Film, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #45: The Parallax View

September 11, 2012

It would be difficult, I think, to pitch a movie like The Parallax View (1974) today.  This terrific conspiracy thriller hinges on the clandestine evils of the political world, which — in today’s reality — may simply be too overt to elicit much shock or surprise.  Even so, this film still packs a punch, a refreshingly patient and visually rich film with a neat resolution.

A political meet-and-greet at the Space Needle in Seattle explodes into violence when a controversial independent senator is assassinated and the killer falls to his death.  Reckless journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) wasn’t important enough to get into the reception, but his colleague Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) got a first-hand look at the tragic event.  Years later, and after a commission has judged the assassination to be the act of a lone psychotic, Lee shows up at Joe’s door, hysterical and fearing for her life.  Several people who were near the senator at the time of his death have since died mysteriously, and she thinks she’s next.  Frady blows her off, but the next time he sees her, she’s lying on a slab.  Frady smells a story, and — putting himself squarely in harm’s way — starts investigating, picking away at the edges of a political conspiracy that centers around the shady, mysterious Parallax Corporation.

The Parallax View transcends its hokey elements with a slick visual style and an infectious, slow-building pace.  Beatty is good as the driven protagonist, although we never really see his motivation for constantly putting himself in the crosshairs of danger; that said, it doesn’t diminish the mystery or suspense.  The overarching plot is actually relatively simple, but the film lets the viewer do the work, scene by scene, by piecing out clues patiently and telling the story visually.  I found it a beautifully shot film, with many memorable wide, static shots.  (This is clearly one of the films that inspired the cinematic style of Rubicon.)  I was also intrigued by the film’s use of sound:  long stretches of silence are punctuated by blasts of deafening noise, and volume levels seem to be dictated by camera distance.  Although the finale was a little unsatisfying, I found it a tidy and inevitable resolution to the story.  I suspect it will try some viewers’ patience; it is rather slow-paced at times, and Frady’s unreadability makes it a little difficult to get invested.  But overall it’s a smart and memorable film that — despite its period trappings — feels plenty relevant in the current, fractured political climate.  Definitely recommended.

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