Alan J. Pakula

Alan J. Pakula
Alan J. Pakula

Filmmaker Alan J. Pakula (1928–1998) is best known for his direction of films that have been collectively termed the “paranoia trilogy,” consisting of Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), and All the President’s Men (1976).

While these films chart a general trajectory from private to public paranoia and belief in conspiracy, Fredric Jameson states that the trademark of Pakula’s most successful films is that they cut across “the traditional opposition between public and private” (Jameson, 52).

Pakula produced and wrote films and began directing with The Sterile Cuckoo (1969). He later made films such as Sophie’s Choice (1982), the political conspiracy thriller The Pelican Brief (1993), and his final work, The Devil’s Own (1997).

The paranoia trilogy is unified by the cinematography of Gordon Willis, who produced a stark visual representation of paranoia, as well as by a thematic concern with surveillance and the connection between conspiracy and the process of investigation.

Klute details a missing persons investigation in which Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) is scrutinized by murderer Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi) and private investigator John Klute (Donald Sutherland), and plagued by her own increasing paranoia.

Daniels’s unease can be linked to contemporary social forces, such as the changes initiated by the burgeoning feminist movement. With its recurring use of audiotapes as a visual and aural theme, Klute presciently evokes the social paranoia of the Watergate era, the direct subject matter of All the President’s Men.

Based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men follows the investigation of the Watergate burglary as it becomes increasingly linked to the White House. The Nixon administration deceit, manipulation, and paranoia that led to the break-in are replicated by the investigation of journalists Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman).

But The Parallax View epitomizes the U.S. conspiracy film canon. It invokes the social unease that followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the findings of the Warren Commission, and subsequent assassinations.

After the assassination of Senator Charles Carroll (Bill Joyce), reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) uncovers “The Parallax Corporation,” a conspiratorial security company that recruits assassins and “patsies.” The film’s most famous sequence, “The Parallax Test,” is a dazzling montage of images and words that suggests the pervasive interrelation and reach of paranoia and conspiratorial belief that had become prevalent in U.S. society.