Three Days of the Condor
Director: Sydney Pollack / DP: Owen Roizman / Editor: Don Guidice / Writer: David Rayfiel (from a novel by James Grady) / Score: Dave Grusin.
Cast: Robert Redford / Faye Dunaway / Cliff Robertson / Max von Sydow / John Houseman
They really ARE out to get you…
In the early Seventies, America was a country ill at ease with itself. In the wake of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King’s assassinations and with an ongoing – and deeply unpopular – war in Vietnam to contend with, the last thing the domestic audience needed, was to have their confidence in a President shaken… Nixon’s ignominious downfall, coupled with the first in a string of ‘oil crises’ did just that…
It was in this feverish atmosphere, that author James Grady published the first book, in what would end-up as a successful thriller franchise, featuring rogue CIA researcher (and idealist) Joe Turner, a-k-a ‘Condor’; think of a more cerebral, less amnesiac Jason Bourne and you’re close. Thanks to its success, a rapid-fire movie adaptation was soon underway thanks to dynamic producer Dino De Laurentiis. His original choice to play Turner, was Warren Beatty, but Beatty stalled on making a firm commitment; such delays frustrating De Laurentiis’ efforts at striking while the book was still hot.
His replacement – Robert Redford – was teamed-up with director Sydney Pollack, renewing a creative partnership that would end-up spanning seven pictures. Redford was of the opinion that no other director understood him as well as Pollack: a director who was never destined to become a feted auteur, but who instead came to be regarded as a craftsman of the middle-rank, who could bring his own approach to genre pictures: and Three Days of the Condor was certainly that…
Condor appeared amidst a rash of pictures, focussing on the angst mentioned at the outset. Films such as The Conversation, Marathon Man and All the President’s Men to name but three, shared a common thread of unease, insecurity and paranoia. Post-Watergate, the prevailing mood really was one of suspicion towards Big Government and what ‘The Man’ was trying to hide.
Pollack opened Condor, with a few establishing scenes inside what, at first glance, appears to be a publishing house but which on closer inspection, has a more secretive story to tell… The man to tell it, is late for work, courtesy of his bourgeois French moped: a contraption that takes a special brand of courage to ride through central New York; then again, that man is Robert Redford: All American Hero and soft-shoe Lefty, so we can forgive his late arrival, along with his indulgent colleagues.
His late arrival catches the eye of an anonymous observer, watching from a car parked on the street outside the ‘American Literary Historical Society’, who’s got a list of the employees of the CIA ‘front company’. We know it’s CIA by the way, because Pollack has telegraphed a number of clues in his elegant opening: the armed guard. The receptionist with a loaded pistol in her drawer and a CCTV trained on the front door. The odd reference to ‘Langley’, along with the advanced (at least for ‘75), page scanners, automated page-turners and more. Throw-in a discreet, ‘old-money’ exterior to the building and you’d never guess at its purpose… So who’s watching and why?
Things unravel a few hours into Turner’s shift. He goes out for the team’s lunch order at a nearby deli, but it’s raining, so he uses a back-alley exit to save a block and is therefore unseen to the watchers, who now pick this moment to trick their way inside and proceed to despatch everyone; everyone, that is, but the missing Turner, who now returns to the immediate aftermath of the massacre…
Redford’s great at expressing disbelief and confusion here, as Condor (an apt codename for a loner navigating the canyons of Manhattan): after all, he only stepped-out for sandwiches… Pollack layers-in a disorienting, unnerving soundtrack from the document scanner; in an office suddenly devoid of life, it’s the only thing still running. No wonder Turner’s now paranoid as the shock sets-in: he’s the only one left alive: but for how much longer? Obviously he can’t stay there, so he grabs the receptionist’s gun and heads outside, to use a payphone and call-in, thus setting-in motion a string of unravelling procedures intertwined with conspiratorial intrigue. Pollack is adept at moving things along. Understanding it’s a thriller, not an action picture, he drip-feeds the audience with only what we need to know at any given moment; the tension in these opening scenes is palpable.
Where an element of frustration crept-in for me, lays in the introduction of Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway, in a restrained, sensitive performance). I gather that the original novel had no romantic angle for Turner, but from the outset, Pollack – and Redford – both understood that not having a romantic sub-plot would hamper box-office returns and cut-off the best way of rounding-out and humanising Turner’s character. So, a female lead was written into their adaptation by screenwriter David Rayfiel. To crowbar Hale into the frame, we get a ‘meet-cute’ between the two of them in a sporting-goods store, where Turner has taken refuge from police sirens outside and Hale is buying gear for an imminent skiing-trip with her boyfriend.
As these things go, it’s fairly hum-drum. My frustration comes, not with Ms. Dunaway, who I think acquits herself in a difficult part with distinction, but rather, how that part is written.
The film is now over forty years old, but were we so different then, that Turner’s behaviour towards Hale was thought acceptable? Consider the evidence: he makes her his hostage at gunpoint, first in her ratty Bronco, then in her basement apartment. He ties her-up & gags her, while he nips-out to meet a colleague’s wife (ironically to save her). On his return, he frees Hale, whereupon they sleep together? That’s some heavy role-play, right?
What would’ve been more effective, from a story angle, would’ve been if Hale had fought back and maybe won her freedom earlier: then we might’ve seen Turner really earn his credibility. As it is, irrespective of the context in which the film was made and the standards to which we hold it against these days, I think Pollack & Rayfiel could’ve made braver choices with Hale’s character. That said, I thought the transition from bondage-to-bed was a masterpiece of economy.
In just a few lines, Turner equates the lifeless, arid beauty of Hale’s photography (her B&W pictures litter the walls) to her joyless, loveless personality: yet there’s another side to her that no-one ever sees: a life full of happy spontaneity. She admits as much, by saying she’s got a hidden cache of photos exploring that side of her so, naturally, Turner wants to ‘see them’, except it’s not her pictures he wants to see..!
Remembering that Turner’s an analyst for the CIA, Pollack has him interpolating fact from fiction and it proves a strong force against which Hale has no defence. By the time the film wraps, she’s even helping Turner abduct his slippery boss in a search for answers. The skiing trip now forgotten, she is complicit in following Turner into danger… She now believes in the Hero’s journey to the extent she’s helping him write it!
I should also mention the ever-excellent Max von Sydow as the suave, cultured assassin Joubert. At the end, he advises the field-inexperienced Condor on his next move, but I was actually hankering after a wider exploration of Joubert’s backstory; alas, another potential thread left un-pulled in the production. As it is, the character of Joubert could’ve slipped effortlessly into a picture such as The Boys From Brazil or The French Connection. That leaves only John Houseman as the other notable player: the enigmatic Mr. Wabash. Houseman’s other career as an acting coach, proved the catalyst for many a Hollywood player and his appearance here only adds weight to the venture. His cryptic CIA mandarin, sitting above the intrigue like a puppeteer, is chilling at times.
So, in conclusion, then? It’s a (mostly) intelligent picture, made with care. Principals act – and are directed – with equal attention to detail. Jazz legend Dave Grusin’s score is unobtrusive, yet strident when it needs to be. DP Owen Roizman shows us a drizzly New York; a glimpse of a city re-inventing itself, from the WTC’s lobby to a grimy alleyway littered with trashcans. It’s a glimpse of the city’s underbelly which is where all the secrets go to hide…
Condor probably holds its own amongst its peers and maybe sits in the front rank, but it’s a flawed picture, in and of its time. Like I said at the outset: Pollack was no auteur. If a contemporary film-maker such as Lumet, Kubrick or even a young Coppola had made the film, it might’ve stood the test of time as less an artefact and more of a relevant classic-for-the-ages.
I don’t remember yesterday. Today it rained.