Conspiracy Thrillers

In The Parallax View, Conspiracy Goes All the Way to the Top—and Beyond

Alan J. Pakula’s suspense thriller suggested that political assassinations were part of something much, much larger.

The Parallax View tapped into the paranoid climate of the ’70s—and reinforced it.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Paramount Pictures.

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The final image of the 1973 JFK conspiracy thriller Executive Action comprises a postscript: The 18 photographs that appear on the screen are the faces of material witnesses to JFK’s murder who died, many under mysterious circumstances, between 1963 and 1967. Written text informs the viewer that the odds of all these people dying during this time, as calculated by Lloyds of London, were one hundred thousand trillion to one.

This is precisely where the narrative of The Parallax View picks up: with the fear of an eyewitness, horribly confident that such odds exclude her—that of the one hundred thousand trillion, she is the one. Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 film has two beginnings. The first is set atop the Seattle Space Needle where Sen. Charles Carroll, a promising political figure and a narrative surrogate for both JFK and Robert Kennedy, is assassinated by two gunmen. Present during the shooting are Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a television reporter; and Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), a rogue newspaper writer. From the chaos of the murder scene, there is a cut to a long shot which slowly tracks in toward the image of the blue ribbon government commission appointed to investigate the senator’s death. It is of course the film’s version of the Warren Commission, and its chairman solemnly announces that Sen. Carroll was killed by a lone gunman who acted out of a “misguided sense of patriotism and a psychotic desire for public recognition.” In hopes of putting an end to the “irresponsible exploitative speculations put forward by the press,” the commission declares there was no conspiracy.

The narrative begins again three years later when Carter shows up at Frady’s door. She is terrified that someone is trying to kill her, that the next mysterious death to claim a witness to the Carroll assassination is earmarked for her. This scene initiates the film’s central discourse on vision, one figured primarily by a mise-en-scène that obscures dramatic action through intervening glass, curtains, fences, and most importantly, a consistently shadow-soaked frame. Carter is targeted because she appears in photographs taken at the scene of the assassination, the film’s equivalent to the Zapruder footage, and she tells Frady that the deaths of those pictured has risen to six. Referring to the Space Needle, he says to her: “Did you see anything up there? Well either did I. And believe me I looked. We all looked?” She then replies with a question that haunts the rest of the film: “You mean, if you didn’t see it, it’s not there?”

When Carter is in fact the next to die, Frady’s quest, and the film’s structuring trajectory, are set in motion—to identify and then to infiltrate the agency or organization (Parallax) responsible for the murders of the assassination witnesses. Moreover, her death, and the narrative issuing from this scene, constitute the film’s primary statement concerning the assassination debate: the suggestion that the criminal source of the JFK assassination continues to function, that the case is still open, not because the Warren Commission offered an inadequate solution to the crime, but because the conspiracy itself was not a solitary murder of a president. The conspiracy remains ongoing, informing, if not dictating, the contemporary political process.

The film suggests this toward the beginning by juxtaposing elements that refer to both Kennedy assassinations. Sen. Carroll dies on the floor and is framed in a pose that deliberately mimics that of Robert Kennedy lying on the kitchen floor at the Ambassador Hotel; meanwhile, the film’s reference to the JFK assassination is achieved through a peculiar scene which appears to have little relevance to the mystery about to unfold: Frady’s run-in with a Dallas sheriff. The message is clear: The assassinations that characterized the decade were not separate incidents, but rather a continuing line of political subversion.

By suggesting that the murder of JFK was only one event in a still-active war of subversion, The Parallax View coincided with certain tendencies within the assassination literature. During the mid-seventies, conspiracy theorists showed renewed energy, trying to establish connections between Dallas and the deaths of RFK, MLK, and Malcolm X. Moreover, critics worked to discern linkages between the Dallas killing and clandestine government activities, primarily the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Indeed, these critics argued, as one of them puts it, that “the cover-ups are more important than the original assassinations.”

Thus, the buffs understood their investigative work not simply as an act of historiography, but as a political intervention with relevant implications. In isolating connections between the JFK assassination and current government affairs, some critics identified a secret cabal which functioned to maintain the military-interventionist state. They argued that a second government existed, a shadowy and fluctuating enterprise made up of top-level intelligence agents, national security officials, and affiliates of the Pentagon. This cabal, alternately referred to as the Secret Team or the Power Control Group, not only had Kennedy executed but maintained the cover-up in order to protect its clandestine power. Subscribers to theories about the Secret Team did not make up the majority of assassination critics. However, the growing presence of such ideas in the buff literature would be one of the defining characteristics of seventies’ research.

The Parallax View incorporates this tendency but jettisons whatever was specifically political about it. The film instead constructs and then indicts some vague image of the corporation, focusing Frady’s search on a company that recruits assassins for assignments engineered by various business interests, whose ideological positions are never revealed. The politics of Parallax are characterized solely as profit oriented, and Frady’s contact within the corporation informs him that “Parallax receives demands from all phases of industry.” Thus, whereas certain assassination critics sought to expose a government ruled by gunplay, The Parallax View suggested that the principle was applicable to the general economy. The government itself, represented here by the pseudo–Warren Commissions that bookend the film, lends official (if not ignorant) cover to the criminal machinations of business.

It appears the film both fueled and was reinforced by the seventies’ growing distrust of the corporation. According to at least one comprehensive study of popular opinion regarding the status of corporations in American life, the mid-’70s marked perhaps the most profound lack of confidence in business since before World War II.

The sinister powers of Parallax are rendered most explicitly perhaps through the scene in which Frady, trying to infiltrate the corporation, is tested for employment. Seated in a dark room, the test measures his physical reactions as he is confronted with a dense montage of familial or generic imagery: political figures such as Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, Nixon, Hitler; a comic book hero; happy families; romantic couples; historical photographs of civil rights violence and Vietnam; patriotic icons such as flags, the White House, an Uncle Sam poster. Intercut with these and many other Images are single words: GOD, LOVE, COUNTRY, FATHER, HAPPINESS. Perhaps the most significant juxtaposition joins a photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald with the word ME, a linkage that not only suggests the type of personality sought by Parallax but anticipates the way the corporation will ultimately employ Frady.

In its presentation of the doomed hero, The Parallax View conforms precisely to film critic Robin Wood’s characterization of the seventies’ protagonist, the confident individual whose “sense of control is progressively revealed as illusory … trapped in a course of events that culminate in disaster (frequently death).” The film works to refigure the identity of the assassination buff, registering his or her inquest as essentially futile. The Parallax View presents the investigator as clinging to a naive faith in the power of the individual. Again, the point is driven home by reference to the control of images. Both Carter and Alston Tucker carry with them photographs from the Seattle murder. When Frady is on Tucker’s boat, Tucker hands Frady a slide viewer containing two images from the crime. One of them captures the face of a Parallax gunman, but neither Frady nor Tucker knows enough to identify the man. Rather, the slide viewer serves only as a pathetic index of the imbalance between Parallax and its victim-critics, a piece of low-tech equipment clung to by an amateur living under a death warrant. Even the name of the corporation suggests its power over visual perspective: Invoking its powers of parallax, it is capable of creating slightly varied points of view on the same set of events.

Furthermore, The Parallax View, like Blow Out and JFK to follow, radically alters the politics of inquest, offering a public image of the post Warren Commission investigations that is far more amenable to its narrative format than the historical record. Indeed, each film effaces the collective aspects of the assassination research by presenting the historiographic challenges of the period as essentially the work of one man. The Hollywood cinema’s reliance on the individual protagonist is certainly a determining factor on this point, but in The Parallax View, as in JFK, this process is foregrounded by a specific line of dialogue. When Frady returns from Tucker’s boat and asks his editor not to call the police or the FBI, the editor shoots back: ‘‘You alone can uncover what all these agencies couldn’t?” Frady replies “Maybe,” but the narrative replies “no.” Under the generic constraints of the thriller, the political struggle to uncover Parallax or conspiracy is represented as a singular act and in that singularity there is failure. Imaging the buff as a hip individualist, The Parallax View constructs the political world as outside his grasp, transmitting, in its limited notion of critique, a pessimism about social change. The conspiracy theorist finds his diagnosis at odds with his political efficacy, and the conflict is figured in a mise-en-scène of visual uncertainty.

To several critics in 1974, that mise-en-scène, and the intrigue with which it was enfolded, seemed as justified as it was generic. For them, the reality of political events had finally caught up with the pessimistic screen images that had informed film noir and Cold War spy thrillers. Joseph Kanon told readers of Atlantic that ‘‘what gives the movie its real force is the way its menace keeps absorbing material from contemporary life.” As opposed to the era of North by Northwest, he wrote, now “the stuff of suspense thrillers has entered the mainstream of national life.” George Wead struck a singular note in his discussion of “filmnoia” in The Velvet Light Trap:

Our cliches have all come true in the ’70s. We now have only our most cynical metaphors to live with. … At no period since Prohibition has it been so easy to establish immediate paranoia simply by reconstructing or referring to actual events which the audience has lived through. Executive Action uses film clips of Kennedy’s assassination and The Parallax View opens with an adaptation of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. They make us paranoid by recalling our own past.

The climate of intrigue or paranoia into which The Parallax View successfully tapped was not simply the product of contemporary tragedies. Rather it was an ongoing construct, the result of various discursive struggles which contextualized “our own past” and gave wider meaning to individual events. In fact, the very struggles the film was so pessimistic about helped create the conditions of its own production. Despite its representation of the investigator as doomed figure, the film remains indebted to the process of critique generated by government critics. Part of the film’s social resonance is owed not simply to its “reconstructing or referring to actual events,” but to its narrative engagement with the mostly amateur investigative process by which those events were continually reframed.

Excerpted from “The Parallax View/Winter Kills/Blow Out” from Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film by Art Simon. Used by permission of Temple University Press. © 1996 by Temple University. All Rights Reserved.