The Parallax View: A Mixed-Bag Political Thriller (Criterion Blu-ray)
Political thrillers have been a beloved sub-genre for several decades, giving us such renowned classics as "JFK," "All the President's Men," "The Manchurian Candidate," and works of more recent acclaim like "Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty," and "Bridge of Spies." Films like these keep you on the edge of your seat as they weave the audience threw their webs of conspiracies and intricate plots, continually making you wonder who's to be trusted or who's trying to further their own agenda.
One of the smaller entries in the field was Alan J. Pakula's "The Parallax View," released in 1974, and now coming to Blu-ray for the first time via the prestigious Criterion Collection. Receiving mixed reviews upon its original release, it has gained a somewhat more appreciative following in the past few decades, with many admiring it for its artistic elements and a remarkable turn from Warren Beatty, and some even calling it one of the best political thrillers ever made. Is it deserving of such high praise, or is this an example of a "classic" that critics got right in the first place?
The film starts off with the shocking assassination of Senator Charles Carroll atop the Seattle Space Needle, with the killer falling to his death, and a committee determining that he acted alone. Three years later, a reporter, Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), is visited by his ex, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a witness to the assassination, claiming that other witnesses are being systematically murdered and fearing that she could be next. Frady doesn't believe in her conspiracy, but she is indeed soon found dead, causing Frady to launch an investigation into the mysterious deaths that will have him putting his own life at risk to get to the buried truth.
On the outset, "The Parallax View" presents itself as a rather typical conspiracy-fueled political thriller as it kicks off with a surprising murder, and subsequently delves into a dangerous investigation that slowly reveals how there is something going on that has been kept from the public eye. To its credit, it follows these familiar beats pretty well, amping up the tension every now and again as Frady gets closer to the truth, risking his career and his neck to uncover a plot that has left several bodies in its wake. In that same vein, it's a perfect spot to mention that Beatty's performance is indeed spot on, imbuing Frady with a non-stop determination to get to the center of this deadly conspiracy.
This is coupled with sturdy direction from Alan J. Pakula (who would go on to direct such classics as "All the President's Men" and "Sophie's Choice") and excellent camerawork from cinematographer Gordon Willis ("The Godfather Trilogy"), but is it enough to offset the film's flaws? Not quite. While the film does play with the tension to varying degrees of success, it's what's very accurately referred to as a "slow-burner," which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, when you're going through such familiar and unusually simple steps to come to the conclusion, it ends up not doing very much for the film overall.
In a film like this, of course you expect that there is going to be a fair amount of build-up, all of which will eventually result in a finale that presents a payoff that makes the slow-burning build-up worth it, but unfortunately that's where "The Parallax View" stumbles a bit as well. The film's revelation of events has the audience knowing pretty much how it's going to end, so all we can really do is sit back and watch it play out, and even if you didn't piece it together, it still comes across as an unsatisfactory conclusion after having waited patiently through the film's somewhat lax pacing.
Everything considered, it's easy to see what prompted those very mixed reviews from the film's original release. There is a good deal of artistry that went into it, and Beatty certainly gives it his all, but the screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the novel by Loren Singer) leaves just a little too much to be desired. Ultimately, while the film may not have been entirely successful in its own aims, it's more than fair to say that it helped lay the groundwork for the greatness that was to come in its ever-growing field, and for that, the fans of the sub-genre will forever be grateful.
"The Parallax View" comes to Criterion Blu-ray in a newly-restored 4K, 2.39:1 digital transfer of outstanding quality. In typical Criterion fashion, they've taken this 47-year-old film and made it look practically new again, with little in the way of noticeable grain/scratches. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is equally clean and impressive, presenting the dialogue, score, and sound effects in excellent quality. Overall, as usual, Criterion has done another remarkable job in its restoration, leaving you with a flawless experience in both departments.
Alex Cox Introduction (15 Minutes): An intro by filmmaker Alex Cox in which he discusses conspiracies and political thrillers.
Alan J. Pakula Interviews (18 Minutes and 6 Minutes): A pair of interviews with the director/producer, one from 1974 and the other from 1995, in which he discusses the film and his approach to directing.
Gordon Willis Interview (18 Minutes): A 2004 interview with the acclaimed cinematographer in which he discusses his relationship with Pakula and shooting the film.
Jon Boorstin Interview (15 Minutes): An interview with the director's assistant in which he discusses the written and video tests featured in the film.
Alan J. Pakula's "The Parallax View" is impeccably made, featuring sharp direction, incredible camerawork from Gordon Willis, and a remarkable turn from Warren Beatty, but thanks to a somewhat lackluster screenplay, this political thriller ultimately becomes a slow burn to a disappointing and unsatisfactory conclusion.
Available on Criterion Blu-ray/DVD starting tomorrow.
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