You Play Games, I Told Them a Story
Three Days of the Condor / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | June 26, 2008 | Comments ()
In one of the unfortunate quirks of cinema, Three Days of the Condor can only be truly appreciated in hindsight, viewed as a pristine example of filmmaking from an era when paranoia, dirty tricks, and government intrigue had transcended news and culture to become tangible storytelling elements with which artists of the time did their best to understand the era. It’s a worthy film that, though well received, had the misfortune to premiere the same year as Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which swept the big five Oscar categories and left even Dog Day Afternoon in the dust. But it can’t be said enough that a film is only good if it wins awards, and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor is a damn good film: taut, lean, reflective, and able to tell a compelling story without any artificial fireworks. But more than that, it’s a brutal indictment of the kind of political intrigue that by 1975 had begun to take its toll on America. The best films of the 1970s are inherently ones that fed off the decade’s rotten disconnect from morality, and Three Days of the Condor funnels that disgust with corrupt hucksters and politicians and uses it like unholy fuel, getting incredible mileage out of a simple story about a man who refuses to cave in and become the cog in the greasy wheel his government wants him to be. But true to the period, the film’s villains aren’t undone by the hero’s virtue; if anything, they’re more resolved than ever before to keep doing what they’ve been doing. The film is a wonderful snapshot of the national mindset at the time, even as it fires off one last cry for help.
From the start, it’s a Pollack film: It’s both rooted in its time and buoyed along by a cheeseball jazz score, this one courtesy of Dave Grusin. The opening credits play out in that same awful typeface that used to be synonymous with futuristic computers; it’s the same one that would be used in War Games. And yet for all its quirky starts, Pollack’s film masterfully sets up all the information the audience and the hero will need in one quietly dynamic sequence. Inside a swank Manhattan townhouse billing itself as the American Literary Historical Society, a group of completely average-looking people are doing global analysis and research as part of the CIA. It’s one of the film’s many bits of brilliance that no one ever comes out and says this; it just becomes obvious from the nature of the conversations among the people in the office. Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is the smartest guy in the room but also the most casually anti-authority: He solves a hypothetical murder case his colleagues have been puzzling over but also gets a slap on the wrist from his boss for directly querying HQ on a hunch without going through “proper channels.” There’s no better actor for the role than Redford, whose very essence is one of calm self-sufficiency and the kind of hardwired masculinity found in the most magnetic actors; in fact, it’s this very sense of a man in control that adds to the tension of seeing Turner deal with the death and intrigue that are about to kick his ass for a few days. While he’s out picking up a lunch order, a group of operatives enters the office and guns down everyone in sight, not realizing Turner’s absence. He returns to find his friends and coworkers slaughtered, leaping into action to inspect the scene but never so removed from it that he feels inhuman. Retrieving a gun from the receptionist’s desk, he staggers out into the daylight to find a phone. The scene where he calls in to report the murders is perfectly done, touching on everything from Turner’s panic to the Company’s authority to the secret world Turner only now realizes he’s a part of:
And with that, Turner’s on the run through both the streets of Manhattan and a pretty easy but workable metaphor for the entire era: This isn’t a soldier running through enemy lines to get home, but a man unable to trust his own government, the one thing he’d promised to do. When Turner — code name Condor — phones again later to check in, he’s told by one of his superiors, a man named Higgins (Cliff Robertson), that they’re sending an operative to pick Turner up. Turner narrows his eyes as the wheels start to turn, and he realizes that he really has no idea who Higgins is or what he looks like, or who precisely he’s talking to, or how the hell he can be expected to trust someone 90 minutes after seeing his coworkers laid out. His suspicions are borne out when the man sent to pick Turner up turns out to be involved in some kind of conspiracy, opening fire on Turner in an alley. Turner sprints away, the killer behind him and police sirens in the air, ducking into a department store and basically abducting a woman, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) so he can get a ride to safety. He holds her at a somehow nonthreatening gunpoint while she drives to her house, and it’s only Redford’s innate charm and Dunaway’s beauty that keep the scene just this side of the dark undercurrent running through it. Turner and Kathy’s relationship becomes one of gradual trust eked out through hours of fear and worry, as he ties her up and tries to get some rest and figure out what to do:
Kathy: I’m scared!
Turner: So am I!
Kathy: Why? You’ve got the gun!
Turner: Yes! Yeah, and it’s not enough. Listen. I work for the CIA. I’m not a spy. I just read books. We read everything that’s published in the world, and we — we feed the plots — dirty tricks, codes — into a computer, and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, new ideas. We read adventures and novels and journals. I — I can — Who’d invent a job like that? I — Listen! People are trying to kill me!
Turner: I don’t know, but there’s a reason. There is a reason! And I just need some safe, quiet time to pull things together.
Pollack’s films revolve around a central but fundamentally flawed relationship, but it’s never better than watching Redford and Dunaway’s palpable chemistry here. Kathy’s terrified of what Turner might do, and of course unable to believe his rambling story about being a hunted spy, but she’s also drawn to the mystery he presents. Turner, for his part, winds up almost indignant whenever Kathy acts as if he’s done anything really wrong, reminding her that he hasn’t hit or raped her and has no plans to do anything of the sort. At the heart of this giant, labyrinthine thriller is a deeply nontraditional love story, and it’s so out there and unexpected that it completely works:
While all this is happening, Pollack also shifts to see what’s happening within the Company to bring in Turner, and though some of the dialogue is painfully dated —Turner’s apparent rogue status is potentially chalked up to homosexuality — for the most part the scenes are marvelous in the way they capture the mundanity of the lives of these old men steeped in a cold war and unwilling to end it. Higgins’ discussion with Mr. Wabash (John Houseman) about the nature of the CIA are frightening in the way Wabash doesn’t pretend to regret the way things have turned out, merely that they’re not what they used to be. Talking about World War II, Higgins asks, “You miss that kind of action, sir?” Wabash responds simply, “I miss that kind of clarity.” Pollack’s film echoes that sentiment from the opposite side, lamenting an era when you no longer know whether your government remains the least bit good.
That lack of clarity is what really plagues Turner, and it’s what drives him to form a basic plan to get some answers from the CIA about why he’s being targeted and what it means. The film’s title spells out the story’s timeline, and Turner goes through a hell of a lot in 72 hours on the run, including more than a few encounters with Joubert (Max von Sydow), the assassin he comes to realize is part of the conspiracy. But Joe Turner isn’t Jason Bourne, and Three Days of the Condor relies on gut-wrenching tension instead of high-speed chases. Any director or writer could make the bad guy chase the good guy, but Pollack’s direction of the script from Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and David Rayfiel is mesmerizing for the simple way it brings the enemies together. Easily the most compelling of these run-ins is Turner’s trip to a friend’s apartment to warn her of the danger, where he rides the elevator down with Joubert. He soon realizes the man’s true nature, but they’re on a public elevator with other people and can’t do anything but writhe and plan and wait. Turner even attempts to get off on the second floor, feigning ignorance, but Joubert reminds him of his mistake, and it’s such a damn amazing moment: If Turner runs or calls Joubert’s bluff, he’s dead before he leaves the building, so all he can do is get back on the elevator with the assassin and pretend like everything’s fine. The way he finally escapes is ingenious in its simplicity, as well. This is a spy film before parkour, when escapes had to be literally thought out. As such, Redford is ideal for the role, a thinking man’s quasi-spy who manages to be both smarter than the average man and just as vulnerable. Part of it is Redford’s age: He was 39 when the film came out, already comfortable in a body that was beginning to show the first signs of well-earned ruggedness.
Turner’s ongoing investigation brings him closer to the truth of why he was almost killed and what’s going on within these infected pockets of crooked operatives within the CIA, and Pollack isn’t afraid to take the film in a bleak direction and leave it there. The victories here are hollow, and the deaths don’t matter. The film ends with Turner and Higgins discussing the future of the Company, the real future, the one they don’t even pretend to acknowledge to the public because to do so would be to eagerly invite a chaos that’s already unavoidable. Pollack’s film both celebrates Turner’s actions and bravely asks what will come of them. Yes, he’s a hero, but the more worrisome question is: Does it matter?
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.