The 1970s were a Golden Age for assassination films. The cynicism harvested by Watergate gave new life to conspiracy theories while mourning the loss of innocence that the Kennedy/King assassinations had come to signify. In the two most notable assassination films of the ‘70s, Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View and William Richert’s Winter Kills, paranoia and collusion run rampant.
A parallax is roughly defined as “an apparent shift of an object caused by the motion of the observer,” in other words; the object doesn’t change but seems to, based on the perception of a viewer. The notion of reinterpretation of objects, or events, lay at the heart of Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 film. Herein the assassinations of several Presidential hopefuls are investigated by Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) from the outside as a burned-out reporter and from the inside as an employee of the Parallax Corporation.
The film opens with an Independence Day rally for Senator Charles (William Joyce) at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle. While his top advisor, Austin Tucker (William Daniels), and reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) talk on the observation deck, Charles is gunned down in cold blood by a man posing as a waiter. The event plays out strikingly similar to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. A hastily gathered commission determines that the gunman acted alone.
Three years later—just in time for campaign season to start again—Carter comes to Frady fearing for her life and needing the reporter’s familiar face and keen insight. She tells him about the mysterious deaths of those present at Charles’s murder. Her fears are justified: she ends up in the local morgue shortly thereafter filled with enough drugs and alcohol to have killed her, even if she hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car in such a state. This prompts the cynical Frady to begin an investigation which quickly takes his life… or so everyone believes.
With the reports of his death greatly exaggerated, Frady goes undercover with the help of his cantankerous editor, Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn). Frady visits Professor Schwartzkopf (Anthony Zerbe)—who enjoys playing Pong against a chimpanzee—for help filling out a questionnaire for the Parallax Corporation that he had uncovered before the attempt on his life. Ready to help, Schwartzkopf has a violent sociopath take the test. Frady passes with flying colors.
Parallax shows Frady a breathtaking brainwashing film that looks like it’s from the MKULTRA archives. Comprised of a montage of images interspersed with words and icons of “mother, father, me, happiness, love, country, enemy” the movie starts slowly and builds to a climax that seems to associate the mentally disturbed viewer with Thor and their mother with sex. The most striking scene of the film, this begins a fifteen minute sequence that’s essentially free of dialogue in which Frady observes how the company operates, watching one of his new co-workers get a bomb aboard an aircraft carrying another U.S. Senator.
Based on a book by Loren Singer, The Parallax View was adapted for the screen by David Giler (The Black Bird) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Pretty Poison) with an uncredited polish by Robert Towne (Chinatown). The second in Pakula’s so-called “paranoia trilogy” (following Klute), the director’s next film would again deal with ardent reporters and political subterfuge in All the President’s Men. Warren Beatty gives a stellar performance as Frady and the character’s aliases. His character is framed against incredible post-modern monochromatic buildings that dwarf the actor, visually representing the struggle of the lone man compared to the machinations of far greater forces.