Cinema: Paranoid Thriller

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Directed by ALAN J. PAKULA


The paranoid thriller is an expanding genre in movies and popular fiction.* The idea is to start from a thinly fictionalized version of a political tragedy like one of the Kennedy assassinations and build on it a thickly embroidered explanation that caters to the suspicion that such murders are plotted by a malevolent Establishment. It is apparently comforting for many people to believe that the course of the world is changed more by rational planning, however evil, than it is by irrational individual actions.

Nor is it very intelligent either, considering the amount of inept planning in contemporary society. We would probably be better off rethinking—or better yet, not thinking about—the whole dismal business, if only to put an end to ugly and dramatically unsatisfying products like The Parallax View.

The primary victim here is a young Senator, cut whole from the Kennedy cloth, whose brief appearance before he is done in hardly makes him seem a threat to any imaginable aspect of the status quo. Still, witnesses to the crime start dying at a rate far exceeding actuarial probability, thus arousing the suspicions of a newsman of counterculturish leanings. Played with a certain cheeky energy by Warren Beatty. the reporter soon becomes a target himself, then goes underground the better to penetrate an industrial security organization that apparently supplied the hit men for this series of crimes.

As he proved in Klute, Pakula has a restless eye for the banalities of daily life that gives the picture a richer texture than is usual in this genre. Early on, the film offers some promise. There is a brisk barroom brawl and a short car chase that is more smartly handled than these maneuvers usually are. But there is no way to build an overparanoid thriller or to provide a satisfactory ending. If the hero can break the conspiracy unaided, it cannot be much of a conspiracy. If, on the other hand, the conspiracy is all powerful, then the audience is robbed of the basic pleasure of identifying with the protagonist's triumph over the odds. Pakula opts for the latter resolution in Parallax and it is a downer. Though a touch of paranoid fantasizing can energize an entertainment, too much of it is just plain crazy—neither truthful nor useful. And certainly nothing for responsible men to try to make a buck with in the movies. ∎ Richard Schickel

* Recent films include Executive Action and The Conversation and novels like Richard Condon's Winter Kills and Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War.