August 15, 2020


The Political Noir for the Age of Assassination (KYLE SMITH, August 14, 2020, National Review)

Warren Beatty plays Joe, an investigative reporter who serves as the era's version of a private eye, adopting fake personas and getting in a barroom brawl with a cop who calls him a girl for having shaggy hair. He is present for the murder of a politician in Seattle's Space Needle and at first dismisses his hysterical ex-girlfriend's claim that people who were present at the murder are being systematically eliminated in fake accidents. This element weakens the movie with its implausibility; the conspirators seem likely to attract far more attention for this elaborate, murderous cover-up than for the initial crime, which came off beautifully for them. A panel of mandarins has declared that one lone assassin, who conveniently was killed on the spot, carried out the killing. The audience knows something no one in the film has grasped: that there was a second assassin, who escaped the scene.

As Joe finds himself a target, he discovers a shadowy outfit called the Parallax Corporation that distributes a questionnaire designed to locate and encourage damaged men with psychotic tendencies whose energies might be steered to murdering on demand. Joe pretends to be a potential assassin and awaits recruitment. This leads to a sequence that should be as renowned as the brainwashing film in A Clockwork Orange: a nightmare reel that is meant to assess Joe's sympathies to its demon vision. For the audience it's a harrowing silent movie that summarizes everything dark and disturbing about the American soul, a twisted newsreel from hell, a cry from the throats of diseased and feverish souls like Lee Harvey Oswald's that is far more disturbing than anything in Chinatown's horizon of corruption. Pakula follows up this knockout sequence with another superbly crafted scene, in which Joe, without saying a word, discovers and attempts to foil an airline bombing. For 17 breathless minutes in the middle of the film, Joe essentially says nothing as Pakula keeps dialing up the tension.

Today the airplane scene carries information that wasn't apparent in the Seventies: that America's assassination problem was really just a security problem, which in turn was a naïveté problem. Joe dashes onto a plane the way you'd catch a bus, without even giving his name, then pays for his ticket in cash while aboard. A bag is on the plane that has not gone through a security screening and was dumped by a passenger who never boarded the plane. The defining noir mood of all-polluting evil is far more devastating in The Parallax View than in Chinatown because its shadowy forces control the historical narrative instead of just fattening their wallets in a municipal water deal. Parallax is taut and lean, and it's pure cold dread, lacking anything as campy as Faye Dunaway's unintentionally comical "She's my sister and my daughter" shriek. The two consecutive set pieces in the middle of the movie, the dizzying fight on the roof of the Space Needle, the twinned Warren Commission parodies, and Joe's dash for an illuminated doorway are all superbly realized, some of the most haunting images of Seventies cinema.

Such is the mastery of Pakula, and his cinematographer Gordon Willis, that even a scene of Beatty's Joe on the move outside a skyscraper drips with unease. The building -- 600 South Commonwealth Avenue in Los Angeles -- is one of those featureless glass boxes that had recently come to define office districts in cities across the country. Its flat, unreadable surface is a visual analogue to the theme of the movie: anonymous corporate power behind unreadable facades plotting unanswerable schemes. 

One of the easy ways to make money in a college town (especially one with a Medical School) is to be a guinea pig in academic studies.  The Daughter has been banking off of them for years and last Fall we both did one where they stick you in an MRI machine, show you film clips and measure your reactions.  I told her I felt like I was being programmed to assassinate someone and she, of course, did not get the reference, so we watched Parallax.  The similar scene freaked her out, but what really blew her mind was when he just hopped on the plane and bought the ticket onboard.  


Posted by at August 15, 2020 7:49 AM