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Revisiting Warren Beatty's career-defining role in 'The Parallax View'

There’s no doubting that Warren Beatty is an icon. Although he is widely known as Hollywood’s resident lothario, he is also so much more than that. The Virginia native is an accomplished actor, director, producer and screenwriter, and, over his 60-year career, Beatty has given us countless memorable moments. 

It’s indicative of his skill that Beatty has been nominated for 15 Academy Awards, including four Best Actor nods, four Best Picture, two Best Director, three for Original Screenplay and one for Adapted Screenplay. Famously, Beatty won Best Director for 1981’s historical epic Reds, a film that followed the career of John Reed, the American journalist who chronicled Russia’s October Revolution in the 1919 book Ten Days That Shook the World

Although there are many celestial points to discuss in Beatty’s vast career, from Reds to Heaven Can Wait and even the colourful adaptation of Dick Tracy in 1990, one thing is clear: his best performance came in 1974’s The Parallax View

The second instalment in Alan J. Pakula‘s ‘Paranoia Trilogy’, the film is steeped in political intrigue and urban paranoia. Strangely, many of its themes are as pertinent today as they were 48 years ago, with many of the sentiments of the 1970s remerging due to the proliferation of the internet, social strife and political skulduggery. 

You also have to remember that at the time, the Watergate Scandal was still crawling on, and it had threatened to bring America to its knees. So watching the film, at the point in time, America was grappling with the assassination of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and The Watergate Scandal, people were on the edge, and trust in the elite was at an all-time low. 

Starring alongside Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss, one would argue that not only is this Beatty’s best performance, but it is also the best of the ‘Paranoia Trilogy’, as the striking cinematography of the celebrated Gordon Willis really helped to bring the themes of the Loren Singer’s 1970 novel to life. Yes, Willis’ work in the other two films of the trilogy 1971’s Klute and 1976’s All the President’s Men are incredible, but in The Parallax View, it reaches new heights. 

The plot follows Joe Frady (Beatty), an anti-authoritarian Oregon reporter whose investigation of the shady Parallax Corporation threatens his own life and everyone’s around him. The Parallax Corporation’s primary goal is political assassination, and their ends echo the military-industrial complex that may have been at fault for the murder of President John F. Kennedy, if Oliver Stone’s JFK is to be believed. Duly, at the time, this was one of the most challenging political thrillers that people had ever seen, and it got a lot of people wondering just why the President had been murdered 11 years prior. 

At the beginning of the film, TV journalist Lee Carter witnesses the bungled assassination of Presidential candidate Charles Caroll atop Seattle’s Space Needle. Three years later, she visits her ex-boyfriend Frady and confesses that she believes a group far more nefarious were behind the assassination, as six of the witnesses have died since. Carter fears she’ll be next, but Frady scoffs at her assertion. Not long after, she’s found dead, and thus The Parallax View is in full swing; before too long, he finds himself fighting The Parallax Corporation. 

With flecks of The Manchurian CandidateA Clockwork Orange and coloured by a touch of labyrinthine Lynchian complexity, the sleek composition of the film is augmented by the performance of Beatty. His portrayal of the Frady is influenced by the countercultural ethos, and his mop-topped, suede jacket-wearing character is one of the coolest protagonists of the decade and of all time. 

Think Doc Sportello from Inherent Vice, just more compos mentis, with elements of Frank Bullitt and ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan mixed in for good measure. He plays the role of an idealistic journalist turned ‘patsy’ with piquancy, and the brainwashing scene is one of the most memorable you’ll ever see. There’s action, thought-provoking moments and some ice-cool comedy, and Beatty delivers it all with the mastery of a Hollywood great. 

Beatty’s Frady embodies the paranoia that engulfed progressive America at the time, and when watching the film, you’re transported back to that significant period. Given everything that’s going on in the world at the minute, I’d recommend you watch The Parallax View. A stellar reminder of Beatty’s charisma, after watching the final scene, your life won’t be the same again. 

Watch Gordon Willis talk about his breathtaking cinematography on The Parallax View below.