The Celluloid Zeroes celebrate Election Day 2016 by looking at politically-themed horror and science fiction movies of the past to distract us from the horrors of the present. Join us, won't you?
Written by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (and an uncredited Robert Towne), based on the novel by Loren Singer
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Warren Beatty: Joseph Frady
Paula Prentiss: Lee Carter
William Daniels: Austin Tucker
Hume Cronyn: Bill Rintels
I wasn't around to experience the paranoia and self-loathing of America as the Sixties turned over into the Seventies, but I can tell from the art that had been produced at the time that it was no Goddamned fun at all. "Art," a mass communications professor of mine used to say, "is anything that communicates." And the pop culture produced by America in the Nixon years was communicating in the language of rage-fueled screams. There was also a boom in conspiracy theories at the time--one of the most common ones being the secret truth behind the Kennedy assassination; certainly the official story that a lone nut with a gun decided to change history all by himself, not influenced by anybody else at all, wasn't enough for some people.
Come to think of it, that's the official story to both of the Kennedy assassinations, and also for that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Given that a whole lot of prominent left-wing politicians were winding up dead at the hands of lone nuts who were unconnected to any other social movements or organizations, it's no wonder that the national mood (at least according to some of the movies I've seen) was of bitterly suspicious paranoia and fatalistic acceptance of approaching doom.
Well, this review is scheduled to go live on Election Day 2016, where the United States of America will decide whether or not "loud man from television show" is enough of a curriculum vitae to become the most powerful man on the planet. And if you think things looked dire in 1974, imagine how we're going to look with four decades' hindsight if a man who can be provoked into a week-long tirade by a tweet gets to control the American thermonuclear stockpile. Actually, if that happens, we'd better hope that radioactive cockroaches have a sophisticated oral tradition because there's no chance that humanity's going to make it to the end of a Trump presidency if someone from China says something mean about him on television.
I guess I'd rather spend some time in a fictional world where evil is in unquestioned control of my country, but that it's a corporate villain rather than a single human one. Because at least a corporation is going to try and perform in a manner that makes money. There's no point in being the richest man on the cinder that used to be Earth, so an evil CEO looking to reshape the country into something favorable to his company (over a dozen or so of the little people's dead bodies) is preferable in many ways to the evil that could potentially be in charge in January of 2017. I'm sure that the filmmakers thought this was going to be a horror movie, but I wonder if they ever saw things getting so bad in real life that their film would be a comforting escapist entertainment.
The film starts in Seattle (you can tell that's where things are taking place because of the Space Needle and a totem pole sharing the same shot). It's the Fourth of July, and "Senator Carroll" is going to make an appearance with reporters and gawkers thronging around the streets. Word on the street (literally on the street; it's a parade marching down the streets in Seattle) is that the Senator is going to run for President in a year (which sets the film in 1975, I guess, a year after its release, and just far enough in the future to be The Future while still looking recognizable to everyone in the audience at the time). The Senator--whose political party is pointedly not given--waves to everyone, gets into the elevator at the base of the Space Needle and goes up into the monument in order to press the flesh with some supporters away from the turmoil and crowds at ground level. We first meet Joseph Frady, the doomed-as-fuck protagonist, trying to scam his way past a security guy in an eye-searing necktie and burgundy suit (apparently the Secret Service had business casual days in 1974). Frady gets shut down and has to stay back down on the ground with all us mere mortals as Senator Carroll ascends to the Olympian heights. It's totally not foreshadowing that the inevitable local marching band is playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" as the elevator keeps rising.
Just as Senator Carroll starts to make a speech that's meant to launch the next phase of his political career, two shots ring out and his blood splatters the windows of the Space Needle. It's telling that the one journalist we've seen in the film so far is on the outside observation deck so there's a barrier between her and the Senator as he's killed--she's separated from the events as they happen. A red-jacketed waiter with a pistol is immediately grabbed by the horrified bystanders--what we the audience sees, and they do not, as the second man in a waiter's jacket also with a gun making a discreet exit. The known gunman makes a break for it and goes to the top of the Space Needle, scuffling with three men who pursued him in a wordless sequence and eventually falling from the top of the landmark to his death.
A Congressional committee investigates the killing of Senator Carroll, and after four months of hearings they hand down their conclusion: Carroll was killed by an unstable madman who wanted to be famous and to protect the country from what he saw as a political threat. According to the seven-member committee, there is no evidence whatsoever of a larger conspiracy around the killer's actions. So don't ask any questions about that. The credits roll over a still of the committee and a dissonant brass fanfare.
Three years later (so...1977?) that journalist who didn't get to the Space Needle at the start of the film social-engineers his way into a middle-class house by claiming to be looking for an escaped parrot; he gets to their back porch just in time for a police narcotics raid to smash its way into their front door looking for dope that pretty obviously isn't going to be there. His presence as the narco squad throws the middle-aged couple around and breaks their stuff looking for smack earns him a trip downtown, where he is not booked on any charges but is threatened by police. Joseph Frady sasses them back, pointing out that he's not the one who did anything wrong in that situation. He's just a reporter who witnessed firsthand a textbook example of police brutality, and he leaves without having to post bail and in one piece. Then it's back to the newspaper offices where we learn that Warren Beatty might well be a Method actor, cause he looks like he actually knows his way around an electric typewriter. Frady gets told that his story is going to be spiked, and that he's not allowed to do any more tweaking of the local drug squad. His editor informs Joseph that he's not going to commit any more shenanigans in pursuit of stories and gives him the rest of the day off.
Over at the Hawaiian-themed flophouse hotel where Frady lives, the manager (who looks like the person Joe Pantaliano was cloned from) tells him that there's some mail as well as four phone messages from the same person waiting for him. The message leaver, Lee Carter, shows up in person--just in time for Frady's girlfriend to walk out irritated at his former squeeze knocking on the door of his hotel room--and tells the newspaper reporter that she believes that she's the target of a murderous conspiracy. She's got a crumpled old newspaper article on the Senator Carroll assassination and tells Joseph that half a dozen people in the news photos have died in the past couple of years in various accidents. Or "accidents", if you believe her. She believes she's next on the list, along with Austin Tucker (Carroll's chief of staff). Tucker thinks that they saw something they weren't supposed to as they witnessed the killing, but neither he nor Lee can think of what that might possibly be. And Lee's the television reporter who saw Carroll's blood hit the window after he was shot--she was on the scene and paying close attention through the shock and trauma she was feeling at the time. Which is a good reason for her to think she's going to be on the death list, if indeed there is one.
Frady doesn't buy the conspiracy angle at all; he quotes the various ways the dead people from the news photos bought their farms, and they're all pretty plausible (dying of an allergic reaction to a wrongly prescribed antibiotic is an awful way to go, but it's hardly suspicious of anything but colossally bad luck or homicidal negligence on the part of a doctor). But he also only lists four of the eighteen people in the pictures in question, and Lee tells him that two more have died since the last time she tried to tell him about the conspiracy that she thinks is knocking witnesses off. Six deaths out of eighteen people randomly captured in a few photographs over four years isn't exactly a smoking gun, but it also does seem at least a little hinky. The problem, of course, is that two points are always colinear and three are always coplanar. If you have a few data points they're going to look connected because the human mind appreciates patterns and finds them everywhere.
Lee wants to go to Salmontail, which is a small Washington town where one more witness just suffered an accidental death (drowning while out fishing). Frady pretty much openly doesn't care about any of this death conspiracy bullshit and provokes Lee into a crying jag--which I can see, because if I thought I was one of a rapidly shrinking pool of potential murder victims and someone I trusted wasn't listening to me it'd set me off pretty quickly. Frady attempts to look and sound like less of an asshole and fails; the next we see of Lee is her body on a medical examiner's table. She was drunk and sedated and then killed in a car wreck; the pathologist says it's an obvious suicide. Which makes Joseph wonder if there might have been something to this "conspiracy death list" business after all.
Well, just because there's a nebulous criminal conspiracy bumping people off who happened to see something they shouldn't have is no reason to go off half-cocked. Frady starts out by talking to a source of his who used to be an FBI agent (but is now officially persona non grata at that agency). He wants a fake ID and a falsified background so he can pass as just the right kind of antisocial misfit. The former Fibbie comes up with a name and a persona while talking to the reporter (looks like "Richard Martin" is going to have a conviction in his past for exposing himself to women).
And then up in Swallowtail, Frady enters a bar, his demeanor completely different from his earlier brash irreverence (and his voice pitched just barely above a whisper). He's quiet and contained, and orders a glass of milk instead of something like a shot and a beer. The cowboy-hatted drinkers at a nearby table aren't going to let that offense to their sense of machismo stand, because someone else's drink choice is something that must be audited and mocked by Real Men. Joseph beats the ever-loving shit out of the man who tried to antagonize him in a donnybrook that travels the entire length and breadth of the bar as well as the gift shop. Turns out that the guy he stomped a brand new mudhole into is a sheriff's deputy, and the older guy he was drinking with is the county sheriff (who didn't want to stop the fight because he enjoyed watching his jerkoff deputy take a beating).
Introductions thereby made, the sheriff and Frady get to talking, and Joseph learns that the judge who drowned in Swallowtail did so when a dam released hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. There were alarms and warning lights, but apparently the judge didn't notice any of them and was wiped out by the flood waters. The sheriff points Frady to the dam's watchman, who bought a brand new hunting shotgun right after the "accident", and the two men go check out the dam. While Frady fishes (and looks for anything suspicious around the drowning site) and the sheriff chats from the shore, the klaxons go off at the dam. They're loud enough to get the attention of a dead man, and it turns out that there never was a watchman at the dam--the sheriff pulls his duty weapon on Joseph and plans to keep him in the path of the water until there's two sudden drownings in the same spot to explain away. But Frady's resourceful enough to lay the authority figure's face open with his fishing lure and drag him into the path of the water. Serves you right, asshole. The pair fight as they get swept downstream and Frady survives, while his would-be murderer does not.
Over at the sheriff's house (arriving via stolen police car), Joseph pokes around a bit and finds a briefcase full of documents from the Parallax Corporation, but has to get the hell out when the deputy walks in to see what's going on--and there's a great shot where Frady and the deputy are both in the same frame on opposite sides of an interior wall, neither one aware of the other's presence. Joseph leaves through a window and steals the deputy's car (!), which the other man notices and pursues in the sheriff's vehicle. Some fancy driving gets Joseph out of immediate danger but he smashes into a supermarket and makes tracks on foot, escaping by hopping into the bed of a freight truck that happens to be going the right way ("anywhere but where all the cops are coming from").
Being a resourceful chap, Frady gets back to the newspaper office without too much further incident, and in a late-night meeting comes across as just the kind of paranoid ranter that he dismissed earlier in the film. Because, let's face it, "all the witnesses to this already-solved political killing from four years ago are getting murdered" does not sound like the kind of thing a rational person would say. Not only that, but even the sheriff trying to kill Joseph can be explained away (as can the bank book the reporter found with $107,000 in it, which is more than most hick town public servants can expect to put away for retirement in 1974). There was a scandal a few years back and that sheriff, along with two deputies, were all indicted. Once he saw a reporter sniffing around his turf, obviously the sheriff wanted to avoid further scandal and planned to kill Joseph out of pre-emptive self defense. The only problem with this theory is that Joseph Frady gave a fake name when he signed in at his hotel and claims he never told the sheriff he was a reporter (which might even be true, but why would the sheriff come up with a fake watchman at the dam as a way to get Frady killed if he didn't think the man was investigating him?).
Frady's editor refuses to advance him any of his salary so he can go looking for Austin Tucker, so he decides to take a slightly different tack. Talking to a behavioral psychologist friend (who is introduced playing Pong against a chimpanzee and beating the hell out of it), Joseph asks for advice on his interpretation of the Parallax mail-in personality test; he thinks they're casting a wide net looking for loners that are hostile and angry, and can have those emotions channeled in a productive (for Parallax) way. He thinks that whatever the Parallax Corporation is, they're interested in violent loners. And with a little coaching from a genuine psychologist, he can learn how to answer their questions so that he can look like the kind of unstable personality they're looking for. His psychologist friend does him one better, and administers the test to a criminally insane orderly in the lab--by the way, what the hell kind of liability insurance does a psych lab have if they have a chimpanzee and a criminally insane dude running around with minimal security precautions?
While he's having lunch and reading the paper, Joe gets approached (from behind, without him noticing) by someone who says he can lead the newspaperman to the reclusive and paranoid Austin Tucker. Before he'll be allowed into Tucker's presence, Frady has to consent to a strip search ("Are you out of your fuckin' mind?") but eventually relents because he wants to get to the truth about what's going on, and Tucker was in the same room as Senator Carroll when he was assassinated and is currently still alive. Tucker's first question is something a justifiably paranoid person would ask--who sent Frady to look for him? The second thing he says is that he'll pay $10,000 to be left alone and left out of whatever story Frady's writing; Tucker says he's lived through two attempts on his life so far and isn't planning to hang around till someone gets lucky the third time.
Tucker, Frady, and Tucker's bodyguard / security goon sail out into the Pacific on Tucker's personal boat, since the former politician's assistant has decided to talk, but nowhere that he can be observed or approached. And he busts out a handheld photo viewer that has one of the pictures Lee Carter was using to keep track of people that were marked for death on it; also on the viewer is a shot of one of the waiters at the Space Needle on the day Senator Carroll was murdered. Tucker doesn't quite explain anything to Frady yet, possibly thinking that the journalist has been sent to end his life, but that shot of an unsmiling man in a waiter's vest means something to the recluse.
Neither Joseph Frady nor the audience figures out what that might be, though, because without any warning other than a shift from a closeup to a long shot, a bomb explodes on Tucker's sailboat. It burns to the waterline and Frady's presumed dead (along with Tucker and his security guy). Frady sneaks back into his editor's office while he's sacked out at his deck chair and sees that his own paper reported three deaths in the sailing "mishap" rather than two, then wakes the sleeping man up and scares the snot out of him for a moment before finding out that his own close call and then (reported) death convinced his boss that there might just be something to this "list of people who were in this photo all winding up dead" business. But when the editor says he's going to call the police and the FBI to report what he knows about the ongoing shady business Frady warns him that talking to anyone in law enforcement could wind up getting him killed.
Next thing that Frady wants to do is pretty clever: He asks his editor to print an obituary and then together the two men are going to fake a will with the editor named as executor. All of Joseph's belongings will get moved out of his hotel room and donated to charity (if they want 'em). And while he's thought to be dead, he'll have a chance to try out for Parallax, who are the real villains behind everything. Oh, and one other request, while Frady's asking for things--he doesn't want anything in the paper about the mysterious happenings around the Senator Carroll killing and the way all those witnesses keep dying. His editor thinks they could blow the lid off the political assassination from four years ago. Frady thinks they can expose the company that's been recruiting assassins and blow the lid off of a dozen killings (and coverups) or even more. With no ceremony whatsoever, the two men agree that Frady will stay "dead" and try to figure out what's going on with the mysterious Parallax corporation.
So when he's living in some crummy apartment somewhere "Richard Paley" gets a personal visit from a Parallax representative named Jack Younger, telling him that he'd scored very well on a personality test. Well, he actually says they were "very interesting scores", which could mean dozens of different things, couldn't it? The man from Parallax says that "Paley" might well qualify for unusual work for Parallax, which would make the the test-taker rich and give him a rewarding job, and give Parallax a finder's fee for locating someone capable of doing the work that needs to be done.
While talking to Jack, "Paley" burns his hand on his stove and lashes out in anger, putting on exactly the kind of show that Parallax is looking for from its unstable violent loners. Younger tells him that his aggressive tendencies are exactly what the corporation is looking for, and leaves a business card (and instructions to call if "Richard" wants to progress with the organization). Which, of course, Frady does, making his way to a nondescript corporate office in a skyscraper. Whatever Joseph thought was going to happen when he went to the Division of Human Engineering for a job interview, it wouldn't have been what he gets. There's a single chair in a room, wired with sensors to detect the physiological responses from the person sitting in it.
Then he's shown a film with a collage of contrasting images (which is also shown to the audience in a single unbroken and unmoving shot). Half of the things he's shown are positive images of (white) people in love and being cared for my parents who love them but the other half of the time, it's Nazi rallies and Communist leaders; the pictures get bleaker and show poverty and misery, death and destruction along with shots that show isolated lonely figures stranded in a photo. This is the point where I started cringing in sympathetic fear for Joseph Frady, because whatever Parallax is looking for in him, they're not going to find it. And if they're willing to kill a dozen people to clean up after what certainly looks to be a successful operation, whatever they're going to do to a nosy reporter won't be any fun. Even more so if they somehow find out that he was supposed to have been killed in a previous Parallax operation.
The film starts to get darker and more frightening; a woman's screaming face appears more than once, as do guns, a lynched body, and shots that show an American flag in an American Nazi's office as he gives a Fascist salute. Chaos, sex, death, hopelessness, homosexuality, monsters, fire, a child about to be beaten by his father and (oddly enough) a Jack Kirby drawing of Thor show up in a quick disturbing montage before the film slows back down and resumes showing the viewer monuments to dead presidents, the flag, and peaceful rural scenes again. Then an announcer asks "Richard" to proceed to the Parallax offices (without giving the slightest hint about what he can expect next). But Frady spots the man from Tucker's photo leaving the building and follows him from a discreet distance.
Well, it's probably not good news that the Parallax man goes to an airport and checks a bulky suitcase with a luggage handler outside (and, in these paranoid post-9/11 times, it's amazing that there's no security checking the luggage that's going onto a plane). Frady gets to the airport and determines which jet has the fateful package on it, runs onboard (again, with no security preventing him from just buying a ticket that day and hopping onto the runway to catch his flight). As the Parallax man watches from a parking garage, the plane takes off and soars off to its destination. And on board, Frady goes to get a newspaper to read during the flight and hears one of the passengers in First Class refer to someone on board as "Senator", as well as saying that the politician is "following in Carroll's footsteps". Yes indeed, if Parallax has anything to say about it, along with the other sixty or eighty people on board the 707...
There's an interesting tracking shot of Frady walking back to his seat after being kicked out of first class by the stewardess--when he walks up to the first class cabin the camera pans right and left and the viewer gets a look at every single passenger on the plane; old, young, men and women, and a mix of races (it's a real cross-section of humanity). But on the way back it's just a medium closeup of a worried looking Warren Beatty. He's surrounded by dozens of people in a narrow metal tube and he's completely isolated by his knowledge that something horrible is going to happen to everyone on the plane (including him). I was stunned and amazed to find out that one of the flight attendants was taking payments for plane tickets while the jet was already in flight (which must have been a real thing if audiences in 1974 were going to swallow the rest of the story).
After going to the john on board, "Richard Paley" leaves a note written in soap on the bathroom mirror that there's a bomb on board and then thinks better of it, writing the message out on a napkin and handing slipping it into the stack of napkins during beverage service. Which means that it gets discovered without him being noticed as the one who did it, and the plane (full of people smoking cigarettes, another signifier for 1974) heads back to the airport because even if it's a joke, the flight crew has to take it seriously. The flight returns to Los Angeles because of a sudden mechanical problem the pilot just noticed right this second, and after the passengers get off the plane it explodes (offscreen, so they don't have to put a gigantic Michael Bay style effect in a paranoid thriller that isn't really an action movie).
When "Paley" goes home to his crappy apartment, there's a guy from Parallax already there sitting in the dark (courtesy of an unscrewed light bulb) to make him a job offer for $25,000 in cash. The "Manufacturers Intelligence Group" can use someone with Richard Paley's skills and psychological makeup in their security program. Thankfully Frady's got enough on the ball to play along and not show just how terrified he's got to be. That goes double for when the Parallax man tells him that there's a Richard Paley who served in Vietnam and died there, and by the way, who are you really, Mister Paley"? Frady comes up with a new name and an embarrassing background as a way to explain why he was impersonating a dead man, which hopefully is going to hold up when Parallax checks up on him a second time. The recruiter tells his prospect that Parallax appreciates anti-social misfits and can give them a sense of true worth, which is even more valuable than a paycheck (and speaking as an anti-social misfit myself, I'd run the other way as fast as I could if someone tried to tell me I was secretly awesome and well suited for a mystery job halfway across the country).
Well, it turns out that Joseph bugged his own apartment and he's got the Parallax man on tape; the next thing we see is his editor listening to the conversation in his office and accepting a delivery order from a new guy from his preferred takeout place (and it's not surprising to see it's the man from Austin Tucker's photo viewer, per se, but it does register on the blood-freezing scale pretty high). Well, it's probably not too terribly surprising when a late-middle-aged man who lives for his job and eats greaseburgers regularly dies of a coronary, but the film's already mentioned a drug that induces cardiac arrests (and when the homicide investigator tosses the editor's petty cash back in his desk drawer, the envelope full of tapes from Joseph's stash is nowhere to be found).
I'm sure the word didn't get back to Frady about what happened to his boss (who is also the only person who knew he was still alive), and he continues on the assignment for Parallax, with his contact letting him know there's a man from the organization who'll meet him and set him up. The name that "Richard Parton" gets from the recruiter is Ben Harkins; when Frady spots his contact at the hotel he calls his room from the lobby and gives him a set of utterly fictitious instructions (the poor sap's gonna get yelled at by his managers at Parallax when this all shakes out, but at least he's being shunted to Hawaii as part of Frady's scheme). Frady goes back to the Parallax headquarters in character and complains that his contact never showed up to meet him. You can tell it's a thriller from 1974 because the hero outsmarted his antagonist instead of beating him to death or chucking him off a building.
Meanwhile, the Parallax recruiter takes a meeting with plenty of unsmiling people in suits; we don't find out what's going on there but it's safe to say that things are looking bad for Frady when and if they find him again. The security meeting takes place in a skybox at a convention center that's getting ready for a political rally of some kind (the tables have red, white and blue cloths and there's a marching band practicing when we see it). Judging from the other times Parallax has been spotted anywhere with politicians, and from the Sousaphone player who blatantly does not know what he's doing, it looks like another misfit loner is going to shoot his way into the history books.
But this time things are different. Joseph Frady is up in the catwalks looking down at the meeting space. Think about the scoop you'd get by simultaneously foiling an assassination and exposing the group of shadowy manipulators that are killing progressive politicians for money.
Of course, Parallax has been doing this for a long, long time and they're ready for just about any contingency that might come up. Sure, Frady realizes how dangerous they are because of the number of witnesses that have died from the one killing that he knows about, but you don't get offices in a mirror-windowed skyscraper off of the promise of one targeted political killing. He was paranoid, and the film suggests that there is no level of paranoia too great for the Seventies in America. When he finds himself near a planted gun and with a horrified onlooker pointing at him from below, Joseph Frady realizes that Parallax turned their own potential exposure into one more domino to fall in their meticulously planned scheme. The politician that was pursuing the youth vote is still dead, and a former journalist who faked his death and killed Austin Tucker is the lone crazy man who shot him.
But don't worry--the lone crazy man didn't get out of the convention center, and America remains safe because a good guy with a gun (belatedly) took out the bad guy with a gun who shot a left-wing politician for no reason. Nothing to see here any more. Nothing to concern yourself with. Go back to the game, or go out to see a movie. America remains safe, under the careful watch of its guardians. And a Congressional board of inquiry took nine months to investigate, eventually determining that Joseph Frady was obsessed with a previous political assassination and went on to try and carry one out in a fit of delusional psychosis. There's no evidence of a conspiracy whatsoever.
Holy shit, this was an intense movie. A political horror film about a doomed protagonist that finds a little knowledge and proceeds to ensnare himself further and further--it's a Watergate-era version of The Wicker Man or a non-supernatural Lovecraft film. But instead of a charismatic Scottish lord or a godlike being from beyond time and space it's just a group of men in an office deciding who lives and who dies--and Frady never meets anyone higher-up than the recruiter over the course of the story. For all that he uncovers, he never scratches more than the surface of what Parallax is up to. And coming after a decade marked by political killings by the double handful, the slogan on the top of the movie poster is completely true: Murdering someone you see as a political threat is as American as apple pie. The only difference between 1974 and 2016 is that street executions get broadcast live over the internet now, but the man with the gun still goes free virtually every time.
What a wonderful time to be an American.
Other Celluloid Zeroes have their own entries for the Political Science Fiction roundtable.
Micro-Brewed Reviews is perfectly fine, and you're the paranoid one wondering about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Psychoplasmics peers into The Mist and doesn't like what they see about the human condition.
The Terrible Claw Reviews takes a look at Shin Godzilla.
Web of the Big Damn Spider reviews A Report on the Party and Guests.