When The Manchurian Candidate hit theaters in 1962, critics loved its audacity, its tight structuring and the freshness and twist of irony that it maintains to this day. Audiences, however, generally stayed away. Perhaps its light sarcasm played as overly campy, its plot devices too fantastical to be considered an appropriate manipulation of Cold War fears. Twelve years later, Alan J. Pakula made The Parallax View, and the mood -- and box office reception -- could not have been more different.
Where John Frankenheimer's film did not take on a lasting relevance until after Kennedy's assassination -- at which point it had been withdrawn out of both lackluster box office rentals and a sense of decency in the wake of the murder -- Pakula's thriller has an air of possibility around it. Those who could not conceive, even at their most fearful of Soviet Russia, that the presidency could be compromised damn well knew it was possible by 1974. Compounded with the discovery of Nixon's corruption -- a subject, of course, that would inform Pakula's next film -- The Parallax View appeals less to a current of fear than a concrete event, and as such it appeals to an idea of probability that terrorizes more than a more abstract (and satirical) thriller.
For Pakula's world is one in which those with the knowledge of the truth can be instantaneously found and dispatched by an unseen presence. The truth is not an unknown property so much as an execution that no one will sentence himself to. The opening sequence shows Sen. Charles Carroll (Bill Joyce), a supposed independent whose refusal to bow to any party makes him a presidential hopeful, riding in a parade in Seattle. Throngs of supporters line the streets and his best allies meet him at the top of the Space Needle, where he is suddenly shot as he prepares to speak to reporters.
Watch the camera in this moment: it wheels around as if a member of the crowd, disoriented and frightened. However, it clearly recognizes two different gunmen, one of whom is chased and accidentally killed while the other escapes unnoticed. The implication of this direction is that at least some people managed to glimpse what really happened, even after a special committee assures the public that the assassination was the act of a lone gunman (gee, sound familiar?). Sure enough, the plot begins in earnest when one of the people present that day, a reporter named Lee (Paula Prentiss), shows up at her friend Joe Frady's (Warren Beatty) home with news that multiple witnesses to the assassination have all died under mysterious circumstances. A few minutes of screen-time later, so is she.
In Frady, Pakula has a terrific contrast to the real-life reporters who featured in his next thriller: unlike Woodward and Bernstein, Frady gets his stories by stretching facts to fit a preconceived agenda. Where most paper editors in the movies slowly turn against their star reporters when deadlines approach and leads fall through, Frady's chief distrusts him from the start and knows that the man will just come up with another fantastical story that he'll just have to retract.
Of course, anyone who caught a peek of what Frady eventually uncovers would surely kill his article too. The more he snoops around, the tighter the frame becomes; where All the President's Men operated entirely in the shadows, The Parallax View stays in the light, but Pakula maintains the same sense of mysteriousness. People turn on a dime when Joe comes to town: in one scene, he starts a fight with a deputy in a small-town bar, only for the sheriff to laugh and invite the reporter for a drink, but the next day the same officer traps Joe by a dam as it opens to release water, pulling a gun on the bewildered muckraker. Soon, oddly familiar faces keep popping up in crowds, and before you can ask yourself whether it's déjà vu, something horrible happens.
With his string of three great features in the '70s, starting with Klute and carrying through this and All the President's Men, Pakula established himself as a master of thriller direction; had he kept it up, he might well have stolen away Hitchcock's claim to the title of "Master of Suspense." Exceedingly little happens in his political thrillers, but Pakula places the thought into the audience's mind that something is happening, that someone is watching from the shadows or even in plain sight.
Eventually, Frady uncovers evidence of a group called the Parallax Corporation, revealed to be a training group for political assassins. In the film's chief flaw, Joe discovers this group with astonishing ease, and even manages to find their facility and "apply" as if a Wal-Mart just came to town. Once within, however, the momentary lapse of reason gives way to a terrifying conclave whose members are innumerable and anonymous. Like the precursor to Fight Club's Project Mayhem but with a purpose, the Parallax Corporation is at once small and unknown yet omnipresent, capable of infiltrating any location and escaping undetected. And by the time Frady realizes just how complex and unstoppable the organization is, they've framed him for another assassination.
For the director, political power has completely corrupted, and their power renders them capable of striking down any dissent. Consider the opening: the fictional candidate campaigns on the image of being an independent who will change Washington, but his parade is farcical and transparent. The politician looks as if his float for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade got severely off-track and found its way to the opposite end of the country: dressed like a buffoon, Senator Carroll waves as children in Native American costumes dance about in front of his car. The judiciary committee that reviews his assassination is seen only in extreme long shot surrounded by pitch black, a few dots of flesh-colored blobs against a mahogany wall in the middle of nothingness. The message is clear: government, especially under Nixon's heavy centralization, now exists in a vacuum, able to refuse the press the right to investigate matters, to even ask questions, and to maintain the status quo regardless of incident. Is it any wonder that the most suspenseful use of music in the film involves patriotic marching band music played at a political rally?
But what of Parallax, then? If the government is so vile, aren't Parallax's members doing society a service by eliminating these crooks? No, because, if you'll note, the organization's targets are ideologues. Even if they're just putting on a show, politicians like Senator Carroll inspire the people, motivate them; by killing these fakes, Parallax puts the fear into genuine agents of change, thus solidifying the status quo that the entrenched government promotes in the face of these events. The darker implication of this is that the government itself is behind Parallax. It's too easy to find for it to be much of a secret, after all, and each killing only numbs the public further.
What really sets The Parallax View apart, though, even from its superior successor, is a montage past the halfway mark of the film that must surely ranks among the most transgressive six minutes to make any Hollywood film in history. Upon applying to Parallax, Frady is sent into an isolated room, completely dark but for a light shining down on a chair. A voice on a PA tells him to sit and watch a film, which begins abruptly. Looking like an experimental film from the '60s, the short comprises nothing but still photographs intercut with title cards. Initially, the titles -- LOVE, MOTHER, etc. -- correspond to appropriate images of couples kissing and women cuddling babies. Then, the soft music turns brassy but not overblown, and the images and titles slowly shift. Armies, death, aggressive sex, comic book images and more flash on the screen, in juxtapositions that the brain barely has time to process: take for example, an image of the pope and of Nazis separated only by the word ENEMY. The frantically edited mash-ups of serious images with comic book cells recalls the mid-'60s work of Jean-Luc Godard, and it would not look so out of place in his superb Pierrot le fou. Here, however, this borderline surreal montage stands out even more in the stark, geometric perfection of Pakula's style: his films attain their suspense partially through the perfection of his shots and the jarring effect that any movement has when something shifts and breaks up the static frame.
While (understandably) more preposterous than the realistic chills of his next political thriller, The Parallax View forms one half of the greatest double feature a thriller director ever made. Practically every great understated thriller of the last 30 years -- The Insider, Zodiac -- owes this and All the President's Men, the use of shadow, of ever-present evil just outside the frame and idealists whose commitment causes as much harm to themselves as good. Separated by the assassinations that inform the film by five years up to a decade, The Parallax View nevertheless feels of the moment, and the mood regarding those who would try to change Washington today suggests that we still haven't moved beyond the mindset of the post-Kennedy generation, which may be the film's most uncomfortable aspect.