The Parallax View
Perhaps no director tapped into the pervasive sense of dread and mistrust that defined the 1970s more effectively than Alan J. Pakula, who, in the second installment of his celebrated Paranoia Trilogy, offers a chilling vision of America in the wake of the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. and about to be shocked by Watergate. Three years after witnessing the murder of a leading senator atop Seattle’s Space Needle, reporter Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) begins digging into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the killing—and stumbles into a labyrinthine conspiracy far more sinister than he could have imagined. The Parallax View’s coolly stylized, shadow-etched compositions by acclaimed cinematographer Gordon Willis give visual expression to a mood that begins as an anxious whisper and ends as a scream into the void.
The Criterion Collection presents Alan J. Pakula’s classic conspiracy thriller The Parallax View on Blu-ray, delivering the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Criterion’s 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration, which in turn was sourced from the 35mm original camera negative. A 2005 master, supervised by the film’s original cinematographer Gordon Willis, served as reference for colours here. The film’s original colour timer, Jon Boorstin, also supervised this restoration.
In all it’s another remarkable 4K restoration for a Paramount film. Blacks can get a bit heavy, and shadow detail is limited in a number of darker shots in the film (which there are plenty of) but it’s more than likely intentional, and it’s par for the course when compared to some of cinematographer Gordon Willis’ other films (Godfather films, All the President’s Men, Klute to name a few). Despite the dark look of the film, the black levels are deep and rich, neither coming off murky nor milky. The film’s colours lean a bit warm but not in any sort of ridiculous manner, and it looks pretty on-point for a film from the era. Whites still look white and blues look blue. Reds and oranges pop, as do greens, and skin tones don’t look jaundiced. Colour tones can change depending on a scene, like one scene that takes place in a morgue, which has a colder hue, but the colours do remain consistent and stable throughout.
The restoration has cleaned things up beautifully in comparison to the original Paramount DVD; not a single blemish ever pops up, not even during the experimental “test” movie that plays in the latter part of the film. The image is also razor sharp and crisp throughout, and the film’s very fine grain structure is rendered cleanly, never like noise. The grain even holds up during the film’s darker moments.
All around it’s a really sharp and clean looking presentation, to the point where it looks like the film could have been filmed today.
The disc features the film’s original monaural soundtrack, delivered here in lossless single-channel PCM. I was pretty floored by it, much to my surprise. Yes, it’s a single-channel mono track, but it does feature some incredible range and depth, particularly in its presentation of the score, and it rarely comes off flat. Even voices deliver. The track is also free of damage and distortion.
The film’s always deserved a special edition of some sort, and I was always a bit disappointed Paramount’s DVD featured nothing but a trailer (which is oddly not to be found here). This isn’t the stacked special edition I would have wanted, but I was impressed with how Criterion was able to cover more of the bases one would expect for the film.
Alex Cox starts things off with a 15-minute introduction, the filmmaker delving into the appeal of conspiracies, using the JFK assassination as a prime example, and how the political climate of the 70’s allowed audiences to be more open to films like The Parallax View. Criterion then includes two interviews with director Alan J. Pakula: excerpts from an audio recording of the director participating in AFI Harold Lloyd Master seminar in 1974, and then excerpts from a 1995 interview made for the AFI, each running 18-minutes and 6-minutes respectively.
The ’74 discussion features the director talking a little about his early career, Klute, and The Parallax View. For Parallax he focuses on a couple of scenes and talks about the process of casting and how a character can change based on who is cast. For example, the Parallax operative who works as Beatty’s character’s handler was originally conceived as a stereotypically tall and built secret agent until Walter McGinn was cast, changing the entire dynamic of character. He also explains how the writer’s strike at the time forced them to more-or-less make-up stuff on the spot, and how sequences were changed even on the day of filming for said sequence.
The ’95 on-screen interview is significantly shorter, and nowhere near as in-depth as the previous discussion, but Pakula talks about how the film contains three sequences he is the most proud of in his career, and he goes over them here. He also addresses some criticisms that had been thrown at the film at the time.
Together the two interviews showcase Pakula’s thought process and the intense planning that can go into every aspect of his films. Criterion’s presentation for both segments are also a bit more dynamic than usual, Criterion editing in a number of photos and clips to go along with what Pakula is talking about, all of which is more liberally applied to the first audio-only interview.
Following all of this is a new program about Gordon Willis, featuring footage from a 2004 interview with the cinematographer. Through this footage, clips from the film, and text notes quoting Willis and others about his work, the program examines his work with a focus on how he likes to use light in scenes, presenting “figures in space” (the title of the program). Sequences are referenced from the film, and he talks about a few specific scenes. Interestingly, he does not like the bar fight in the film, and still felt it didn’t work. The feature runs about 18-minutes.
Following that is a new interview (conducted through teleconferencing software) with Jon Boorstin, who was hired as an intern on the film, though managed to make some significant contributions to it. For one, Willis took the young man (who was just sort of wandering around at first) under his wing and taught him a lot about photography, so much so that he actually helped in the film’s colour timing during post-production when Willis was working on Godfather II. He also worked with Pakula on the Parallax test questions and the test film, and he shares the thought process that went behind both (he even found most of the photos that show up in the test film). Pakula talks a little about the test film in the audio interview, though Boorstin gets more into its construction and the lengthy editing process. He also shares some details about the chaos on-set since there was no finished script. This interview runs a short 15-minutes but it may be the most insightful an interesting feature on here.
The included booklet (which amusingly features 14 of the Parallax questions on the back) features an essay on the film, its messy production, and how it holds up today, written by Nathan Heller, followed by a reprint of an interview with Pakula for a 1974 issue of Filmmaker Newsletter. In the interview he talks about adapting his “style” to fit the work, the construction behind a number of sequences in the film (including getting the right location), and then about some of the technical challenges that go into making a film.
It’s not the special edition I would have hoped for, but I found the material engaging and it hit most of the right notes in covering the technical aspects of the film, including its experimental centerpiece.
A solid upgrade over the previous, near-barebones DVD edition, delivering some great material around the technical aspects of the film, along with a solid new high-def presentation.