The Parallax View (1974) ****

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.

Beatty in the bar he’s about to wreck after ordering a drink of milk.

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.

Two for the Road (1967) ***

This film had everything. The cast was pure A-list: Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) and Oscar nominee Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963). The direction was in the capable hands of Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966), working with Hepburn again after the huge success of thriller Charade (1963). The witty sophisticated script about the marriage between ambitious architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and teacher wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) unravelling over a period of a dozen years had been written by Frederic Raphael, who had won the Oscar for his previous picture, Darling (1965). Composer Henry Mancini was not only responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – for which he collected a brace of Oscars – but also Charade and Arabesque. And the setting was France at its most fabulous.

So what went wrong? You could start with the flashbacks. The movie zips in and out of about half a dozen different time periods and it’s hard to keep up. We go from the meet-cute to a road trip on their own and another with some irritating American friends to Finney being unfaithful on his own and then Hepburn caught out in a clandestine relationship and finally the couple making a stab at resolving their relationship. I may have got mixed up with what happened when, it was that kind of picture.

A linear narrative might have helped, but not much, because their relationship jars from the start. Mark is such a boor you wonder what the attraction is. His idea of turning on the charm is a Humphrey Bogart imitation. There are some decent lines and some awful ones, but the dialogue too often comes across as epigrammatic instead of the words just flowing. It might have worked as a drama delineating the breakdown of a marriage and it might have worked as a comedy treating marriage as an absurdity but the comedy-drama mix fails to gel.

It’s certainly odd to see a sophisticated writer relying for laughs on runaway cars that catch fire and burn out a building or the annoying whiny daughter of American couple Howard (William Daniels) and Cathy (Eleanor Bron) and a running joke about Mark always losing his passport.

And that’s shame because it starts out on the right foot. The meet-cute is well-done and for a while it looks as though Joanna’s friend Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) will hook Mark until chicken pox intervenes. But the non-linear flashbacks ensure that beyond Mark overworking we are never sure what caused the marriage breakdown. The result is almost a highlights or lowlights reel. And the section involving Howard and Cathy is overlong. I kept on waiting for the film to settle down but it never did, just whizzed backwards or forwards as if another glimpse of their life would do the trick, and somehow make the whole coalesce. And compared to the full-throttle marital collapse of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) this was lightweight stuff, skirting round too many fundamental issues.

It’s worth remembering that in movie terms Finney was inexperienced, just three starring roles and two cameos to his name, so the emotional burden falls to Hepburn. Finney is dour throughout while Hepburn captures far more of the changes their life involves. Where he seems at times only too happy to be shot of his wife, she feels more deeply the loss of what they once had as the lightness she displays early on gives way to brooding.

Hepburn as fashion icon gets in the way of the picture and while some of the outfits she wears, not to mention the sunglasses, would not have been carried off by anyone else they are almost a sideshow and add little to the thrust of the film.

If you pay attention you can catch a glimpse, not just of Jacqueline Bissett (Bullitt, 1969) but Romanian star Nadia Gray (The Naked Runner, 1967), Judy Cornwell (The Wild Racers, 1968) in her debut and Olga Georges-Picot (Farewell, Friend, 1968). In more substantial parts are William Daniels (The Graduate, 1968), English comedienne Eleanor Bron (Help!, 1965) woefully miscast as an American, and Claude Dauphin (Grand Prix, 1966).

Hepburn’s million-dollar fee helped put the picture’s budget over $5 million, but it only brought in $3 million in U.S. rentals, although the Hepburn name may have nudged it towards the break-even point worldwide.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.