We go through periods of time when American movies excel in looking nervously over their shoulder. The film noir era is a definite example, but is it any wonder that 1970’s films seemed to feature so many shades of paranoia? With the assassinations of the previous decade, and especially the byzantine twists of Watergate, it wasn’t surprising. What an overwhelming sense of ideals betrayed, with the Nixon administration as the prime agent of cover-up when not itself acting as the perpetrator of misdeeds.
“The Parallax View” (1974), based on the 1970 novel of the same title by Loren Singer, was clearly inspired by the coincidental deaths (or deliberate if you have a conspiracy bent) of witnesses to the JFK assassination and its surrounding events. However, while maintaining the book’s device of a shadowy organization masterminding these incidents, the film omits the novel’s hints as to the “why.” The audience is left with an overwhelming sense of isolation. Threats seem to be in the very air we breathe.
This is quite a turn from an earlier film which also culminates in an assassination at a political rally, 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” There the threat was specific, not diffuse, and the Cold War message was loud and clear: “The Commies are everywhere.” Nevertheless you knew the villains would be thwarted and the government of the United States would be preserved. However, “The Parallax View,” far from offering such reassurance, says there are forces far larger than you and me and they’ll always, but always, win—it’s foolish to even try to do battle.
“The Parallax View” begins with a Fourth of July parade which leads to perhaps the most evocative assassination scene on film, as Senator Charles Carroll, an independent evidently exploring a Presidential run, works a fundraiser held at the top of Seattle’s Space Needle. Maybe it’s because I have a problem with heights that I found this particularly unsettling, but seeing the attendees trapped when the shooting starts is a nightmare—if you lived through the ’60’s, this may bring it all back for you. Key players are rendered powerless, including Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a TV news reporter, and Austin Tucker (William Daniels), the senator’s political advisor, as they’re separated from the scene by a wall of blood-splattered glass. We see the senator’s fixed stare as he lies dying, so reminiscent of the famous photo of Bobby Kennedy sprawled on the hotel kitchen floor while a busboy leans over him to offer comfort.
Although a faceless investigation committee declares this the act of a lone disturbed man who sought recognition, we’ve been shown otherwise (Take that, Warren Commission). But when Lee Carter later shows up on the doorstep of reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) with “They’re going to kill me, six other witnesses have already died,” we’re off and running.
You may feel as I did that every plot hole in “The Parallax View” feels wide enough to drive a Mack truck through. At first I thought it was simply a bad editing job, but the novel shares the same problem of too much left unexplained. Perhaps it’s director Alan J. Pakula’s effort to make the audience work by forcing them to fill in the blanks themselves. It’s not always successful: Joe Frady remains an unlikely and unlikeable investigator. In Warren Beatty’s absent-minded performance, he seems rather dim and incompetent (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, in “All the Presidents’ Men,” would have solved the mystery in less than half the time). When he survives the bombing that kills another assassination witness, you just don’t believe he had the capability to do so.
Beatty could have taken lessons from several actors who make the most out of minimal screen time. In fact Paula Prentiss’s big scene, Lee Carter’s insistence to Frady that the people present at the Space Needle are being murdered one by one, is something of a cult favorite. William Daniels as Austin Tucker does a wonderful job, initially as a dapper, in-control political operative, and later as a haunted and hunted man who trusts no one. The performances of several others are equally vivid: Kelly Thordsen as that staple of films of this genre, a corrupt local sheriff, Walter McGinn as the shadowy Parallax operative, and Hume Cronyn, not chewing the scenery this time, as Frady’s editor. But the climactic scene does what movies are best at—telling a story visually, as we watch Candidate George Hammond ride a golf cart through the large arena in which a campaign fundraiser is to take place. Shots ring out, he slumps in his seat, and the runaway cart crashes into banquet table after banquet table, all variously covered by red, white and blue tablecloths.
To a certain extent you wonder why it’s worth taking out Hammond when he orates only the same nondescript all-purpose political blather lampooned a year later in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” A portrait of America on the eve of the bicentennial, “Nashville” culminates in an assassination not of that film’s Presidential candidate, the invisible Hal Philip Walker, but of a celebrity—the film’s most fragile character, the singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakly). Interestingly enough, this was not in Joan Tewksbury’s original script; Altman, clearly of the view that assassination had by this time been woven into the fabric of America, insisted on its inclusion.
There’s no inkling during the film that we’re headed in this direction. But the running thread of Hal Philip Walker’s campaign and particularly, Lady Pearl’s (Barbara Baxley) teary speech about working for JFK and Bobby Kennedy, ring a faint alarm. At the rally at Nashville’s Centennial Park in front of the Parthenon, we follow the moves of both a Barbara Jean-obsessed soldier (Scott Glenn) and Kenny (David Hayward), a seemingly sympathetic young man who’s been toting a guitar case (it’s Nashville after all). Following a series of images—Barbara Jean performing in a long white dress, not coincidentally resembling Lady Liberty, with a huge billowing American flag on display behind the stage—we see to our shock that it’s the “nice boy,” Kenny, who whips out a gun from that guitar case and fires away. The phoenix-like emergence of the wannabee Albuqueque (the late great Barbara Harris) who rises from the chaos to calm the crowd with chorus after chorus of “It Don’t Worry Me” reassures us that we’re survivors, though it doesn’t erase the fear of what came before.
When “All the President’s Men” (1976) finally rolls around, the government has betrayed us all. What with CIA operatives, slush funds, hush money, campaign dirty tricks—all perpetrated by CREEP, that marvelous acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President—you can never be sure of anything. By the time Bob Woodward has his last late night meeting with Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in his favorite underground parking garage, you too may want to pull up your collar and scurry away.
Enjoy the fear.