50 years, 50 films: The Parallax View (1974)
We reach the era of Watergate with a classic conspiracy thriller.
Of course, American cinema in 1974 belonged to Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather Part II was, to that point, one of the best sequels ever made — second only to Bride of Frankenstein, perhaps — and it became the first such film to win best picture at the Oscars. Yet it wasn’t even the best Coppola film released that year. In May of 1974, The Conversation took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and triggered (ahem!) a conversation about the film’s meaning that continues to this day.
It shouldn’t need to be said that The Conversation played to certain paranoias that were then being stoked by the Watergate conspiracy. The break in at National Democratic Committee actually happened in 1972, but it took two years for the chatter to trigger the resignation of Richard Nixon. Rarely has American cinema been so lively in reacting to a national crisis (consider Hollywood’s near silence about Vietnam while that conflict was still in full flow). In the same year that The Conversation emerged, Alan J Pakula delivered the magnificent, twisty The Parallax View. Pakula had been working in Hollywood for close to two decades at that point. But he will best be remembered for three flawless films that defined the unease that characterised the US polity in the mid-1970s: Klute, The Parallax View and (tackling Watergate head-on) All The President’s Men.
The Parallax View features Warren Beatty as an investigative journalist uncovering a sinister organisation that arranges assassinations and such for rogue elements within the US government (and elsewhere). It can, thus, be seen as a fictional rehearsal for All The President’s Men. Knowing what we know now, we can assert that Pakula and his screenwriters probably gave Nixon’s plumbers a little too much credit. Subsequent revelations confirm that, if sent to assassinate an enemy, they would, most likely, have blown their own feet off. They may have been as amoral as the members of The Parallax Corporation. But they were far less competent.
Nonetheless, the film constructs a brilliantly layered atmosphere of suspicion that conveys how many right-thinking Americans felt in those times. Left-wingers who had believed themselves a little paranoid suddenly discovered that the government really was in bed with crooks. A lot of nonsense has been written about conspiracies relating to the assassination of John F Kennedy. But we know there really was a criminal conspiracy afoot around and about the Nixon White House. Heck, the Attorney General (among others) was sent to bloody jail.
The Parallax View takes a staggeringly pessimistic view of the political situation. If you are lucky enough to be approaching the film for the first time, we don’t want to give too much away. But suffice to say the picture suggests that, whatever Woodward and Bernstein may have exposed, more appalling secrets remained unrevealed.
Everybody involved deserves commendation. The great, mighty Gordon Willis — Prince of Darkness — brings his usual shadowy menace to the images. Beatty is excellent as a slightly slippery customer. Hume Cronyn is great as his honest boss. Let us, however, give particular praise to an under-admired Hollywood professional. The late Michael Small’s score is among the best ever composed for a Hollywood film. Check out an excerpt here. Then watch the film. You will particularly enjoy the scene where Beatty is bombarded with a montage that addresses all aspects of America and its discontents. It stands as a brilliant short film in its own right. If you’ve seen the film enjoy this small masterpiece again here. If not, well, go and watch it now. Were you not paying attention?
We will finish by considering one oddity about The Parallax View that has bothered me for 30 years. Perhaps, a reader might be able to offer explanation. One of the scenes seems to be placed in entirely the wrong section of the film. I am referring to the bit where Beatty goes to meet Kenneth Mars — a dubious contact — on the miniature railway. Beatty asks Mars how he might establish an identity in line with that sought by the Parallax Corporation: somebody with a violent background. What’s the problem? Well, at this stage Beatty knows nothing whatsoever about Parallax or about their preferred candidates for recruitment. The scene clearly was supposed to appear later in the film. Right? Any comments? Is there anybody out there?
Bang! Screenwriter falls into ditch. Nobody hears any more about the Mars Conundrum.