy’s death, the opening connects the movie’s inscrutable menace with an all-too-familiar nightmare.

We cut to a Warren Commission-style investigative panel pronouncing that a lone gunman killed Carroll. Filmed by cinematographer Gordon Willis in a slow rack focus, back lit in doom-laden shadow, the scene follows the chairman’s stone-faced pronouncements until the frame freezes and credits roll, dialogue giving way to Michael Small’s unsettling score. It’s one of the great openings in ’70s Hollywood, capturing conspiracy culture in a few stark images: a chaotic, inscrutable murder followed by an official explanation that, however unsatisfying, brooks no dissent.

Parallax Panel

Three years later, Lee Carter approaches Joe Frady (Beatty) with her suspicions, noting that six witnesses to Carroll’s death have been murdered. Soon she, too, dies in a car accident, with the suspicious circumstances and the callousness of the coroner (“Some people just want to die”) stoking Frady’s suspicions. He’s soon on the trail of a conspiracy he can only ever guess at, but whose tentacles appear to be everywhere. All traces back to the Parallax Corporation; as in Singer’s novel, its agenda, powers and influence are murky, but its goal (to recruit potential assassins) becomes clear. Frady accepts a recruitment offer, determining to take Parallax down – if he’s not taken down first.

The Parallax View‘s strengths echo the opening scenes. Pakula and Willis continue to play on aesthetic irony, with evil deeds and whispered plots taking place in banal settings. Frady confers with an informant (Kenneth Mars) on a tourist tram full of children; Parallax’s headquarters resides in an unremarkable corporate campus. A long, tense scene plays on an airplane with a bomb on board, with no dialogue beyond background wallah of passengers and flight attendants as Frady puzzles out how to act. The frisson of unease, of terror beneath the everyday, remains palpable through most of its run time.

The most remarked-upon sequence makes this explicit. As part of Frady’s “training,” he watches a bizarre video montage. It starts with banal, homey photographs representing “Mother,” “Father,” “Home,” “Country,” “Me,” etc. Slowly, the images grow more disconcerting: poor children and juvenile delinquents, a distrustful Okie, hippie orgies, blacks in prison, police menacing protesters, Jack Kirby’s Thor and Man-Beast. Then they become horrifying: lynchings, Klan rallies, wartime atrocities, a woman screaming. As the music grows more frantic, and John W. Wheeler’s cutting more frequent, the images blur: John F. Kennedy blends with Hitler, Klansmen with Martin Luther King; a portrait of George Washington appears behind a Bundist; a gun fires into an image of children.  Parallax View

These scenes create a visceral power, a sense that something is deeply wrong, that festers throughout the movie. That American culture and society, more than fictional corporations, breeds violence, hatred and distrust (“As American as Apple Pie,” reads the tagline); that idealism and reaction are natural counterparts; that “rugged individualism” breeds destructive narcissism; that the System creates, and exploits discontent for its own ends. It’s not a satisfying explanation, but more fulfilling than the idea that “some nut was always knocking off one of the best men in the country” without a greater plan.

Pakula envisions Parallax as a psycho factory, recruiting loners, losers and disaffecteds with a deceptively banal ad reminiscent of a self-help group. A questionnaire looks for triggers (Sample question: “My friends always double-cross me”) for potential Lee Harvey Oswalds. Recruits are provided only vague hints, conveyed by a deceptively friendly Parallax executive (Walter McGinn) who promises Frady a chance to make something of himself. Unfortunately, Frady copies the lone gunman playbook to the letter: he hides his investigation from all but his editor (Hume Cronyn), adopts false names and becomes an accessory to multiple deaths. It’s only a matter of time until Parallax springs the trap.

As a New Hollywood auteur, Pakula experiments with alienation devices that put Antonioni and Resnais to shame. But as a commercial filmmaker, he feels obligated to placate audience expectations. He casts Beatty, slightly past his heartthrob phase but still handsome and charismatic, a mature-but-hip hero with a trendy haircut, a fondness for the ladies and a preternatural knack for being in the right place at the wrong time. He intersperses eerie mood scenes with conventional action and thriller elements that jar, badly, in a fashion that doesn’t seem intentional. Charitably, the “hair-raising conditions” Pakula cited, including the script rewrites, prevented a cohesive final product. Less charitably, Parallax View is often a mess.

Parallax Beatty

This is best-evidenced in a long sequence where Frady arrives in the town of Salmontail to investigate the death of a prominent witness. After brawling with a surly deputy (Earl Hindman) and befriending the local Sheriff (Kelly Thorsden), Frady uncovers the first hints of Parallax’s existence. Unfortunately, the Sheriff is part of the conspiracy; he tries to murder Frady, only to meet his own grisly end. This culminates in a calamitous car chase, scored to spirited chase music more befitting The Dukes of Hazzard. This jarring, nearly-pointless scene seems imported from another movie, dissipating the tension for audience-friendly action scenes.

Then again, Parallax relishes in both jarring and frustrating its viewers. Leads and story threads dry up before they’re satisfactorily resolved. Seemingly important characters (Prentiss’s reporter, William Daniels’ shifty aide) die before they’re properly introduced. Several key scenes, upon reflection, don’t make much sense. The airplane scene, tense as it is, unravels later when we realize that the apparent target, another Senator, is the conservative rival of a later victim. Is Parallax in the business of killing politicians purely for the hell of it? Is their agenda less establishment than SPECTRE-like, merely sewing chaos? Or maybe the whole thing’s a test designed to examine Frady’s bona fides?

Certainly Parallax plays coy with its politics, employing real-world imagery without exploring actual issues. We assume that the politicians targeted are Kennedy-esque liberals, too pure for our reactionary world. But this is never clear; ideology isn’t discussed, nor the “independent” policies that Carroll stands for explained. For that reason, it’s hard to know what Parallax gains from all this. Frady doubts that the CIA or other agencies even know that Parallax exists; apparently, they’re doing this on their own. In one sense, it’s extremely frustrating that we don’t what’s going on. But, in the movie’s universe, does it matter?

Parallax End

Regardless, Parallax moves towards a remarkably bleak endgame. Frady learns that Parallax plans to assassinate another Senator (Jim Davis) and tries to stop it. He winds up in an auditorium where the Senator and a local band practice for a rally. Here, Willis’s wide-angle photography achieves its jarring apex: as Frady prowls in the shadowy catwalk, searching for the assassins, Pakula cuts repeatedly to the band, to a cheerleading section holding placards decorated with presidential imagery, to banquet tables adorned in red, white and blue. Willis’s widest shots even show Frady in the top of the frame as the rehearsal plays below.

Tension builds until Frady discovers a rifle laying at his feet; a door slams shut behind him. A shot rings out; the Senator, driving a cart, slumps over, absently driving into a table as a tape recorder plays his speech. Someone below spots Frady, who runs for an open exit…only to meet the business end of a Parallax shotgun. Cut to another investigative panel, proclaiming Frady the sole assassin, dismissing conspiracy theories as irresponsible. Roll credits.

Parallax Frady

Released as Congress debated Nixon’s impeachment, The Parallax View received an unenthusiastic welcome. Critical reviews ranged from polite (“a partially-successful attempt to take a serious subject…and make it commercially palatable.” – Variety) to dismissive (“The moviemakers have…treated their central idea so soberly that they sabotage credulity.” – Vincent Canby) to scathing (“Ugly and dramatically unsatisfying.” – Richard Schickel). Audiences simply didn’t watch; despite heavy promotion and Beatty’s star power, Parallax became a box-office disappointment.

Perhaps Pakula’s pessimism and style alienated moviegoers; perhaps viewers felt overwhelmed by both real world conspiracies and those populating the screen (The Conversation, Chinatown and The Trial of Billy Jack all came out within a few months of Parallax). When Pakula revisited the genre a few years later, he turned to safer ground. Rather than invent a journalist-hero, he’d enlist two real ones: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Rather than a shaggy dog tale, it concluded with the downfall of a president. Where Parallax proved a flop, All the President’s Men (1976) became a blockbuster.

Regardless, The Parallax View endures as a synecdoche of ’70s anxieties. Whatever its shortcomings, no film of its era is quite so pure in its fever-dream distrust of society, government and “the person sitting next to you.” It offers few explanations, no catharsis and little hope that things can change. And it foreshadowed, in its singular way, more astonishing real-world revelations to come.