Played by Warren Beatty, Joe Frady is one of many witnesses to the shooting death of U.S. Senator and possible presidential candidate Charles Caroll. (It's modeled on RFK's assassination rather than JFK's, but still.)
It starts with the assassination, in which you see a second gunman was involved. The patsy assassin falls to his death after being chased by security. Later a Warren Commission-style committee says he acted on his own.
Three years later, Frady is being harassed by police who want his sources. Then he meets another reporter and witness who tells him someone is trying to kill her. She shows him a photo of just before the assassination, saying a number of witnesses have died. Frady doesn't believe her, saying he's heard it all before and there's no evidence. The next day she's dead, supposedly in a car accident after taking drugs.
Her mysterious death prompts Frady to begin investigating, finding the assassination may be linked with the shady Parallax Corporation, and the danger grows as he infiltrates one of their programs.
Despite its convoluted, unlikely conspiracy plot, a great movie and Seventies paranoid thriller in particular. More than anything else, this shows The '70s culture, in the aftermath of the JFK, RFK, MLK assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate. The movie was released the same week President Richard Nixon was impeached.
Tropes featured include:
- The Bad Guy Wins: The ending.
- Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: Frady does this foolishly in the finale, picking up the dropped sniper rifle that was just used to murder another candidate. This sets him up as the fall guy. Of course, if he hadn't then the real killers probably would have just pressed it into his hands anyway after he'd been shot.
- Blipvert: The montage the Parallax Corporation shows Frady is a famous example.
- Cassandra Truth: Nobody (including Frady) believes Lee's story until she dies herself.
- Frame-Up: Frady ends up being the fall guy in another assassination, just like what happened with the one at the start of the film, which he was trying to solve.
- Government Conspiracy: The basic premise.
- If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten: Frady finds a clue to the shadowy conspiracy in documents sent from the Parallax Corporation, some of which are a psychological test. With expert assistance Frady answers all the questions the way a sociopath would, and voilà! he's recruited as an assassin himself.
- In Name Only: While it's based on Loren Singer's novel of the same name, the film shares with it only some broad plot elements (witnesses to a political assassination dying mysteriously, journalists uncovering a corporation hiring assassins) and a few specific scenes like the Parallax personality test. The characters (three journalists investigating the case in the book, not just Frady), settings (most of the novel takes place in New York and Washington, D.C. as opposed to the movie's setting in the Pacific Northwest) and major plot points differ widely between the two works. The novel's ending is also a lot less bleak than the movie's, offering some hope that Parallax will be exposed.
- Karmic Misfire: Frady not only fails to publicly unmask the true nature of the Parallax Corporation and prevent their assassination of a senator but is also killed at the scene and ends up being blamed for the assassination by the official investigation committee. Meanwhile, the Parallax Corporation is able to continue its murderous operations unscathed.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: Parallax has a remarkable ability to makes its targets die "natural"-seeming deaths, whether staging murders as car accidents or a pill that can induce embolisms.
- Murder, Inc.: The Parallax Corporation seems to be this, whether or not it was a secret government front.
- The Omniscient Council of Vagueness: The literally shadowy committee which appears at the beginning of the film, proclaiming that a Presidential candidate had been assassinated by a single gunman (who has three names, just as Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth did).
- The Quiet One: Bill McKinney's assassin character has no dialogue in any of his scenes.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The ending.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Was Frady always known to the Parallax Corporation? Did they set him up specifically, or was whoever they recruited intended for that?