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“It is our further conclusion that he acted entirely alone”: The JFK Assassination In Culture Part 2b

November 22, 2013

As I mentioned in my previous post, there have been plenty of movies (as well as novels and TV episodes) that have brought up the idea the assassination of John F. Kennedy was not the work of one man, but of a vast conspiracy, and my list was by no means comprehensive. But for my money, the two movies that not only dealt with the idea of a conspiracy the best, but also really made you feel the shadowy forces that would be at work to achieve it, were Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979). They each use different means to get there – Pakula’s film is a suspense thriller that uses mostly suggestion, while Richert opts for black comedy combined with suspense – but the end result is terrific in both cases.

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Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) about to take the Parallax test.

In the book Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life, by Jared Brown, Pakula mentions how he wanted to try out different kinds of films and not be pinned down to one genre. And though he only directed 16 films (11 of which he produced; he also produced seven movies for director Robert Mulligan before deciding to direct), he did try to direct a variety of films, from romantic comedy (The Sterile Cuckoo) to Western (Comes a Horseman)  to romantic drama (Starting Over) to literary adaptation/period drama (Sophie’s Choice) to legal drama/thriller (Presumed InnocentThe Pelican Brief). But if he’s remembered as a director today (tragically, his life was cut short in 1998 at age 70 through a traffic accident), it seems to be for his unofficial “paranoia” trilogy in the 70’s, consisting of KluteThe Parallax View and All the President’s Men. While I like all three films (Klute, which is the weakest relatively speaking, has an excellent lead performance by Jane Fonda), it’s The Parallax View that holds up the best for me.

The film is based on a novel by Loren Singer, and the novel is more explicitly about the idea several people who witnessed the assassination died under mysterious circumstances (although it’s never named, the main characters in the novel are watching the Zapruder film). The movie, on the other hand, starts out with referencing Robert Kennedy’s assassination instead; Senator Charles Carroll (William Boyce), an independent party senator thinking of running for president, is hosting a luncheon on top of the Space Needle tower in Seattle when he’s suddenly assassinated. As security guards chase a waiter who has a gun, we see another waiter (Bill McKinney) putting his gun away, and it’s implied either he did it himself or was another shooter. The first waiter, named Thomas Richard Linder (Chuck Waters), ends up falling off the roof as he’s trying to escape the guards, and is killed. The film then makes its connection to JFK’s assassination explicit when we see a panel of men looking like judges, known as the Carroll Commission, giving their preliminary findings four months later; Linder acted alone, and there was no conspiracy.

Three years later, Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), a reporter and recovering alcoholic (he was at the Space Needle at the beginning, but couldn’t get into the luncheon, is getting in trouble with the police (for trying to get a story on a drug bust) and his editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn), who thinks Joe is creating news rather than reporting it. So he’s in no mood when Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a TV reporter and Joe’s ex-girlfriend, shows up at his apartment in a panic (she’s been calling him). Lee claims six other reporters who were at the luncheon have died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s afraid she’ll be next. Joe doesn’t want to hear it, claiming she’s just being paranoid. When Lee is found dead three days later in her apartment, however, Joe starts to believe her story, especially when Will (Kenneth Mars), an ex-FBI agent Joe knows, tells Joe how easy it is to make a person’s death look like a suicide (which is how the coroner ruled it). After Will agrees to give him a fake name and background, Joe heads to a small village in upstate Washington, where Alan Bridges, the last reporter before Lee was killed, died. L.D. Wicker (Kelly Thorsden), the sheriff, at first seems eager to help, but when he takes Joe to a river by a dam (where Bridges was killed), it turns out Sheriff Wicker really wants to kill Joe. As water escapes from the dam, Joe and the sheriff both fall in the river and get in a fight, but Joe manages to escape while the sheriff drowns. At the sheriff’s house, Joe discovers forms and tests from the Parallax corporation, and when he gets back to the newspaper (after being chased by Red (Earl Hindman), Wicker’s deputy, when Red discovers Joe at the sheriff’s house), Joe tries to convince Bill he’s on to something big. Bill doesn’t believe it, but allows Joe to continue with the story.

The Carroll Commission.

With help from Nelson Schwarzkopf (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), a local psychology professor, Joe is able to fake the results of the written test from Parallax (Joe signs it with the name of Richard Parton, the ex-con alias Will had set up for him), so he can apply to it. Joe also finally manages to track down Austin Tucker (William Daniels), a former aide to Senator Carroll (he was also at the luncheon at the beginning) who has been in hiding. He tells Joe how he believes there was a conspiracy, and points to the other waiter at the luncheon (he has a photograph). The two of them, along with Tucker’s bodyguard, are on a boat, and a bomb explodes, killing Tucker and his bodyguard, but once again, Joe manages to escape. When Joe returns to the newspaper, Bill at last is convinced there’s a story (Joe was reported dead), but Joe manages to convince him that he should keep digging and pretend to be dead. Joe is soon approached by Jack Younger (Walter McGinn), who works for the Parallax corporation, and tells Joe they liked his test scores. But will Joe be able to find the truth about Parallax?

In his review of the film for Sight & Sound, critic Philip French called the movie “a paranoid film as well as a film about paranoia”. Part of that comes from the fact, except for Younger, Sheriff Wicker and the mysterious assassin from the beginning (who also pops up a few other times in the film), we never really see anyone from the Parallax corporation, yet the film gives you the feeling anyone could be involved* (the novel is a little more explicit about who works for the company, but not too much), and anyone could die at any minute. It also comes from the work of editor John W. Wheeler (who worked on Pakula’s directorial debut The Sterile Cuckoo) and especially from cinematographer Gordon Willis (this was the second of six films Willis and Pakula would work on together). As per usual in a film shot by Willis, there’s a lot of natural light and dark photography, especially in all the scenes that take place indoors, such as the hotel room Joe is in when Younger first sees him (Willis does contrast it with scenes such as the one with Professor Schwarzkopf, which is more brightly lit because that character has no hidden motives), and this helps to give the movie a sense of unease at all times. He also gives a plastic, faceless look to the places Joe visits, from the bar where Joe first meets Sheriff Wicker to that hotel room (only Bill’s newspaper office is shot in warmer colors, and feels lived in). Also contributing to that is Wheeler’s editing, which adds to the elliptical nature of the film; this especially comes out early on, where the film goes from Lee begging Joe to help her right to the morgue, where she’s lying dead on a slab, and we don’t realize until several seconds into the scene that it’s Joe the coroner is talking to.

This paranoid feeling especially comes through in what became the most famous scene in the film, when Joe is given a test by the Parallax corporation that consists nothing more than monitoring his reaction to a series of images (accompanied to music), which start out showing the usual images of the American dream but then turn into something darker (in the novel, it’s a word association test). This is meant to be a form of brainwashing, or at least a way of manipulation, but what’s unusual about the whole sequence is how it’s more seductive than assaultive (compare this, for example, to the similar sequence in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is forced to watch images to turn him from a sociopath into a “normal” member of society. True, the nature of Kubrick’s movie demanded Alec’s treatment be more assaultive, but it’s still amazing how Pakula, Willis and Wheeler are able to pull off, and show, manipulation that’s this subjective. It’s also of a piece in how Pakula is showing the dark side of Americana; not just with the training film, but also the luncheon at the beginning and a political rally rehearsal at the end (originally, it was going to be a fundraising rally until Pakula, Willis and production designer George Jenkins – who was art director on Klute and went on to be production designer on nine more films Pakula directed – saw the convention center being set up and decided a rehearsal would work even better for the film), which at first seems like your typical political event, complete with patriotic music, until the shocking turn it takes.

Lee (Paula Prentiss) pleads with Joe.

While it’s accurate to call The Parallax View a conspiracy thriller and a paranoid thriller – and to link it to Kennedy (even though Pakula didn’t want any explicit associations, though the Carroll Commission, which appears at the beginning and end, is a dead giveaway) as well as the unease that came from Vietnam and Watergate – Pakula (at least according to interviews Brown excerpts in his book) also saw this as a Western set in modern day and turned inside out. Although Joe is able to take care of himself physically (we see him not only fight off Sheriff Wicker in the river, but also Red in the bar, in a fight not unlike a Western bar brawl), he’s more of a smart-ass and less laconic than your typical Western hero. However, he has the unshakable confidence in himself that he alone can get to the bottom of this and he’ll be able to take care of himself, and Pakula’s film sets out to undercut him at every turn, showing just how little he knows (only once, when he’s able to get a plane to land that has a bomb on board, is Joe ahead of the game). By the climax of the film, when Joe finally figures out just how little he’s known all this time, it’s too late. This, of course, is keeping with the times of unhappy endings (as well as keeping in with the novel, which otherwise has a radically different ending), but it also keys into this idea of a Western hero made ineffectual, no matter how cocky he is.

Considering how well the film is put together, it may come as a surprise how much of it was done on the fly. Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who also was one of the writers of Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, another great 70’s conspiracy thriller) was the original writer of the film, but David Giler (the original Fun with Dick and Jane) rewrote it at Pakula’s request, Beatty, as per usual, brought in his friend Robert Towne to help out, and because of an impending writer’s strike, Pakula did a lot of re-writing on set. Originally, Joe (named Malcolm Graham in the novel) was going to be a cop, with Bill being his superior office (in the novel, Malcolm was an ex-reporter), but Pakula had it changed to a reporter and editor, and also encouraged improvisation. Apparently, despite the fact it allowed for multiple takes, which was Beatty’s preferred way of shooting, he wasn’t too happy with Pakula’s approach here (in Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman recounted how when he met Beatty, and managed to tell him Goldman would be working with Pakula on All the President’s Men, Beatty’s reply was, “Just make sure you’ve got it before you go out on the floor”). But it ends up working for the film, and even for Beatty’s performance. Like Robert Redford, another romantic leading man of the 70’s, Beatty could be frustratingly opaque, yet what made him ideal for the 70’s is unlike Redford, Beatty was willing to play with his image more, as McCabe & Mrs. MillerShampoo and this film proved. There’s no extraneous plot thread here, like a love story (there was one in the novel, between Malcolm and the widow of a Parallax assassin Malcolm killed), just Joe trying to survive on his wits, and Beatty effectively conveys how Joe actually is intelligent, just not as much as he thinks he is. The other roles are smaller, but Prentiss (whose character was originally an older, wisecracking woman, in keeping with the novel, until Pakula met Prentiss), Cronyn (who, aside from Beatty, has the largest role and makes the most of it), Daniels, McGinn (Younger was originally supposed to be more like an FBI man until Pakula met with McGinn) and others are all terrific. In a recent article for The Guardian, Alex Cox (Repo Man) called Pakula’s film one of the high points of the golden age of 70’s film, and though the film was poorly received with critics at the time and at the box office, I’d agree, and say the film has gotten better and more relevant over time.

*-It’s probably accurate to say Jonathan Demme’s re-working of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) owes as much to Pakula’s film as it does to Condon’s original novel and Frankenheimer’s film version, especially in the sense of a shadowy corporation having its hands in everything.

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Nick (Jeff Bridges, far right) and Keifitz (Richard Boone, second from right) with two orderlies and Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell), the alleged second gunman.

Whereas Pakula’s film was serious and oblique, Richert’s film of Winter Kills is blackly comic and direct. This, of course, comes straight from the original novel by Richard Condon, and keeping in line with Condon’s other novels (The Manchurian CandidatePrizzi’s Honor), but it’s also the approach Richert, who had started out in documentaries, wanted to take. In a documentary about the making of the film, Richert said he wanted to make it like a modern day Alice in Wonderland, which may seem like an odd approach for a conspiracy thriller, yet in its own way, the novel (and film) capture a feeling of paranoia just as much as Pakula’s film does.

The hero of this story is Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), brother of former President Tim Kegan, who was assassinated 19 years earlier. Nick is working on an oil tanker owned by his powerful and wealthy father, Pa Kegan (John Huston), when Keifitz (Richard Boone), Nick’s closest friend and co-worker, tells Nick a rig worker who had an accident and is dying is claiming to be the second gunman that killed Tim, and he wants to speak to Nick. The gunman, named Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell), who’s heavily bandaged and can barely talk, tells Nick his gun and ammunition are in a steam pipe in a room on the sixth floor of a building in Philadelphia. Nick, along with Miles (David Spielberg), who works for Pa Kegan but is close with Nick anyway (Nick and his father don’t get along), and Captain Heller (Brad Dexter), a Philadelphia police captain, go into the building, and they manage to find the rifle and ammunition. However, when the three of them get back into the car, Nick gets distracted by a woman (Barbara Richert, the writer/director’s real-life wife at the time) riding a bicycle, and when he turns his attention back to the car, he discovers Miles, Captain Heller and the driver have all been shot dead. Not only that, but when Nick ducks into a building and calls up Cerruti (Anthony Perkins), his father’s right-hand man, the car is driven off, with the rifle still inside.

Reluctantly, Nick tells his father what happened, and Pa Kegan confides while he went along with the report of the Pickering Commission that Willie Arnold (whom we never see) was the lone assassin, he never believed it, and he wants Nick to investigate, using only his help. Nick goes to see a number of people who might be connected, among them Z.K. Dawson (Sterling Hayden), an arms industrialist who hated Kegan but claims he didn’t kill him, Ray Doty (Michael Thoma), who tells Nick about Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach), the nightclub owner who killed Arnold, and how Diamond was forced onto the job by Gameboy Baker (Ralph Meeker), and a mobster named Irving Mentor (Irving Selbst), who tells him the mob organized his brother’s assassination through a man named Casper Jr. But as Nick goes further into his investigation, he finds himself still targeted (a maid at a hotel he usually stays at tries to kill him), and he doesn’t know who to trust, including his girlfriend Yvette Malone (Belinda Bauer), a newspaper writer whom he loves (he wants to marry her, but she keeps putting him off), but turns out to be more mysterious than he thought.

Nick with his estranged father (John Huston).

One thing Richert’s film has in common with Pakula’s is how elliptical it is, though in the case of Winter Kills, it wasn’t entirely by choice. True, the way the movie sends Nick down the rabbit hole is consistent with the novel (with the exception of a couple of changes which I’ll get to in a minute), but while Richert was able to get an impressive array of talent both in front of (in addition to the cast mentioned above, there’s also Dorothy Malone as Nick’s mother, Toshiro Mifune as Nick’s childhood butler and mentor, and Elizabeth Taylor as a gangster’s girlfriend (her then-husband John Warner appears uncredited as Tim)) and behind the camera (Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) was the cinematographer, and Robert F. Boyle (North by Northwest), who also appeared briefly as a hotel clerk, was the production designer), the film got shut down twice thanks to money troubles. Executive producers Leonard J. Goldberg and Robert Sterling were exploitation producers (they had done the Emmanuelle films) and, according to Richert, drug dealers (Goldberg ended up getting murdered, while Sterling went to jail), and the film ran out of money a couple of times. This meant there were plenty of things Richert wanted to shoot but couldn’t (according to the DVD commentary, the woman on the bicycle was supposed to be an angel, but Richert couldn’t afford to make that clear, though he said audiences seemed able to intuit there was something otherworldly about her), and it also made for some abrupt transitions (such as when Nick goes from first meeting Pa Kegan as he’s driving in from playing golf to Nick riding on a horse the next day, stopping, and yelling to the skies, “You stink, Pa!”). However, this adds to the satirical and funhouse tone of the film.

Richert may not have been the visual stylist Frankenheimer was in his adaptation of a Condon novel, but he makes some interesting choices to add to the comic tone. In the novel, Nick’s meeting with Dawson takes place in Dawson’s house, but in the movie, it’s in a field, as Dawson is with his private army doing a series of exercises with tanks (Dawson even tells Nick he’s going to shoot him if he doesn’t get off his property), making him all the loonier. Then there’s the meeting Nick has with Frank Mayo (Tomas Milian), another mobster; in the novel, it’s with Nick and Pa Kegan in a hotel room, but in the movie, it’s in a police van, as he’s supposedly just out of prison long enough to meet with Nick. Richert also goes even further in portraying how debauched Pa Kegan is; when Nick first sees him as he’s driving in on a golf cart, Kegan has two beautiful women in the cart with him, and offers Nick either one of them. Richert also ends up combining the character of Yvette with Chantal Lamers (in the novel, she’s the reporter), though that ends up working, and making a character who was completely on Nick’s side throughout turn traitor at the end, and that’s questionable but goes by so fast you don’t really have time to think about it. More damaging – and I wonder how much of this was by choice or by necessity – is the motive rant by the person ultimately behind it all (unlike Parallax View, Nick learns the true culprit, but it doesn’t make him any happier), which in the movie is given to another character (though the true villain is the same). It works well enough on screen, but I still think the movie would have been better if it had stuck closer to the novel in this respect.

Still, Richert manages to combine both the comic tone with genuine suspense (the scene in Philadelphia when Nick discovers everyone around him is dead is definitely hair-raising), as well as a tone of paranoia (Boyle does a terrific job in the computer center where Cerruti works, where it seems like all the information in the world, and the dirt on everyone, is stored). Also, while there are parallels to other historical figures besides John F. Kennedy and Joe Kennedy (Diamond is based on Jack Ruby, while Taylor is based very loosely on Judy Campbell, a woman who slept with both Kennedy and mobster Sam Giancana), Richert doesn’t push the parallels, but lets us discover them for ourselves (of course, audiences then might have been able to take it more for granted). And of the famous faces in the movie, only Mifune seems wasted on his part (in the commentary, Richert admits he shot more scenes with Mifune – who spoke in his own voice, and learned his dialogue phonetically – but was afraid the audience would laugh at him, as English was a struggle for him, so he cut his part to the bare minimum). Taylor only mouths one word of dialogue (an obscenity), but certainly conveys someone who has a shady past, Hayden is as colorful as usual, while Meeker was no longer as lean and mean as he was in movies like Kiss Me Deadly, he’s still effectively menacing, as is Perkins, and while this was Bauer’s first film, she holds her own with Bridges (she became involved with Richert during filmmaking).

Elizabeth Taylor as Lola Camonte.

But it’s Bridges and Huston who make this work especially well. As I’ve written before, I think Bridges was often underrated because he made it look easy and didn’t take roles depending on his looks. In this movie (and the novel), Nick has lived in the shadow of his brother, who was always more glamorous and obsessed with power than he was, and Bridges gets the resentment his character feels because of this down pat. At the same time, in order for all this to work, we need to be willing to follow Nick as he goes through one byzantine turn in the story after the other, and without explicitly playing for our affection, Bridges does that too. As for Huston, he reportedly took the role because he apparently had the same feelings about Joe Kennedy in real life that Condon did, and thought it was effectively conveyed in the script. But Pa Kegan is also of a piece with Noah Cross, the villain from Chinatown made memorable by Huston’s performance. Kegan of course is a more satirical figure than Cross (though just as debauched), but Huston makes you see the steeliness and venom, as well as the debauchery, of Kegan.

When Winter Kills was finally finished and released in 1979, it received rapturous reviews from the New York critics (Vincent Canby (New York Times), David Ansen (Newsweek) and Michael Sragow (Rolling Stone), among others, all praised it) and did decent business there, but after about a week or two in Los Angeles (where the reviews weren’t quite as stellar), it disappeared from theaters completely. In an article for Harper’s magazine, Condon apparently claimed Avco Embassy (which distributed the film), which did business with the Kennedy family, was pressured by the Kennedys to bury the film. Whatever the reason, the film re-emerged in 1983 with a different cut. The film is now on DVD in an out-of-print 2-disc edition from Anchor Bay (which has a making-of documentary), as well as a DVD-R version from Lionsgate. Either way, it’s worth checking out, as it’s one of the unsung films of the 70’s, and just as much as The Parallax View (in its own, twisted way), gets to the heart of the feelings of conspiracy that arose out of Kennedy’s assassination.

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From → Books, Movies

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