Monday 17 August 2015

Loan a gunman? The Parallax View (1974)

Warren Beatty

What’s the link between the Kennedy Assassination and Thor God of Thunder?

Writer Alan Moore once described superheroes as revenge fantasies for the impotent and here Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation is used as part of a visual conditioning process for potential assassins. Multiple images flash on the screen following words like Father, Love, Country and Enemy. At first the images are pleasant ones but they gradually become more graphic and disturbing as the positive words are mixed with negative images and the God of Thunder makes increasingly frequent appearances: urging the watcher to be your own hero and to take action.

It’s a remarkable sequence some minutes long and must be quite disorientating in cinema, as the watchers of the watcher are subjected to the visceral impact of so much conflicting stimuli over such a short period time: agitation and disruption to a murderous degree.

Infiltration and revenge...
At a time of so much deliberate super heroic audience stimuli this connection seems even more sinister: customer conditioning for economic gain which some take too far. In The Parallax View it’s a means of tapping into people’s inner psychotic; inducing a revenger-rage string enough for them to kill selected targets that they can be persuaded are attacking with American values.

But the organisation running this process isn’t necessarily political – they will rent out their lone gunmen for hire to the highest bidder: capitalism in action a practical solution provider for power struggles across the political spectrum their targets never clearly identified as democrat or republican.

Hume Cronyn and Warren Beatty
Director Alan J. Pakula is careful not to present his main character as a straightforward hero;  Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) is a journalist driven by his own ego perhaps but he doesn’t want a Pulitzer; just the truth. A reformed alcoholic he has obviously struggled to conform but follows his instincts.

Beatty plays Frady with narrow-band emoting and whilst this adds to the relentless  narrative drive it doesn’t give us much time to examine the man: there are no extended bedside sequences and the only relationship Frady can just about sustain is with his long-suffering editor.

The dam blows... as does the boat.
Frady can handle himself, besting a corrupt cop in a lengthy bar brawl, out-lasting another as a dam burst flood carries them down a ravine and even preventing a bomb destroying an aircraft. Tellingly, when the bomb does explode on the empty grounded plane, Pakula doesn’t show it – we just hear it.

Pakula’s action is almost this incidental and the superb cinematography of Gordon Willis plays a major part in setting the characters against pre-dominant exterior locations – the Seattle space needle, concrete cityscapes and huge assembly halls. It’s as if the action is almost buried by reality as if the audience could see it outside the theatre if they looked long and hard enough. Frady’s conversation with his editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn) often start with lengthy shots of Bill’s office, stuck in the corner of the newspaper’s news desk like an Edmund Hoper night scene, two figures dimly-lit and, literally, part of a bigger picture.

Paula Prentiss
The film starts off with cinéma vérité news reporting of a senator’s visit to the Space Needle. Paula Prentiss plays Lee Carter a nervy news reporter covering the event and interviewing the senator’s slick aide Austin Tucker (William Daniels). The action moves to the Needle where Frady tries to blag his way into the party by claiming he’s with Lee but she denies the link even though her interest is piqued by his audacity and well-maintained hair.

The meet and greet that follows is almost matter of fact and Pakula lulls his audience into a false sense of security almost tot eh last seconds before the assassin strikes. The killing is seen behind the glass as Lee talks further with Tucker. There’s a desperate scramble as security chase down the killer who eventually falls to his death… he clearly wasn’t acting alone but no one else sees that.

There follows an audacious shot of the official panel reporting their conclusions – they are shown in long shot un-touchable and – literally – unquestionable: this is a statement and not a Q&A.

Lee looks for help...
A few years pass, and Lee appears at Frady’s apartment: by now former lovers, he obviously couldn’t commit to her anxious nature. Now she’s frightened for her life and claiming that six of those present at the assassination have now died under mysterious circumstances. Frady dismisses this – he’s given up his own conspiracy investigation – and tries to re-assure Lee. Cut to Lee’s body in the morgue as Frady realises that something is indeed afoot.

He starts to investigate – in spite of his editor’s long-suffering indifference and gains valuable evidence from a corrupt Sherriff (Kelly Thorsden) which points to a company called Parallax and a psychometric test he learns is designed to identify potential psychotics.

With help he fakes appropriate results and proceeds to infiltrate Parallax… but this is a deadly game and the conspiracy runs deep.

Dusty Verdict:  The Parallax View epitomises the paranoia of the time and, indeed, modern cinema – the difference being that Pakula and others actually hoped something could be done… and they were certainly angry and not resigned. This was something new – post noir betrayals – rather than a simple plot device.

Warren Beatty is superbly controlled and leads an excellent cast whilst Pakula directs with the same assurance he demonstrated in 1971’s Klute. The Parallax View’s reputation seems to grow with every passing year and it will do until we can be sure that we’re not just paranoid and that, yes, they really are out to get us.

 The film is available very reasonably-priced from Amazon.

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