While The X-Files is the current obsession of armchair conspiracy theorists everywhere, paranoia has long served as an intriguing cinematic subject. Few motion pictures have captured this gnawing sense of suspicion better than The Parallax View, a moody 1974 thriller directed by Alan J. Pakula and photographed with considerable panache by Gordon Willis, ASC.
The film follows a doggedly determined newspaper reporter, Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), who goes undercover, doubters be damned, to expose the insidious activities of the Parallax Corporation, a covert organization striving to engineer a seismic shift in the power structure of the United States through a series of ruthless political assassinations. Shot during the apex of the Watergate era, this existential tale ominously echoes the real-life murders of prominent U.S. leaders such as John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. As Frady ruefully observes, "Every time you turned around, some nut was knockin' off one of the best men in the country."
Pakula and Willis explore this disconcerting theme in a series of spectacular setpieces: the slaying of a promising candidate (and eventually, the gunman) atop Seattle's towering Space Needle; the Parallax Corporation's attempt to mold Frady into a murderous pawn with a barrage of mindbending agitprop imagery (a famous sequence that has been pilfered countless times); and a carefully staged setup in which yet another pol is gunned down as he rides into a convention center on a golf cart, which then veers off its course and cuts a symbolic swath through an array of dinner tables decked out to resemble the American flag.
These events are artfully underscored by the typically masterful photography of Willis, who enhances the story's brooding ambience with his trademark use of inky darkness and silhouettes, as well as an unerring sense of anamorphic composition. Framed (quite literally) in the scene shown here, Frady, having just witnessed the convention-center killing, attempts to elude a Parallax functionary within the structure's array of catwalks. In a daring but downbeat climax characteristic of Seventies cinema, the reporter spies an open door and makes a dash for it, only to be obliterated by a blinding blast of light as an assassin steps through and unleashes a hail of bullets (which are heard but not seen). A cynical coda reveals that a specially appointed "investigative committee" has concluded that Frady, much like Lee Harvey Oswald, "acted alone" in the convention-center job. Yet again, the Parallax Corporation has managed to pin its sinister handiwork on a hapless patsy.
Pakula and Willis re-teamed in 1976 on the equally absorbing All the President's Men, which inspired both X-Files creator Chris Carter and his X feature film cinematographer Ward Russell. "All the President's Men is a very stylish-looking, mysterious and haunting, but it's not flashy or over-the-top," says Russell. "That film really influenced the direction of the visual images in our movie."
A recent 4K Blu-ray release of the film by the Criterion Collection includes interview material with Willis from the ASC Archives.