An Alan J. Pakula double feature at the New Beverly, especially nice for watching master cinematographer and 'prince of darkness' Gordon Willis's widescreen compositions and moody lighting on the big screen.
I had seen The Parallax View before back in college and written a paper about it, but seeing it now confirmed one of my initial impressions: it's kind of a mess. Parallax is a fully paranoid, post-'60s thriller produced by and starring Warren Beatty as a small-time reporter who stumbles into investigating a shadowy corporation that may or may not be involved with a massive conspiracy to assassinate political leaders. In this world, the paranoia is bone-deep and the conspiracy has tendrils at every level of society, from the highest levels of government down to a local small-town sheriff. Even the politician targeted at the film's climax is a pitch-black joke, a Presidential candidate more interested in telling golf jokes and flirting with campaign aides than taking on the world's problems - he's no Bobby Kennedy, and he's barely even a George Wallace.
There's nothing wrong with the craft of the movie, Willis's cinematography, or Beatty's smart, angry performance, but the movie awkwardly tries to straddle a dry '70s naturalism with a more moody, expressionistic sense of visual dread and darkness - sort of as if Robert Altman had tried to remake a Fritz Lang film. And it could have worked, except that the screenplay has a rambling, uneven quality that never really lets us get too close to any characters or any emotions aside from dislocation. I'm a fan of conspiracy thrillers, but this one feels too much like an exercise. All that said, within the flawed package there are a number of great individual sequences, including a dazzling montage at the movie's midpoint that dissects the American dream and illustrates the spiritual malaise of America in the post-Watergate era. Given that the movie was made right at the height of that period, it's not a big surprise that the movie should give vent to the most dismal, pessimistic attitudes of the time and not have much room beyond that for characterization.
Pakula's Klute, meanwhile, is a very different animal, a more conventional romance/thriller that could have been made in the 1940s with Bogart and Bacall, except back then the movie would have been more interested in the hard-boiled detective's sense of moral outrage and honor instead of the personal emotional crisis of a high-class prostitute, which is what we get here.
Klute's set-up is classical: Jane Fonda's jaded call girl has to work with Donald Sutherland's uptight detective to solve a case. From that simple starting point Pakula takes his audience into a realm of subtle yet pervasive visual menace and modern psychological insight. Fonda's Bree Daniels is a sometime-actress and model who's managed to build a cozy little nest of denial in her secret life. Suddenly she's forced to come face-to-face with the seedy side of the world she's fallen into, and to open up to interactions with a man she can't seduce and manipulate, and who she finds herself falling for. That makes the movie sound like it has a conservative slant (detective gets hooker to wise up) but this is balanced by the movie's lack of moralizing about Bree's role as a prostitute, that she serves her clients' emotional needs more than she does their physical ones; and the movie's general sense of sympathy towards the have-nots, as highlighted in a scene where a pair of frantic heroine addicts are denied their fix by the presence of Sutherland, obviously a cop, in their apartment. A lesser movie would have smirked at these junkies, but Pakula chooses to simply watch and silently commiserate with the couple in their moment of woe. Add in Fonda's Oscar-winning work and Sutherland's understated yet strong supporting role as John Klute, plus a world-class creep performance from the movie's bad guy, and you have a modern classic, which I'm glad to have finally seen.