Starring Warren Beatty as a reckless reporter who stumbles into a nefarious scheme involving political assassinations and governmental cover-ups, The Parallax View is the quintessential ’70s conspiracy thriller. With its heavily metaphorical images of people dwarfed by gigantic structures, its insidious musical score that jangles the nerves at key moments, and its sudden explosions of violence, director Alan J. Pakula’s arresting movie set the template for decades of imitators. More importantly, it set the template for Pakula’s next movie, the exquisite journalism drama All the President’s Men (1976). Working with the same cinematographer (Gordon Willis) and the same composer (Michael Small) he used on Parallax, Pakula sharpened his conspiracy-thriller style to absolute perfection while telling the story of how reporters uncovered the Watergate scandal. In sum, The Parallax View is required viewing for anyone who wants to understand ’70s cinema, even though the picture is far from perfect.
Based on a novel by Loren Singer and written for the screen by the formidable trio of David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Robert Towne, the movie begins with an assassination inside the Seattle Space Needle, then continues with a grim scene of a Warren Commission-type panel issuing a “lone gunman” explanation for the killing—even though we, the viewers, saw more than one person collaborating in the murder. The movie then cuts three years ahead. Seattle-based Joe Frady (Beatty) is an unorthodox reporter with a nose for conspiracies. His friend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), who witnessed the Space Needle assassination, is terrified because she believes witnesses are being systematically killed. Joe is skeptical until Lee herself dies under questionable circumstances. Then Joe asks his editor, Bill (Hume Cronyn), for permission to investigate. The doubtful editor says okay, but gives Joe a short leash. Soon, however, Joe uncovers clues leading him to the Parallax Corporation, which appears to be in the business of recruiting assassins. Obsessed with following a hot story, Joe endangers himself and everyone he knows by trying to infiltrate Parallax.
From start to finish, The Parallax View is exciting and tense. Pakula and Willis shoot the picture masterfully, using creative foreground/background juxtapositions, deep shadows, and long lenses to evoke disturbing themes. The movie also employs an effective trope of portraying villains as even-tempered men in suits, rather than hysterical monsters, and the notion of business-as-usual murder is chilling. The acting is uniformly great, with Cronyn a dryly funny standout among the supporting cast and Beatty putting the self-possessed diffidence of his unique screen persona to good use.
All that said, the story hits a few speed bumps along the way. An extended sequence in a small town called Salmontail includes scenes one might expect to find in a Burt Reynolds romp, from a bar brawl to a comedic car chase, and some stretches of the movie are so subtle they’re actually difficult to parse. The finale, in particular, is clever but needlessly convoluted and sluggish. Throughout its running time, the movie waffles between taking itself too seriously and not taking itself seriously enough. Yet all is forgiven whenever The Parallax View hits the conspiracy-thriller sweet spot. For instance, consider this exquisite dialogue exchange between Brady and ex-spy Will Turner (Kenneth Mars). Turner: “What do you know?” Brady: “I don’t know what I know.” That’s the stuff.
The Parallax View: GROOVY