This movie appeared long before the recent heightened interest in “conspiracy theories.” John F. Kennedy's assassination and the resulting government sponsored investigation by the Warren commission led to many people questioning “official” explanations of events. Although this movie does not concern JFK's assassination, it deals with similar fictional events. Before JFK, before Conspiracy Theory, before most of the films sometimes considered to form the foundation of this sub genre of thriller, The Parallax View dared to question standard explanations of political events.
The movie begins showing a totem pole. As the camera angles change, the Seattle “space needle” appears from behind the pole as a slow but rhythmic drum beat occupies the sound track. The scene changes to display a television news reporter: Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) covering Senator Charles Carroll attending an Independence Day event at the space needle. Lee states that the Senator displays his own independence, by not clearly and consistently aligning on issues with either political party.
She introduces Austin Tucker (William Daniels), the Senator's political adviser and asks him about the rumor that Senator Carroll may get “the nomination.” Tucker claims the Senator concentrates on his current office rather than running for another. The camera shows a colorful parade in which the Senator (Bill Joyce), wearing a fireman's hat, and his wife (Bettie Johnson), ride in a carriage pulled by horses. The effusive Lee Carter gets a short interview with the Senator and his wife before they enter an elevator to ride to the top of the space needle.
The press of people heading for the elevator also contains print media reporter Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty). Security guards challenge his press credentials. Joe claims association with Lee Carter. However, when the guards ask her about that, she denies it. Frady does not attend. The scene changes to the conference atop the tower, where the Senator mingles. One sinister seeming “waiter” takes a drink tray from his partner “waiter,” which frees his partner: Thomas Richard Linder (Chuck Waters, by the way, note the character's three names almost always attributed to assassins by the media) to shoot the Senator. However, the movie also catches the first waiter (Bill McKinney) with a drawn gun.
As security agents pursue Linder: the observed shooter, he attempts to make his escape by climbing to the top of the tower. (How might this work?) However, after wrestling with security agents on the topmost part of the tower, he falls to his death. The other waiter escapes notice. The following scenes show a spokesperson (Stacy Keach Sr.) for a select committee of inquiry into Senator Carroll's death.
The committee has invited media people for an official announcement, not a press conference: no questions. “A complete transcript of the investigation is being prepared for publication....” Of course, the committee has found that Thomas Richard Linder “acted entirely alone.” The spokesman goes on to say that they found no evidence of a wider conspiracy and adds “it's our hope that this will put an end to the kind of irresponsible and exploitive speculation by the press....” Sound familiar? It should.
The opening credits now roll over a scene of the committee seated at a dimly lit and wood paneled dais. Three years pass. Implicated during a police drug raid, investigative reporter Joseph Frady gets released to the custody of his editor: Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn), who encourages Joe to practice more tame journalism. Lee Carter contacts Joe. She tells him “somebody's trying to kill me.” She tells him about several other people who died under what she believes mysterious circumstances. Joe remains unconvinced, but when Lee also dies, he starts to investigate: talking with a former FBI Agent and later a psychologist (Kenneth Mars and Anthony Zerbe, respectively, in small cameo roles). That much introduces all the main characters, with the exception of Jack Younger (Walter McGinn) who appears much later in the film.
So, when I say that this movie concerns “conspiracy theories” what do I mean? I'll attempt a short explanation. Most people try to manipulate events to their advantage: to achieve their desires. People often differ in how much they will do to manipulate events. Most take the usual and generally accepted paths: attempting to persuade others of the merits of the actions they favor, using their existing position and advantages to gain their desires, and so on. However, throughout history -- in addition to peaceful methods, some people have used deceit and violence to achieve their ends.
By its nature, the field of politics concerns itself with controlling events. Therefore, those who have strong desires to manipulate events seem to always involve themselves in politics, whether as politicians or behind the scenes. As with other areas of activity, those who use deceit and violence to manipulate events also display interest in politics. In fact, many people have characterized politics as little more than deceit and violence with “good public relations” (propaganda). Considering all that, questioning “official explanations” from the power structure in any society seems like a sensible action. This movie fits within that style of questioning.
This film came along much earlier than many better known and more recent films which deal with similar subject matter. However, The Parallax View helped to start an important tradition in film. Even though it was released more than thirty years ago, it remains topical and very relevant. I recommend it strongly.