It’s a horror movie’s job to frighten and freak out its audience, and many of them do that job exceptionally well. But even better are those movies that operate in a more recognizable space of reality - no ghosts, hatchet-wielding killers, or monsters - and manage to unnerve and terrify with their ideas, images and execution. And movies in the 1970s were really, really good at this: in the climax of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist when Anna (Dominique Sanda) clumsily flees from her husband’s assassins - and her lover Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) - into a freezing, barren forest to die; in John Boorman’s Deliverance when a mysteriously dazed Drew (Ronny Cox) plunges into the Georgia river; and especially in Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View when Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty), realizing too late that he’s been set up as a scapegoat for a political assassination, begins a frenzied run through the darkness towards a blinding white door to freedom.
The Parallax View turns 45 on today, and particularly in our current political climate, it remains as frightening as the day it was released. But even if its ideas are still unsettlingly prescient, its triumphs and longevity come as a result of skillful storytelling and peerless technique.
Exactly how this movie has never received a proper release either on DVD or Blu-ray is a baffling mystery to me, underlined more vividly every time I see it. Working from a script by David Giler (Alien), Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Three Days of the Condor) and an uncredited Robert Towne (Chinatown), Beatty puts his aloofness to perfect use for Pakula (All the President’s Men) as Joseph Frady, a newspaper reporter investigating a political conspiracy whose truths quickly spiral out of his control. But extraordinary cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather) is the film’s MVP, following each new discovery in Frady’s investigation with a stark and terrifying honesty that highlights the character’s determination to break the biggest story of his career as well as his complete inability to recognize that he has inextricably - and perhaps fatally - become a part of it.
Pakula was on his own an extremely skillful filmmaker, but Willis took him to another level not just here but in all three entries in what was dubbed their “paranoia trilogy,” which included Klute and President’s Men. Though their account of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on Watergate has its share of scares - Woodward’s evasion of an unseen pursuer is an exercise in nail-biting tension - Pakula and Willis strike a paralyzing balance of curiosity and discomfort in Parallax as Frady makes another risky leap into an abyss that has already resulted in a series of mysterious deaths, and seems likely to continue even after his.
Some of this is done simply in the staging of sets and scenes, from the opening assassination against the backdrop of the Seattle skyline to Frady’s reinvention of himself in a cramped and claustrophobic studio apartment as a worthy, impatient candidate for hire by the Parallax Corporation. But by the time an incredulous Frady watches a brainwashing montage in Parallax’s division of Human Engineering, the movie is forcefully trying to tell the audience that his fate is sealed, filtering this confession through its mysterious shadows and light, much less the knowing glances and reassuring responses of suspiciously congenial officials and authority figures.
On a purely visceral level, there are few films from that era with the same kind of unspoken but riveting tension that the duo creates from scene to scene. After Frady’s first encounter with a local cop ends in the cop’s death, he returns to the dead man’s house to look for clues, quickly running afoul of his colleagues in a confrontation that escalates into a frantic, destructive car chase. Later, while pursuing a Parallax operative, Frady boards an airplane that he believes has a bomb on board, and must figure out a way to notify the flight crew without inciting panic but get them to take him seriously enough to land before it goes off. The anachronisms - buying a ticket after already boarding, smoking on airplanes - only add to the terror as the rest of the passengers go about their business unaware of the danger in which they find themselves. And then, finally, he chases another operative into an auditorium where thinking he has the upper hand, he finds himself locked in the black recesses of the catwalk above a senator whose imminent death he realizes that he will be blamed for.
Having seen the film both on 35mm and later multiple times digitally, it’s remarkable how its un-remastered negative oddly helps the audience identify with Frady’s feeling of isolation, of misguidedness - of frightening inevitability. There are long stretches where he’s barely visible in the shadows above the auditorium floor, hiding and watching as the murder unfolds below, and now after so much time, finally understanding his role not as the truth teller that brings down a house of cards but the pawn who convinces the rest of the world that it’s real. And then, at long last, there’s that door, at the other end of an impossibly long walkway, glowing white with salvation. Forty-five years later, Beatty’s run towards that doorway feels like the act of futility we seem to all experience every day in a world oppressive with constant mystery, manipulation and obfuscation. But as scary and dispiriting as it is, reflective of a depressing, often inescapable reality, the final scene of The Parallax View ultimately evidences hope (perhaps against hope) - the light of our beliefs, or ideals, too far away to reach, the seemingly inescapable darkness of unhappy truths standing in between, and a desperate determination to try and cross that distance anyway.