The shocking ending ensures the need to re-evaluate everything you have seen. The middle film in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy – after Klute (1971) with All the President’s Men (1976) to come – is a dark (in more ways than one) reflection in essence on the John F. Kennedy assassination. The superbly stylish, on occasion over-stylised, cinematography carries an undercurrent of fear.
Ambitious reporter Joe (Warren Beatty) investigates the notion that too many witnesses, including ex-girlfriend Lee (Paula Prentiss), to a senatorial assassination have been dying. Joe’s boss Bill (Hume Cronyn), while turning up acceptable reasons for each death, reluctantly backs him. Other witnesses such as Tucker (William Daniels) have run for cover. But, as Joe soon discovers, nobody can hide forever.
Joe’s initial foray leads him to a small-time small-town Sheriff Wicker (Kelly Thorsden) with an unexpectedly large bank balance and murderous intent. Finding a link to a mysterious company the Parallax Corporation, Joe takes a written psychometric test to become a potential recruit for a company that is seeking, apparently, to find the hidden talents of under-achievers. After preventing one attempt on the life of another senator (Charles Carroll), Joe realises Parallax will stop at nothing.
Effectively, it’s a straightforward private eye number, Joe moving from character to character, building up a case. But the way Pakula frames the film, peppered with unusual scenes, turns it into an exercise in tension. One of Joe’s contacts works in a lab that is trying to train chimpanzees to play video ping-pong. Another scene takes place, disconcertedly, on a miniature train. At times we can hear every word delivered, even with the camera far away from the speakers, other times we hear nothing. Ominous music appears sparingly. Every step Joe takes in solving the mystery pushes him further into a corporate heart of darkness.
Joe believes Parallax are recruiting assassins but in point of fact their aim is considerably more devious. And here I don’t see how I can avoid a SPOILER ALERT. Parallax already have their assassins on board. What they are looking for are dupes, a patsy to take the blame once the killing has been done.
So when you look back from the ending what you find is that the cocky reporter is in fact exactly the kind of under-achiever the Parallax web attracts. There’s no proof of Joe’s editorial pedigree. Bill can point to any number of stories where Joe got hold of the wrong end of the stick. And the audience can see for themselves that he’s not exactly a super-brain. Sure, he can easily, with the help of a psychiatrist, pass the psychometric test, but how is he going to fare when he is linked up to some kind of machine that measures his response to visual imagery?
And you have to wonder what kind of idiot gets on a plane he suspects has a bomb on board instead of staying off the aircraft and making a phone call. Or how he managed, after surviving an explosion at sea, to swim several miles to shore and land on a beach without drawing attention to himself so that he can masquerade as a dead man.
There’s also a curious section where Joe triggers a fist fight that ends in a John Ford-style saloon-wrecking. After killing the suspicious sheriff and hijacking his car, Joe then, in true French Connection style, sparks a car chase, managing to evade his pursuers by (natch) jumping onto the back of a passing truck.
But for all these flaws, there is something hypnotic about the picture. A camera that moves with snail-like precision from extreme long shot to medium shot or close-up, a reining in of flamboyance in favor of discipline, and shadow given its biggest outing since the film noir golden era. Pakula was trying to make an obvious point about the shady authorities that exercise behind-the-scenes power. The government is either powerless or complicit, various hearings into assassinations discovering zilch. Paranoia is no less prevalent now, of course, but what makes the biggest impact is journalistic entitlement, the reporter who can change things because he is willing to go down those dark streets like an avenging angel, not realizing he is always going to one step behind.
Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966) has lost all the acting tics, the mumbling and stuttering he used to inflict on a weaker director, and instead delivers a great performance. Which is just as well because it’s a one-man show. Paula Prentiss (Man’s Favorite Sport, 1964) barely appears before she’s bumped off. William Daniels (Two for the Road, 1967) eschews his normal harassed husband for a well-judged turn.
David Giler (Aliens, 1986) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Three Days of the Condor, 1975) fashioned the screenplay form the novel by Loren Singer. Also worth a mention is the eerie score by Michael Small (Klute, 1971) who for a time was the go-to composer for paranoia pictures.