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Rewatched Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (starring Warren Beatty) this recently–first time since seeing it in 1986—and am still baffled by a key plot device.

The film starts off with an assassination of presidential candidate at Seattle’s Space Needle. It’s clearly a huge press event and tons of people see the assassination happen. The assassin — disguised as a waiter — is chased to the roof where he falls to his death. Then in the days/weeks that follow, many people — six or more — are slowly dying off as time progresses with the implication being the Parallax Corporation is behind their deaths.

Okay, I completely buy the paranoid conceit of the film: That the Parallax Corporation’s main “product” was political assassination. But it still makes no sense to me why six or more witnesses to the initial assassination had to die. Did something play out wrong during that assassination that forced Parallax to clean up it’s mess? Was something revealed that would “out” Parallax in some way?

I know that there was another waiter there — with a gun clearly shown to the viewer – who I believe would be the initial assassin’s handler. Meaning if the first “patsy” assassin choked and did not follow through, this other assassin would jump in to get the job done and possibly kill the first “failed” assassin as well. But why go through the time, energy and effort to kill at least six innocent bystanders?

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    It's been forever since I've seen this film. but I recall that the murders were being orchestrated by the parallax corp who're keen for the accepted view (that it was a sole gunman) to remain the accepted view. If even one of them identified a second player, it could re-open the investigation and possibly lead to the uncovering of the Parallax organisation.
    – user7812
    Dec 24, 2015 at 19:26

3 Answers 3

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It is a persistent trope of movies made at that time and since that a conspiracy must be unmasked by its own coverup. At least a dozen films are built around the structure that the protagonist is told about some implausible crime or wrongdoing by some implausible informant. The protagonist is disbelieving until the informant is killed, which arouses suspicions in our hero, who nonetheless remains skeptical until an attempt is made on his or her own life.

Besides this film, Capricorn One, Silkwood, and The Pelican Brief come to mind, as does the Halle Berry segment of Cloud Atlas.

I think it comes from the Kennedy assassination: people don't like to believe that history can be changed by the random acts of lunatics; imagining a conspiracy imposes structure on reality and gives as an enemy to root against. For decades, whenever someone even peripherally involved with the investigation died, the conspiracy theorists would trumpet it as further proof. When assassin Jack Ruby died after three years in prison, it was widely claimed he was poisoned, to prevent him from “talking”. Once this trope, “death of a witness proves the existence of conspiracy”, became fixed in the public mind, its appearance in film was inevitable.

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  • We both forgot Watergate: the classic case of "it's not the crime, it's the cover-up." Still, a great analysis of the zeitgeist and it's impact on fiction. I've seen almost all those movies and never drew the connection myself.
    – Tom
    Nov 2, 2023 at 2:34
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Where @MichaelLorton's excellent answer appeals to the real-world history of the society that makes these stories, I've got an explanation driven by storytelling concerns.

When a conspiracy starts killing people, the audience immediately understands several things:

  • The conspiracy does exist

    This becomes clear when people start dying unexpectedly, often when they are in perfect health.

  • The conspiracy perceives a danger to itself

    Villains in the political conspiracy genre often get much less screen time than villains in other genres (and sometimes only at the very end of the film), which means they have limited opportunities to share their thinking with the audience. We don't get to see them tearing their hair and shouting angrily at subordinates to "fix this!"

    The danger here is that viewers may not realize that the conspiracy is in trouble. A series of rapidly-executed assassinations helps establish that the conspiracy is sincerely worried, which helps us gauge how well the hero and law enforcement are doing.

  • The conspiracy is playing hardball

    However great or small the conspiracy's goals may be -- from world domination to petty financial schemes -- if they're willing to murder people to keep it quiet, we know they are taking this very seriously. It proves they will go to any lengths to stay hidden, which helps justify whatever paranoid precautions the hero takes.

    As audiences and writers have become more sophisticated, the genre has evolved to sometimes include really outrageous protective measures. As just one example: at the end of one such movie, we see Gene Hackman literally dismantle his entire apartment trying to figure out how the bad guys learned his secret. Our heroes would look a lot crazier to us, and thus less admirable and sympathetic, if it were not firmly established that misjudging the enemy and screwing up are guaranteed to be fatal mistakes.

  • The conspiracy is very capable

    They are not amateurs, they are highly competent and driven. This becomes even clearer when we see that the conspiracy can accurately identify and locate witnesses who only got a glimpse of the crime, or who don't even realize they saw anything at all.


Finally, killing people who have forbidden information really does sound like an effective way to contain that information! (Do not try this at home.) As they say, "dead men tell no tales."

However, as we've all seen, it almost always backfires (in the movies). Here, I think the conspiracy genre often relies on assumptions we bring from detective fiction and (later) police procedurals: that it's impossible to get away with murder because there's always some evidence that will inevitably lead sufficiently smart and dogged investigators to the killer.

Of course, the killers don't believe that (because nobody would commit a crime if they were certain they'd be caught).

This makes it easy for the audience to accept that the conspirators are pursuing the course of action they sincerely believe is most likely to achieve a cover-up, while leaving open a path by which the conspiracy can credibly be uncovered.

The conspirators' assassination spree is a classic form of over-correction. Over-correction is a very natural kind of mistake.

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It's possible they killed all those people to tag Warren Beatty as a conspiracy nut. The "reason" he supposedly killed the politician at the end.

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    Maybe edit the question to use the character's name? As it is, it's talking about the actor which sounds like a TRUE conspiracy! ; ) Mar 6, 2016 at 2:45

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