Brainwashing for Novices: A Still Relevant 1974 Conspiracy Thriller


Alan Pakula’s marvelous 1974 conspiracy thriller The Parallax View has retained a continuing influence, not least in its intense interrogation scene, where undercover reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) undergoes a particularly disturbing psych-evaluation to become an assassin for the aforementioned Parallax Corporation’s ‘Human Engineering’ Division.


The Parallax View - Trailer


The series version of Watchmen in the ‘pod’ interrogation (from episode I), directly references Parallax’s famous ‘Test’.



Before The Parallax View,  both A Clockwork Orange and Soylent Green‘s elective euthanasia scene (a pastoral montage enhanced by Beethoven, Greig and Tchaikovsky) to an extent anticipated the psych-eval’s unsettling quality, but the likes of Westworld (HBO series), the Bourne films and others owe a debt directly to Pakula’s classic. 


Sol's Euthanasia [Soylent Green]


And some of the great brainwashing/mind-f**king scenes in other movies?  Just take a look at The Manchurian Candidate, The Ipcress File, 36 Hours, Jacob’s Ladder, The Mind-Benders, The Master and David Fincher’s The Game.


The Manchurian Candidate - opening scene


The idea possibly began on TV, with the original 60’s The Prisoner, and has more recently showed up in the re-booted Battlestar Galactica, Jessica Jones, Homecoming, and several others.


The Parallax View was scored by Michael Small (1939-2003), a sadly neglected talent who was also responsible for the great soundtracks to Night Moves, Marathon Man, Klute, The Driver and The China Syndrome. Anyone else seeing a pattern?


The Parallax View (The Test Scene)


The Parallax View was the 2nd of what was called Pakula’s ‘Paranoia Trilogy’, bookended by Klute (1971) and All The President’s Men (1976).  The link that connects the three pictures is their preoccupation with concepts such as surveillance, conspiracies, political and corporate assassinations, secret organizations and an overall sense of paranoia that either haunts the main players or becomes a complex net of mystery in which they’re entangled. This genre of conspiracy films really came into its greatest prominence during the beginning of the seventies and reached its zenith just after the Watergate scandal. A few other notable pictures of that period are The Conversation (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and The Domino Principle (1977).


What is so audacious about The Parallax View is the interrogation scene I referenced in my opening paragraph. The scene interrupts everything around the film’s midpoint to put Beatty through what amounts to a very mild brainwashing, meant to disassociate words like “father” and “country” from their positive associations and re-associate them with brutality and death, and strangely the Marvel Comics superhero Thor. At no point in the nearly five-minute montage (below) does Pakula or editor John W. Wheeler cut away from the imagery to show viewers the horrified face of the hero, Warren Beatty. Instead, viewers are forced to keep watching the whole sequence.


Are viewers being brainwashed, too?


Parallax View: The Incredible Montage


The Parallax View, while not a perfect film, offers a sense that reality itself is slowly coming unhinged and that dark plagues are being released by dark-hearted men. It starts with a man falling from the edge of the Space Needle and only gets crazier from there. Not many films can claim the same. 



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Stephen Arnell

Culture Comment Content Provider. Portrait courtesy of artist Darren Coffield. 'Non satis me tempo'