Conspiracy Thrillers

In the Dark

How director Alan J. Pakula created the mother of all conspiracy movies.

The Parallax View

Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Paramount Pictures.

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Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) is often considered the mother of all conspiracy movies: in the words of one reviewer, it is “not only a film about paranoia, but a deeply paranoid film.” All the President’s Men “represents … my hope,” Pakula remarked, The Parallax View “my fear.” It was being shot as the Senate Watergate hearings were taking place (during breaks, cast and crew members would often watch the proceedings on the TV in Warren Beatty’s trailer), and the daily revelations abetted the movie’s pessimistic immersion.

Parallax opens with a Fourth of July parade in Seattle—Pakula wanted to “start with sunlit Americana, the America we’ve lost”—a sequence that ends atop the Space Needle with the sudden assassination of a youthful senator running for president. Three years later, obscure muckraking reporter Joe Frady (Beatty) is approached by an old friend who tells him that witnesses to the assassination have been mysteriously dying. She is terrified; they were both there on that day, but Frady has problems of his own. (“You want to hear about my day?” he responds impatiently.) She enters and exits through a billowy white curtain—Frady should have known better—as the film cuts immediately to the morgue. It is common in conspiracy movies that the “accidental” death of an alarmist compels the protagonist to take up the cause. This is beautifully communicated in Parallax with the way this scene is framed—the horizontal corpse contrasted with Frady’s upright figure, a scale between them reflecting the empty scales of justice (her death has been ruled a suicide), as well as the weight of his guilt, which is also captured by the heaviness of his head and his hesitation before exiting the frame.

All of this is very different from the book by Loren Singer; the screenplay was written and rewritten so many times that the final version is virtually unrecognizable from the source material. Lorenzo Semple Jr. wrote the first draft; in that incarnation, the victims were all present on the grassy knoll in Dallas the day President Kennedy was assassinated. David Giler did the first rewrite; he also worked on the script with Pakula. Beatty, as he often did, called in Robert Towne for some uncredited polishing, and as shooting approached—and into the production itself—Beatty and Pakula continued to feverishly rewrite, at times working with actor Hume Cronyn. As with Three Days of the Condor, the resulting screenplay transcends the book and again takes a “simple” conspiracy story and adds layer upon interweaving layer of disorienting duplicity. Beatty favored the investigative reporter angle. (His character was originally a baseball player, and then a cop; it was not hard for reviewers to pick up on the affinity between the shaggy-haired Frady and the youthful, unpolished Woodward and Bernstein.) The implicit shift from JFK to a Bobby Kennedy–type figure also reflected the actor’s interests; Beatty was (and remained) a great admirer of RFK and had campaigned for him actively in the Oregon primary.

“Paranoia strikes deep,” Buffalo Springfield once sang, and Pakula uses every arrow in his quiver to hit this target—especially long (and lengthy) shots, enveloping darkness, and Hitchcockian silences. Pakula holds shots without a cut to build the tension, which he further encourages by the recurring employment of anxiety-provoking long shots.

That central visual motif of the film comes in two varieties. First, Frady is often shot from a great distance, suggesting that he is under observation (such as during his amusement park ride with the “ex-ex-FBI agent”), an unease subsequently subtly reinforced when he is, in fact, unknowingly under watchful eyes toward the end of the film. Second, and even more unnerving, are the long subjective shots of others from Frady’s perspective, usually observing a conversation that he (and the audience) cannot hear. The sequence with Austin Tucker (William Daniels), a witness on the run, is particularly effective in this regard. By this point in the movie, it is impossible to know whether Tucker, or anyone, is friend or foe, and his several (likely innocent, in retrospect) inaudible conversations with his bodyguard raise already heightened suspicions.

Tucker, seen as a confident professional at the start of the film, has been shattered by the experience of living in fear (like America?), and he takes on child-like qualities: He purses his lips, cradles his brandy glass, curls to nap in a fetal position, and looks up hopefully at his bodyguard for reassurance. An alternate (or perhaps complementary) reading would code the two men as lovers; the bodyguard’s sexuality at least is clearly hinted at, and this would be one of the few vestiges of the ambiance (though not the substance) of the novel, which has a more prurient fascination with homosexuality. Regardless, Tucker lives long enough to give Frady a classic ’70s warning, mocking the idea of the heroic investigation: “Fella, you don’t know what this story means.”

Tucker is right, of course, but Frady does at least get closer to the truth: He has stumbled onto a shadowy organization that recruits assassins. Presumed dead in the explosion that kills Tucker, Frady secretly makes contact with his editor, Bill Rintels (Cronyn), and explains his plans to try to infiltrate the program. Rintels’soffice, with its wood-paneled walls and warm yellow lights, represented to Pakula “certain 19th-century American humanist values” in contrast with most of the other locations in the film, which are shot by Gordon Willis in scene after under-lit scene, as the cinematographer flirted with the limits of visibility. Frady is often literally in the dark, which is in accord with the fact that he is figuratively and fatefully in the dark, a disorientation highlighted by the director’s tendency to favor unbalanced compositions within the widescreen shooting ratio chosen for the film.

As in The Conversation, the dialogue diminishes in the last third of the film. In Parallax this includes several long, silent passages, including a remarkable 12-minute sequence that could hardly be improved upon, during which Frady follows a man, finds himself on a jumbo jet, realizes that there is a bomb onboard, and must think of a way to get the plane to turn back without exposing himself to scrutiny. He pulls it off and saves the day (and the plane), but the victory is fleeting. Frady ends up not as undercover faux-assassin but as real-life fall guy (a supply of which the organization also needs), as the murder of another politician takes place and the blame is pinned on our hero. The Parallax View ends with a second government investigating commission (matching the one from the start of the film), shot as if floating away into the darkness, intoning that this assassination was, like so many others, the work of one deranged gunman: “There is no evidence of a conspiracy.” The movie leaves open the question whether the government is incompetent or complicit, but in either case, in 1974, it is surely not to be trusted.

“If the picture works,” Pakula said of The Parallax View, “the audience will trust the person sitting next to them a little less at the end of the film.” And lurking beneath the labyrinth of conspiracies of the paranoid thriller is something more basic: fear about that essential loss of trust.

Excerpt from Hollywood’s Last Golden Age by Jonathan Kirshner, published by Cornell University Press. Copyright © 2012 by Cornell University Press. All rights reserved.