Three Days of the Condor (1975) dir. Sydney Pollack
Starring: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow, Cliff Robertson
It would seem the reputation of “Three Days of the Condor” precedes it as one of the essential paranoia films of 1970’s. It’s certainly not a timeless classic of the genre, but as a time capsule of the cynical attitude of filmmaking in the 70’s it makes for a fun time warp to when government and big business were looked upon with distrust and contempt.
There’s a cinematic sparseness to this CIA spy-games flick, which both enhances and frustrates the viewing experience. Robert Redford plays Joey Turner, who, as it would appear in the opening moments, works for the American Literary Historical Society, located in a New York City brownstone with a curiously exaggerated amount of security. One day when Joey’s on lunch, armed gunmen storm the building systematically killing everyone inside. When Joey returns he quickly realizes he should have been dead too. His first phone call is to the CIA, where we learn Joey is a research agent codenamed Condor.
Joey’s a smart, well-read guy, and his intuition tells him to be cautious of everyone, even his superiors. At random, he kidnaps an unsuspecting bystander Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) using her apartment as a safe haven. There he plots his strategy to unravel the mystery behind the plot against him. It becomes a cat and mouse chase between the bigwigged corporate agents pulling the strings from the offices to the groundwork of hitmen whom Condor evades and fights off with skill and intelligence.
The sparseness I reference is a style of storytelling in the 70's reactive to the formulaic predictability of old studio Hollywood. The film strips out much of the extraneous chaff which would diluted the visceral impact of the action. In terms of character we don’t know anything of Joey’s backstory, he has no character flaws to overcome, or even a traditional arc to complete. Joey has a singular goal, to escape from his assailant unscathed, and the plot purifies these mechanics.
There’s inspiration in Pollack’s ability to tell a story with this kind of efficiency, though at the expense of some fundamental comprehension. There are two points of view in the picture - intercutting between Joey’s actions and the CIA reactions. While Joey’s movements are clear and logical with quiet time even devoted to his thought-processes, the CIA scenes are played with a concerted incomprehensibility which, in 1975 may have seemed progressive, but now only feels self-consciously evasive. There’s Cliff Robertson as Higgins’ the man in charge of bringing Joey in, there’s some greyhaired heavyweights watching over him, including the great John Houseman lending some fine thespian gravitas. There appears to be a subversive faction within the CIA, but the details of which are limited to a series puzzling statements and confusing dialogue.
With ease Joey deduces an oil conspiracy cover-up as the motivation, a rushed explanation which feels forced on the filmmakers who probably would have preferred not provide any explanation at all. It doesn’t make for a dramatic reveal, because it evolves not out of action but Redford telling what his thoughts are. Using oil as the arbitrary hot button issue-du-jour it only reveals a missed opportunity make a more profound statement.
There are some great individual scenes though including the Condor’s clever manipulation of the Bell telephone system to garner information and confuse the enemy as well as the silent but suspenseful elevator confrontation between Joey and Von Sydow’s hitman character. Von Sydow and Redford make great adversaries.
Under Pollack’s direction it’s marvelous film to look at, his anamorphic frames are gorgeous, enhanced greatly by the crisp Blu-Ray transfer. His use of the New York City exteriors add real-world realism, where 10 years prior, we would have seen studio shooting with painted backdrops.
Forgiving it’s failings we can see the influence of “Condor” on some of the corporate thrillers of today like “Syriana”, “Michael Clayton” and even the Bourne films and all their moral and political ambiguities.
"Three Days of the Condor" is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment