Pakula's Paranoia

Phoenix Film's Ray Hyland takes an in depth look at the paranoid 70s thrillers of Alan J. Pakula.

Alan J. Pakula
The early 1970s were a perhaps the most creative in American filmmaking, particularly movies that questioned the authority that hitherto could not be questioned. Not only were the pictures asking questions and prodding at long accepted norms. Ageing studio executives too, their cigars long since extinguished on the back-lots of Hollywood, could now see their world passing over the horizon into new territory. For a few years it seemed like things would never be the same again.

Then Jaws came.

Before Spielberg lied about his age and managed to convince Universal to stump up the cash for his admittedly brilliant summer blockbuster, the silver age of cinema produced some of the most gripping, socially conscious films ever made in the US. Three of these films were made by Alan J. Pakula.

Pakula had arrived in Hollywood in the late fifties as a cartoonist. He had made a deal with his father that he would try his luck in the film industry for one or two years. Failure would mean returning home to help run his dad's print business instead.

Considering how long it took him to discover the director's chair might suggest it took Pakula a while to get his big break. On reflection he probably got ahead faster than most.

His production of To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962 was a clever bit of business. The book had sold exceptionally well worldwide and just needed a steady hand and canny casting to ensure cinematic success too. Pakula had seen the television work of Robert Mulligan and had been impressed enough to sign him up as director. Experienced leading man Gregory Peck would be the name up in lights. It wasn't expected to fail and it didn't.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Pakula worked with Mulligan a further three times in the 60s. But if he ever had the directing itch himself he certainly hid it well. His only tenuous credit to date was a version of a Chekov play in college but the experience clearly had left some impression on him.

By 1970 America as we know it had been born. Whatever came before it was the death of something far more naive and altogether less guilt ridden. Yes Washington DC has perhaps always been a home to conspiracy, back stabbing and ill will. But the first time in its history the citizens who were rebelling against the system saw opportunity where once there was none.

As colour photography became more than just a rich man's plaything, monthly and even weekly reports from around the world displayed the after effects of US foreign policy. The murder of Kennedy in 1963 may have shook the nation but by the end of the decade the loss of innocence had become the disaffection of authority, both peaceful and violent. Richard Nixon would oversee the summer of love and race riots in Pennsylvania during the same month.

The revolution of America was not reserved for those protestors on Capitol Hill. Filmmakers were quickly adapting to the changing of seasons. The old guard were dying out; it was time for the mavericks.

Oddly enough Pakula was one man who seemed to have a foot in both boats. Mockingbird had been the biggest and best of his work so far. After that came a few collaborations with the likes of Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood but nothing had quite grabbed the lightning rod like 'Atticus' and ol’ 'Boo Radley'. He was seen as a Hollywood producer however moderately successful but wanted something else. He favoured the East Coast as a place to live and viewed it as a better canvas to potentially work on. All he needed now was the right film.

Jane Fonda's future in the film industry was by no means secure. By 1970 the starlet was more famous for her prowess with a megaphone and placard. Public appearances seemed solely limited to protests as she marched arm in arm with the likes of John Kerry and others railing against the Vietnam War. The Barbarella star had indeed been scathing of US presence in South East Asia, surprising many with her opinions.

Jane Fonda At An Anti-War Protest

In retrospect she was the ideal leading lady for Klute. A film about a private detective listening in on a prostitute's phone calls as he tries to discover the cause of a notable executive's death.

The picture is anchored by Donald Sutherland's stoic eavesdropper and showed that not only could Fonda really act but that a new era of shadowy sinister filmmaking had found an audience.

The film itself is very ahead of its time. Jane looks great but it's still impossible to forget she's a Fonda. Her deep 'matter of fact' cadence only serves to make her aggressors appear even uglier. For the girl who would later describe her childhood as a lost battle to be heard in her own male orientated universe, this was a triumph. She praised her director heavily, noting that he worked exceptionally well with women and like to give her as much freedom as possible in the role.

Klute Film Poster

Quietly pulling the strings on what was only his second feature as a director Pakula had seemingly struck upon a formula that worked.

Hire a star; maybe a star not exactly at the peak of their powers but certainly not completely forgotten. Ensure that there is something in the character that the actor can empathize with. Build the film around them, put them in situations that are realistic but very frightening. Film it, keep the artistic flourishes to a minimum and let them shine.

Warren Beatty's reputation as a fussy and fastidious thespian wasn't easily gained. Beatty was notorious for rejecting scripts. Even to look at his filmography now you would be hard pressed to find him work two years straight. Whatever his reason for this, be it money or the fact that acting seemed to get in the way of his other passions, there was no doubting the man's talent.

In the underrated McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Beatty illicited a performance of great vulnerability and awkwardness. Nowadays leading men seem hell-bent on talking tough and acting hard. After Bonnie and Clyde a lot of movie fans seemed quite certain that Beatty was going to take over the mantle of a Kirk Douglas or Charles Heston. His willingness to go against the grain always made him all the more fascinating.

The Parallax View is my favourite of the Paranoia Trilogy. It is more accessible than ATPM and has perhaps greater artistic merit than both that and Klute.

The brainwashing sequence is very much of its time but alongside the similarly filmed scene from Kubrick's A ClockworkOrange are quite brilliant mechanisms to get across a point quickly.

Still From The Parallax View

There are some more excellent sequences in this film. The initial murder in Seattle, the explosion on the yacht & the attempted murder at the reservoir. Beatty makes for a brilliant detective too, though his character is merely a news reporter. There is no grandstanding from him and yet he is utterly captivating. This film perfectly highlights Pakula's style as a director. Close ups are used very sparingly. Extreme wide angles and wonderfully measured shots of creepy art deco buildings are the order of the day. You the viewer must be concentrating at all times because he isn't going to spoon feed you.

What does become obvious on viewing these films again is the places where Pakula drew his inspiration. The ill fated campaign address toward the end of Parallax is so authentic of these vast halls where groups of nobodies convene to brainlessly wave blue or red flags. Likewise the committee hearing at the end with its slow tracking zoom is perhaps one of the creepiest scenes in film. Its power doesn't diminish after repeat viewings, just your doe-eyed faith in the justice system. As with Klute the creepy, clinical soundtrack is provided by Michael Small.

The Parallax View Film Poster

Time and time again Pakula showed contempt for American politics in his films as well as mistrust in all large corporations. Unfortunately at the time some of his work was not given the credit it should have been. There could be a number of reasons for this.

The films he made were very unsubtle criticisms of America, its laws and its government. It is difficult to imagine The Parallax View selling well in Houston against something like Death Wish or The Longest Yard.

Pakula was by no means a celebrity. A few years older (and wiser?) than some of his contemporaries; he liked to let his work do the talking for him. Also when he hired movie stars such as Fonda, Beatty, Hoffman and Redford he might have been expecting them to be the big selling point.

They are very grown up films; not necessarily in their content but rather their themes. There is little gratuitous violence or sex but again criticising people for how they live won't always guarantee success. Pakula was keen to warn us all, that people in power were abusing it right under our noses and we were choosing to ignore it. Perhaps he was just a little early to the party.

The final part of the Paranoia trilogy is undoubtedly the most famous. All The President's Men is the tale of Woodword and Beirnstein and their role in removing the US president from office. Perhaps because it was based on a true story and it was produced so quickly after the event (film in 1976, Watergate Scandal in 1972) the film hit home with a lot of people. No longer was Pakula just feeling around in the dark for conspiracies. Now he had a real one; and the tapes to prove it.

The production of the film was his biggest yet. Not only was the entire office floor of the Washington Post re-created to scale but with Redford acting as unofficial producer, he worked night and day to get everything just right before the cameras rolled. It is said that he and Pakula locked themselves away in a hotel room for over a month to rewrite the script uncredited. The original writer William Goldman received an Academy award for 'his' adapted screenplay.

Behind The Scenes Still of All The President's Men

There are some really touching moments that transcend the story itself. Jason Robards, Jack Warden and Howard Balsalm offer excellent support to the youthful upstart reporters. It almost feels like a passing of the torch from one generation of Hollywood greats to the new kids on the block. Of course Redford had been around about ten years already but you get the idea.

The film itself has all the staples of a conspiracy thriller that seem a bit clich├ęd now. Close up's on typewriters, focus pulls on office phone calls. But it's important to note that these were quite revolutionary at the time.

Of course it would be remiss to not mention the famous crane shot at the library of Congress; An impressive feat that no doubt would be replicated on a computer nowadays. All accompanied by David Shire's foreboding score. 

The film then finished off the Paranoia trilogy and maybe finally justified Pakula's vision of America. In his vision of the world good people live their lives working hard; doing sometimes dirty work they can stand over and feel they did a professional job without bringing too much attention to themselves. There is a little bit of him in all his main leads and yet the funniest thing about Mr. Pakula is that so few people truly knew him.

At one of the many dinner parties hosted by himself and his wife Hanna, a guest was reported to have said.

“Alan took me aside tonight and we talked for about two hours. Thing is he now knows everything about me and I still know nothing about him!”

And so he was the quiet observer.

By Guest Writer - Ray Hyland