DirectorAlan J. Pakula
Release Date(s)1974 (January 7, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION-FREE Blu-ray release. It's also a co-review by Dennis Seuling and Tim Salmons, but the majority of it was written by Dennis for his review of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, which you can read here.]
The Parallax View draws us in immediately. A US Senator campaigning for president gets shot amid throngs of people in the observation tower of the Seattle Space Needle. His presumed assassin is immediately pursued and falls to his death during the chase.
A few years later, reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) visits a friend, fellow reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), with a highly unsettling story. Six of the people present when the senator was assassinated have died and Lee is convinced that she is next. Joe tries to calm her fears, dismissing them as paranoia. But Lee turns up dead shortly thereafter. Joe realizes there’s a big story to be uncovered and pleads with his editor (Hume Cronyn) to let him pursue it.
Joe’s investigation traces a chain of conspiracy back to a Los Angeles firm called the Parallax Corporation. Its business seems to be identifying people with the potential to become assassins. The company places ads in magazines to attract loners, those lacking self-esteem and resentful of authority, and those capable of committing murder. Prospective recruits are given a series of psychological tests and, if accepted, are hired out to clients. The company will do business with any entity—individual, organization, government. Money talks. Frady disguises his identity and background and gets himself accepted into Parallax in order to amass information for what he hopes will be a Pulitzer Prize-winning expose.
Director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriters David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (and an uncredited Robert Towne) draw upon conspiracy theories that arose after the John F. Kennedy assassination. How could a single gunman, who was not a great marksman when he was in the Marines, have fired the shots that killed the President in a moving car? The later assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. fed conspiracy theories. The Watergate hearings were being held while The Parallax View was in production, so the time was ripe for a fictional “What if…?” scenario incorporating the conspiracy theorists’ speculations.
The film is a suspenseful political thriller that takes us through a reporter’s methods—some ethical, others not—to ferret out a story. Frady doesn’t seem to observe normal hours, take orders from his editor seriously, or pay attention to danger. This makes for an exciting film but is far from a real reporter’s methods, which typically involve lots of research, including phone calls and interviews, none of which are particularly cinematic. Pakula adds a car chase and a barroom fight to pep up the action, but these scenes feel out of place. The film is at its best when Frady follows leads while keeping his reporter status clandestine.
The opening assassination evokes both the JFK assassination and the Warren Report, which declared that only Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible for the murder. This connects actual events to the fictional story to follow, suggesting that the film may not be too far fetched.
Beatty carries the picture and plays the investigative journalist more as a private eye than a reporter. His Frady latches onto a story after its germ has been planted by another reporter. When she dies suddenly, he begins poking around. Unorthodox, insubordinate, and stretching ethical bounds, he acts alone to chase a story that may or may not be there. Working on instinct and adrenaline, he forges ahead.
The Parallax View was shot by legendary director of photography Gordon Willis on 35 mm film using Arriflex 35 IIC and Panavision PSR R-200° cameras and Panavision C-Series lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the widescreen theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Via Vision’s Imprint line brings the film to Region-Free Blu-ray utilizing the same 4K restoration from the original camera negative that the Criterion Collection used for their Blu-ray release of the film. The picture is quite sharp, with nicely saturated hues. There are no visible imperfections. The color palette ranges from the bright reds of the Fourth of July marching band uniforms in the opening parade sequence and a multi-colored totem pole to darker tones in Frady’s room to the bright, cold tones of Parallax’s ultra-modern headquarters. Details are crisp and nicely delineated, such as hair, patterns on clothing, and odds and ends in the newspaper’s editor’s small, cluttered office. Gordon Willis uses the anamorphic lens for close-ups by placing the actor on the left or right side of the frame with empty space opposite. Atop the Space Needle, we see events inside viewed from the outside, and events outside seen from the inside. This allows the camera to view the senator and guests with a clear view of Seattle in the background. The shooting is seen through glass as the senator is speaking.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono LPCM (English 1.0 LPCM on the Criterion release). Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Other than the additional channel, nothing is different. The audio is crisp and dialogue is clear throughout. In a sequence at the Los Angeles Convention Center, there’s an echo because there are only a few actors in the large expanse. Gunshots and an explosion are sweetened for dramatic effect. In a scene patterned on a Western barroom brawl, we hear furniture breaking, a light fixture being destroyed, glass smashing, and fists hitting bodies. The Space Needle scene features effective sound mixing, with dialogue dominant against ambient noise and background extras chatting over cocktails. A lengthy sequence, in which Frady follows a man onto a plane where he knows a bomb is hidden, is played without a single bit of dialogue. Subjective views build suspense as Frady wants to alert the crew without calling attention to himself.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Kevin Lyons
- Audio Commentary by Blake Howard
- Kim Newman on The Parallax View and Conspiracy Thrillers (23:33)
- Matthew Sweet on The Parallax View (22:03)
- Witness to a Conspiracy (11:29)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:37)
All of the extras on this release, outside of the theatrical trailer, are new and exclusive to this release. In the first audio commentary with editor and writer Kevin Lyons, he discusses many facet of the film, its background, and its cast and crew. It’s a bit perfunctory, but offers plenty of interesting information. In the second audio commentary with film critic and podcaster Blake Howard, he delves into similar subject matter, but takes a less straightforward approach, remarking on the look of the film, as well as those who participated in its creation. He pauses briefly here and there, but mostly keeps the content flowing.
In Kim Newman on The Parallax View and Conspiracy Thrillers, the celebrated film historian and film critic discusses the genre in detail, tracing aspects of it back to the early nineteenth century in literary form. He goes on to mention the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock and how paranoia played into their films, political or otherwise. Other subjects include totalitarianism, communism, political intrigue, foreign conspiracy films, and the Watergate scandal. He also mentions other conspiracy thrillers and subsequent theories in the modern world. In Matthew Sweet on The Parallax View, the author and cultural historian talks more about notions of brainwashing and how it became a part of popular culture, ultimately infecting the cinema. He also discusses the original novel and the real world events that it circles and takes cues from. Witness to a Conspiracy is a video essay by Chris O’Neill. Taking a non-traditional route, it uses images and text instead of standard narration. It delves into many aspects of the film, including its characters in relation to the larger story, and how that story is influenced by reality. It’s a very effective piece. Last is the theatrical trailer.
None of the extras included on the Criterion release have been included here:
- Alex Cox on the Parallax View (15:00)
- Alan J. Pakula Interview, 1974 (17:59)
- Alan J. Pakula Interview, 1995 (5:55)
- Gordon Willis: Figures in Space (18:17)
- Pulling Focus: Constructing The Parallax View (14:56)
In Alex Cox on The Parallax View, Cox defines the term “conspiracy” and discuses how unlikely it is for Lee Harvey Oswald to have been the lone gunman of the JFK assassination. The Zipruder film shows that Kennedy was killed by an expert marksman. Controversy arose as to who was responsible. Was it Castro? The Mafia? The CIA? The film Executive Action from 1973 ends with a list of 18 witnesses to the Kennedy assassination who died. The Parallax View and The Conversation, both about conspiracy, were made in 1974. The parade that opens the film suggests Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas. The death of the journalist played by Paula Prentiss was based on the death of Dorothy Kilgallen, the only journalist who interviewed Jack Ruby. She died under suspicious circumstances before going public with her findings. According to Cox, “The world that Pakula hypothesized in 1974 is the world we’re living in now.”
The first Alan J. Pakula interview was recorded on November 20, 1974 as part of the American Film Institute’s Harold Lloyd Master Seminar series. The conversation features Pakula discussing his approach to directing The Parallax View. The second was recorded in 1995. He explains the film as being Kafkaesque and involving a “whole other kind of filmmaking” since it was shot during a screenwriters’ strike. Because Warren Beatty had a pay-or-play deal, filming started before the screenplay was complete. Though made under “hair-raising conditions, The Parallax View is a film Pakula is pleased that he directed.
Gordon Willis: Figures in Space is a 2004 interview with the famed cinematographer who discusses his work on The Parallax View. Willis shot 16 films between 1970 and 1977, from cult movies like Hal Ashby’s The Landlord to Best Picture Oscar winners The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and Annie Hall. Regarded as a New York outsider with a radical visual style, Willis received just two Academy Award nominations during his career, but in 2010 he received an honorary Oscar “for unsurpassed mastery of light, color, and motion.” Willis was interested in the conspiratorial kind of movie and thought The Parallax View would be fun to do. His favorite part of the film is the Space Needle sequence. “Pumping a lot of light on people doesn’t feel quite right to me.” The hand-held camera was used when actors were in motion. Willis captured America’s paranoia in three Pakula films: Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men. His job was to take Pakula’s ideas and transfer them to the practical visual appearance of the film. Willis calls giving an editor too many options “dump truck directing.” For different reasons, the barroom fight and the Los Angeles Convention Center scenes were difficult. Seeing the film today, Willis believes it holds up well.
In Pulling Focus: Constructing The Parallax View, we’re introducted to Jon Boorstin, who was hired as an intern on The Parallax View and was paid to watch and learn. He became friendly with Gordon Willis, who had the ability to create visual analogies for Alan J. Pakula’s vision. A great deal of re-writing was going on during production. New script pages would arrive every day. “Pakula thrives on chaos.” The film explained the world of dark conspiracy theories. Boorstin based the Parallax test seen in the film on the Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory, trying to figure how to create a test you can’t fake. In a 3 1/2-minute sequence, title cards and images go from benign to angry to vengeful. This is the final test for the Parallax Corporation to determine whether the candidate has the makings of a killer for hire.
The Criterion release also contains a 24-page insert booklet featuring a list of cast and credits, a critical essay by Nathan Heller, an interview with Alan J. Pakula by Andrew C. Bobrow, and restoration information.
The disc for the Imprint release sits in a clear amaray case with new artwork on the front and a still from the film on the inner sleeve. Everything is housed within a slipcase that replicates the artwork for the French theatrical one sheet.
The Parallax View offers the grim message that dark forces are at play to undermine and destroy what is good in society. For a price, a correctly predisposed person will commit murder and anyone can be targeted. Well meaning, determined, and dedicated, Frady is up against something monstrous and never realizes how he figures in a covert plot.
- Dennis Seuling and Tim Salmons