Pakula’s ‘Parallax’ was finely crafted 1970s thriller

Brian Mackey

Alan J. Pakula was a master visual storyteller, doing more with one well-composed shot than many filmmakers can do with 10 pages of dialogue.

“The Parallax View” (1974) is a testament to his craft and that of cinematographer Gordon Willis. Minutes pass without a major character speaking and without a single cut, but the story never drops a beat.

If that sounds boring, it’s not. The grim quiet only heightens the tension in this complicated political thriller about the cover-up following the assassination of a U.S. senator.

Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, a newspaper reporter who fails to gain admission to the fundraiser where the senator would be killed.

Three years later, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a TV reporter nearby when the senator was shot, turns to Frady for help. Six people who were present at the assassination have died in accidents — killed, she says — and she’s convinced she’s next.

“The Parallax View” came out in an era of paranoia. June 1974 was two months before President Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandals, and the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. still were relatively fresh in the minds of Americans.

“Every time you turned around, some nut was knocking off one of the best men in the country,” Frady tells Carter, trying to explain away her paranoia.

Soon Frady is drawn into investigating the deaths.

Pay special attention to the scene in which Frady returns to the sheriff’s house to rifle through his papers. With a technique from Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook, the camera hangs back, giving the impression that Frady is being watched. The sequence with the ringing phone is a masterstroke of timing.

It’s in that scene that Frady stumbles upon the mysterious Parallax Corp.

The word “parallax” refers to the illusion that an object has moved because of a change in position on the part of the observer. Frady is on the move for much of the movie, so his perception — and ours — is constantly changing. But the Parallax Corp. knows precisely what it’s doing.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that it seems to have nothing to say about the assassins’ motives. Frady’s growing paranoia is justified, but if the Parallax Corp. is behind the assassination and cover-up, it’s not clear why.

The film also is a fascinating document of the early 1970s, a world in which politicians feel free to smoke on the stump and Frady can board an airplane without a ticket, purchasing it en route.

No discussion of “The Parallax View” would be complete without mentioning the film-within-a-film known as the Parallax Test. After infiltrating the company, Frady is shown a montage of images and text set to music. Words like “mother” and “father” are juxtaposed with pictures of families and patriotic photos. Dissonant images are snuck in until the montage is a confusing jumble that leaves the viewer feeling uneasy — presumably the intended reaction.

“The Parallax View” benefits greatly from Willis’ cinematography. A collaborator on many of Pakula’s films, including “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “Presumed Innocent” (1990), Willis also is known for his work on “The Godfather” (1972), “The Godfather: Part II” (1974) and “Manhattan” (1979), among many other films.

For more than a decade, movies like “The Usual Suspects” (1995) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999) have leaned on what film critic Roger Ebert has called the “Keyser Soze syndrome” — “final scenes that redefine the reality of everything that has gone before,” Ebert wrote in his review of “Fight Club” (1999).

“The Parallax View” got there more than 30 years ago, and the twists are no less intriguing.

In the end, “The Parallax View” seems to be most concerned with the elusive nature of truth and how easily it can be manipulated.

History, it has been said, is written by the winners. But in the world of the Parallax Corp., perhaps it’s just written by the few people who survive.

Brian Mackey can be reached at 747-9587 or brian.mackey@sj-r.com.