Blu-ray Review: The Parallax View

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Alan J. Pakula | CAST: Warren Beatty, Joseph Frady, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels, Walter McGinn, Hume Cronyn, Kenneth Mars
RELEASE DATE: 2/9/21 | PRICE: DVD $21.99, Blu-ray $39.69
BONUSES: New introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox, interviews with director Alan J. Pakula from 1974 and 1995, an interview with Gordon Willis from 2004, new interview with Jon Boorstin, assistant to Pakula
SPECS: R | 102 min. | Thriller | 2.39:1 widescreen | monaural |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Thrillers that present fictionalized versions of popular conspiracy theories are commonplace now, but back in 1974 they were few and far between, and had been based mostly on best-selling novels (like The Manchurian Candidate). The Parallax View is one of the strangest of the bunch, as it incorporates much-debated aspects of the killings of JFK and RFK and uses them to bolster up an uneven “intrepid reporter” saga.

The mystery of why the film is so uneven is solved in the supplemental materials included in this release. As it stands, the jumps in both tone and plot are befuddling, but three bravura set-pieces have made the film as well-remembered as it is.

The plot was inspired by the fact that a number of the witnesses to the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza died under mysterious circumstances. Here the murdered politician is a senator who is killed during a cocktail party/press conference in Seattle’s Space Needle. A reporter (Warren Beatty, McCabe & Mrs. Miller) who witnessed the assassination is alarmed by the mounting death toll of the other witnesses, and thus lets himself get recruited by “the Parallax Corporation,” an organization that hires and grooms assassins.

The fact that never for a moment does Beatty’s character seem like the “alienated loner” he’s supposed to be is one of the film’s key problems. The final sequence, in which it’s clear that Beatty will either witness or prevent an assassination, salvages the film after a number of moments — including a protracted barroom brawl —– that seem to have wandered in from other movies. (The barroom scene would be right at home in a Hal Needham “good old boy” movie with Burt Reynolds.)

In the sub-category of JFK assassination thrillers, Parallax is less focused but more exciting than Executive Action (1973), the first mainstream American film to challenge the Warren Report’s findings on the killing of Kennedy. Oliver Stone’s epic JFK (1991) is the most detail-oriented entry in this lineage, but Winter Kills (1979), which, like Parallax, is a pastiche of well-known aspects of assassination lore, remains the best big-screen meditation on the assassination of the Kennedy brothers.

Warren Beatty in The Parallax View

Parallax has three tightly-constructed sequences that distinguish it from run-of-the-mill conspiracy thrillers. The first is the assassination at the Space Needle; the second is a montage “training” film (comprised of primal imagery about America, family, belief, and violence) that Beatty’s character is shown as part of his recruitment; and the third is the conclusion, set at an afternoon rehearsal from a political rally of a presidential candidate (Jim Davis, TV’s Dallas). These sequences are so well-edited and shot that one wishes the entirety of Parallax was that disciplined and resonant.

Filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man) does an on-camera introduction to the film, in which he offers it high praise as a conspiracy thriller. More importantly, he “decodes” the various references to real conspiracy lore and contrasts Parallax with the other films that tackled the JFK assassination.

The most invaluable extra in the release is an interview with Jon Boorstin, the assistant to director Alan J. Pakula who spells out why the film shifts tone and includes such jarringly clunky moments. Simply put, director Pakula, cinematographer Gordon Willis, and the crew crafted a film out of a scenario that didn’t exist in the form of a finished script.

Boorstin notes that a writer’s strike was going on, and Beatty’s contract was “pay or play,” so the studio heads demanded that something be filmed, so Parallax was pieced together as it was shot. The last-minute rewrites had to address what already existed in the scenario, while Pakula was coming up with new ideas for scenes on the spot, for what he deemed a “comic book movie.” (Thus the bright color palette used by Willis.)

The “training” film was one such last-minute inspiration, according to Boorstin. It was inspired by the brain-washing sequence in A Clockwork Orange in which Little Alex is shown moments of violence in order to change his behavior. In this case the viewer is in Beatty’s place and is put through the experience of watching the film.

The process of piecing the montage together out of archival photographs and images found on the spot in newspapers is outlined by Boorstin, as is the fact that the whole sequence was put together in post-production — Beatty was simply filmed sitting down and standing up, and the training film he watched was assembled in the editing process.

Two interviews with Pakula explore this scene and the director’s positive opinion of the film, which he calls “the most stylized film I’ve ever made.” He explains that the training film took four months to put together and discusses the film’s tone, which he labels “Kafka-esque” and focused on “mythic” American iconography.

An interview with Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Stardust Memories) supplies the most important pieces of the puzzle. He elaborates his philosophy of image-making as maintaining a “certain amount of distance between the image and the audience.” He felt they shouldn’t be brought together, and the viewer should remain aware they are watching a story unfold. Willis also deconstructs the film’s visuals by stressing his love of “voyeurism” in film. Thus, the numerous instances in Parallax of characters being viewed through windows and glass doors.

The single best moment in the interview occurs when Willis lets loose on the barroom brawl sequence. He notes that it was not the kind of thing that Pakula did well and it made the film look cheaper, since the stunt men acting it out had to burst through hastily-constructed paper walls.

After referring to it as a “first-class pain in the ass” to shoot and noting his wondering why it was in the movie in the first place, he offers a begrudging approval of the scene: “I suppose, in retrospect… it’s okay.”

Buy or Rent The Parallel View

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”