Dir:- Sydney Pollack
Starr:- Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson
Not being a huge Robert Redford fan I have tended to veer away from most of his films, however, recently I’ve been doing a slight reappraisal of the man and his work. While still not willing to rate Redford as an acting great, there are certainly some very good pieces of cinema with his name plastered all over them. In fact up until the middle of the 1970’s Redford was on a roll that had begun with The Chase, back in 1966, and culminated in another paranoid conspiracy thriller All the President’s Men, a decade later.
Three Days of the Condor was the espionage thriller that immediately preceded the 1976 classic about Woodward and Bernstein’s journalistic expose of Nixon and Watergate. It features a strong central cast of Redford, Dunaway, von Sydow and Robertson (better known to modern audiences as Uncle Ben in the Spiderman movies) and has the unflashy Hollywood stalwart Sydney Pollack behind the camera. In less assured hands it could have very easily been a run-of-the-mill TV movie, but Pollack’s careful marshalling of tension and economical use of plot make the film a blueprint for great 21st Century thrillers, such as Michael Clayton (which Pollack himself featured in) and the AMC TV series Rubicon (the makers of which claimed to base the look of that show on Condor).
Redford plays the ‘Condor’ of the title, a CIA intelligence analyst who looks for patterns in various published material from around the world. Working out of the American Literary Historical Society, a government-front organisation, Redford discovers an odd bit of coded information in a foreign publication and forwards it on to his superiors. Skipping out the back entrance to get lunch for his office colleagues, Redford inadvertently evades a ‘hit’. Returning to the office he finds his colleagues dead and thus rings HQ from the relative safety of a nearby phone booth. However, on ringing the situation in, he begins to realise that far from ensuring his safety, The Company may be trying to shore up some loose ends of a conspiracy, in which he now figures prominently.
The late-sixties and early seventies saw an explosion in paranoid conspiracy thrillers, from Frankenheimer’s masterwork Seconds, through to Pakula’s The Parallax View and James Bridges’ The China Syndrome (not forgetting the aforementioned Pakula effort All the President’s Men). In many ways it was as if the rapidity with which the optimism of the early hippy movement had given way to bitter and biting cynicism, had contributed to a more politicised form of Hollywood moviemaking. Figures like Heston, Redford, Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda certainly seemed to be freighting much of their own personal politics into the movies they created during this period. Redford’s earnest liberalism informed movies like Brubaker, The Candidate and All the President’s Men. In Three Days of the Condor the political machinations within the CIA remain partly obscured, seemingly being the result of one man’s self-interest. Yet unlike other movies of the time it also suggests the slippage in intelligence gathering, that leads the viewer to conclude that far from the CIA being the all-seeing, all-knowing eye in the sky, it is in fact a divided organisation that isn’t ever quite sure what the right and left hands are doing. The frightening proposition that comes out of the film is that the intelligence agencies know just enough to be dangerous, but not quite enough to be effective.
What is crucial to the success of Three Days of the Condor is the inscrutable atmosphere of dread and threat that it establishes. So much of the movie is actively observed from the perspective of a surveillance operation, particularly the opening and closing sequences. Pollack is sophisticated enough to imply the culture of deception and subterfuge in unusual moments that other filmmakers might have shied away from as unnecessary. One of the most intriguing choices the filmmaker decides upon is the inclusion of Faye Dunaway as a blossoming love interest. Despite the fact that Redford appears to be a rather nebbish and bookish individual, he still musters up enough smarts to abduct Dunaway and hideout in her apartment. The weird romance that develops between them, with its undercurrents of violence, intimidation and deliberate restraint is quite unique within the genre. Dunaway’s character is a photographer and in a highly poetic sequence Redford becomes unsettled by the absence of people in the frames of her pictures, suggesting that it reminds him of November. Such understated allusions underpin the explosions of violence, stretching the tension to breaking point and suggesting a whole unexplored universe within these character’s lives.
Way ahead of films like The Bourne Identity in the realism it attempts to apply to the fantastical thriller elements of the plot, Pollack is also at pains to show Dunaway’s genuine distress at encountering a dead body in her livingroom (a trick that would resurface with Franke Potente’s vomiting in Bourne). It also manages to utilise the rundown majesty of New York’s mid-seventies urban sprawl to full effect, as well as combining the impressive cityscapes with a chilly, cold, grey and bleak late autumnal atmosphere throughout. As much as Pollack wasn’t really known for his technical ingenuity, there is a lot to be admired in the quick-splice editing of Redford and Dunaway’s love scene, that evokes an emotionless version of the powerful scene from Don’t Look Now, further enhancing the sense of isolation and alienation that swarms around the central character. A final mention must be made of the splendid Mackintosh-clad turn from Max von Sydow, as the businesslike assassin Joubert. Even in the worst of films von Sydow offers a touch of class, but here, his almost silent performance creates some of the most spine-tingling moments in the movie. One of the defining scenes in the film, and perhaps one of the best scenes of its kind, is an elevator sequence in which Redford becomes gradually cognisant of what the audience are already well aware of, namely that von Sydow spells immediate danger. The brutal tension in the full three minutes of this sequence is unremitting and almost uncomfortably out of proportion to the rest of the film.
Overall Three Days of the Condor is among the very best movies that Redford has featured in. It has a sharp and clever script, that frequently references the likes of noir writers such as Hammett, as well as delving into the many euphemisms utilised within the ‘intelligence’ community, where so many conversations appear to be about the weather and the delivery of packages. Pollack also shows an engaging fascination with much of the early hi-tech surveillance gadgetry, much like Coppola in The Conversation, although he does fall foul of the unfortunate Hollywood habit of finding an officious Englishman to hang the worst of the plot’s atrocities upon.