Three Days of the Condor (1975)
“The CIA knows him as Condor. What he knows about them has just made him an Endangered Species.”
Director: Sydney Pollack
Cast: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson
Synopsis: A bookish CIA researcher finds all his co-workers dead, and must outwit those responsible until he figures out who he can really trust.
The 1970s was the era of the political thriller, and we know we’re well and truly in the midst of the 70s when the horribly dated soundtrack of Three Days of the Condor plays over shots of massive computers churning out reams of music-lined paper. Fortunately, the movie proves to be a smart and suspenseful thriller that overcomes its datedness, and which focuses on situations which are relevant today as they were back then. After all, it’s not that long ago that the west disseminated false accusations against a Middle East nation in an attempt to stabilise the world’s oil supply.
Robert Redford is Joseph Turner, a researcher for the CIA who spends his working day scrutinising works of fiction for coded messages about plans for world domination or some such nonsense. Redford doesn’t really look like the type who’d spend his entire life with his nose buried in a book, but we can’t have some bespectacled, pencil-necked geek in the lead role, can we? And anyway, Don Knotts was busy making The Apple Dumpling Gang at the time, and later developments demanded we have a character who can mix it with trained assassins. After popping out for bagels and doughnuts, Turner returns to the office to find that everyone has been shot to death while he was away.
He’s understandably a little upset by this disruption to his working day and phones head office for instructions. An agent called Higgins (Cliff Robertson) instructs Turner to meet another agent, Wicks (Michael Kane) in a back alley which inevitably sets alarm bells ringing. Sure enough, Wicks attempts — but fails — to assassinate our hero, and Turner kidnaps a woman (Faye Dunaway) to help him make his getaway.
While Dunaway gives a convincing performance as Kathy Hale, the woman abducted by Turner, her character is something of a problem. Firstly, it’s difficult to understand what purpose she serves other than to give writers Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel the opportunity to add some depth to Turner’s otherwise rabbit-in-the-headlights characterisation. Other than chauffeuring him around New York she contributes little apart from providing him with a little rumpy during a brief interlude in the chase. And that’s where the other problem lies. This guy has kidnapped her off the street, pulled and pushed her around like a rag doll and tied her up in her own home for hours at a time. So how does she repay this treatment? She lies back and spreads her legs. She’s like a throwback to the 1930s when most leading ladies were simply there to look good as the leading man rescued them.
Turner is pursued by a man called Joubert, played with icy reserve by Max von Sydow, who is terrific in the part. He looks like a history professor in his buttoned-up mac and his trilby hat, but he possesses the ruthless efficiency and dispassionate nature of the trained killer. It’s this combination of ordinariness and dispassion that make him such a compelling character. He doesn’t care about his victims or about what they have done to deserve his attentions, and never questions why he is to eliminate them. In that respect, he’s the epitome of the government organisation that employs him, and is one of cinema’s great understated characters.
(Reviewed 22nd August 2013)