Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ain’t that Pakula

TCM ran a mini-festival of films last night spotlighting the work of Alan J. Pakula, a director whose films range from the downright absorbing to downright head-scratchingly weird. Pakula excelled at the suspense thriller, with films like Klute (1971), All the President’s Men (1976) and Presumed Innocent (1990) to his credit. Both Klute and President’s Men have been long-time favorites of mine; Jane Fonda, of course, received most of the Klute kudos by winning the Best Actress Oscar for that film…but I’ve always thought Donald Sutherland was every bit as good in his portrayal of a detective with very little emotional output. I didn’t care for Innocent only because it was pretty damn obvious from the get-go who the culprit was and anytime a movie tries to manipulate me into thinking otherwise—well, it kind of tends to piss me off. (Jagged Edge [1985], call your office.)

TCM kicked the evening off with The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), Pakula’s directorial debut and not a bad little drammer…particularly if you’re a Liza Minnelli fan. But I decided to skip Cuckoo and watch my favorite Pakula film at 10:00pm—The Parallax View (1974), a ripping-good conspiracy suspenser starring Warren Beatty as a third-rate newspaper who begins to suspect a conspiracy in the political assassination of a prominent U.S. Senator when a colleague and intimate (TDOY fave Paula Prentiss) asks for his protection...and later turns up dead.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Parallax—and a few acquaintances of mine don’t quite understand my affinity for the movie—but the main reason I keep coming back for multiple viewings is that save for The Manchurian Candidate (1962), it’s the best conspiracy thriller ever made. I can’t honestly think of any other film which, while cloaked in paranoia, lays out a convincing case that it is possible to bring about a political assassination with a “lone gunman” conveniently set up to be the fall guy. This is precisely what happens to Joe Frady (Beatty)—in investigating the faceless corporation known as Parallax, he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when another U.S. Senator, George Hammond (Jim Davis), is eliminated.

Pakula’s direction in Parallax is intentionally murky and frustrating: he refuses to let the audience in on the whole picture, and oftentimes we can’t really make out what’s going on as the characters are filmed in shadows and through glass…often whispering conversations and never completing sentences in order to keep everyone off balance. The only thing in Parallax that doesn’t quite hold up today is a sequence where Frady boards an airplane and is allowed to purchase a ticket in-flight. He’s on the plane ostensibly to warn the crew that a bomb has been planted on board and though it’s extremely suspenseful (he writes a message on the bathroom mirror but then realizes that will most certainly point to him, so he falls back on writing the info on a cocktail napkin and we nervously anticipate when the flight attendant will discover the missive in the stack as she dutifully serves beverages to the other passengers) it will instill a sense of “Yeah, like that could happen nowadays.”

The other thing I like about Parallax is that it features familiar character actors in small but important roles: Kenneth Mars, who is probably best-known for his association with Mel Brooks (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) plays an ex-FBI agent who has a memorable conversation with Beatty as they ride an amusement park train (Beatty tells him he needs to create a phony background “of a anti-social misfit”—Mars assures him he’ll have no trouble). Anthony Zerbe, one of my favorite character actors, is a research professor consulted by Beatty about a questionnaire given out to prospective Parallax employees…and suggests that one of the mental patients at his facility take the test. Also appearing in the film are Hume Cronyn as Beatty’s editor, William Daniels, Kelly Thordson, Bill McKinney, William Jordan, Edward Winter, Earl “Wilson” Hindman and Walter McGinn.

Afterwards, TCM showcased another Pakula thriller based on the best-selling novel by John Gresham, The Pelican Brief (1993)—and while it was nice to see the director rebound after the disappointment that was Presumed Innocent, the huge Julia Roberts factor in Brief keeps it from really being a favorite. (If you’re fairly new to the blog, you might want to dig back into some of the old posts at Salon…filed under “Roberts, Julia; hatred of.”) Still, the all-star cast in this one helps quite a bit, and Brief is every bit as suspenseful as Pakula classics Parallax and President’s Men.

No comments: