“He acted alone.” Now where have we heard that before?
Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View is bookended by political assassinations. Both are declared to be the works of disturbed individuals with inexplicable hatred towards their targets. In both cases, an investigative commission baldly states that there is “no evidence of a wider conspiracy, no evidence whatsoever”. This commission is seen from afar, a group of faceless men behind a table that seems to float in a pool of darkness. They are opaque, disinterested and possibly implicated in the crimes themselves.
When his ex-girlfriend turns up dead soon after claiming that people who witnessed the first assassination are being killed one by one¸ ragtag reporter Joe (Warren Beatty) sets out to investigate. Joe’s journalistic skills are dubious, and he seems more cowboy than truth-seeker, but he makes a discovery so incredible that it simply has to be believed: the Parallax Corporation is hiring assassins from around the country to kill politicians. Who is using the services of this mysterious group that operates from the heights of a skyscraper and makes potential recruits watch a video that manipulates images to change their meaning? Is the company, as its name suggests, a parallel government?
The Parallax View is the second in Pakula’s chic and compelling conspiracy trilogy, which captures the general paranoia that marked the 1970s in the United States of America. Each of the films is shot in a style that mixes documentary realism and stylised cinematography and production design, each features top-drawer Hollywood talent, and each confirms the average citizen’s worst possible fears. Are the telephones being tapped? Are we being followed? Is the government in cahoots with crooked corporations? Is the Central Intelligence Agency in my bedroom? Yes to all.
Surveillance is a running theme in the trilogy. In the first entry, Klute, a New York City prostitute becomes the central figure in missing person investigation. The movie takes its title from Donald Sutherland’s detective, who follows a trail of obscene letters that leads to the cluttered apartment of call-girl Bree (Jane Fonda). Her confident and seductive air masks deep fears that she is being watched. What do you know? Bree is right.
In the third and most well-known film in the set, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) uncover a massive surveillance plot by Richard Nixon’s Republican Party. A forensic recreation of the Watergate scandal of 1972, All the President’s Men has influenced several films, from Zodiac to Spotlight. As movies about the mechanics of investigative journalism go, it remains at the top of the list.
The three films were shot by the great Gordon Willis, whose ability to transform everyday physical spaces into sinister dens of conspiracy is perhaps unrivalled. In Klute, a sewing workshop becomes a lair of death. In The Parallax View, Willis juxtaposes the individual against massive structures – a tower, a dam, a glass-fronted high-rise – to convey helplessness and powerlessness. The cavernous buildings in The Parallax View swallow up honest people, while in All The President’s Men, the Washington Post newsroom – actually a fabulously detailed set – becomes a battleground for the freedom of expression. Even a parking lot, where Woodward meets the mysterious source codenamed Deep Throat, tingles with atmosphere.
The 1960s and ‘70s were a fruitful decade for movies made by liberal filmmakers who were keen on exploring a less benign side of the ruling class. The long list includes The Manchuranian Candidate (1962), Executive Decision (1973) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). Pakula’s suspicion that the American people’s greatest enemy is their elected government resurfaced in The Pelican Brief (1993), but the realism, paranoid architecture, and clear-minded moral outrage that makes even The Parallax View’s most fanciful claims halfway credible were missing.