What I’ve Been Watching: Three Days of the Condor (1975).
Who’s Responsible: Sydney Pollack (director), Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel (screenwriters), Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Cliff Robertson (stars).
Why I Watched It: I like to revisit it periodically.
Seen It Before? Yes, several times.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.
And? Joe Turner (Redford) is a mild-mannered CIA analyst who returns from buying lunch for his colleagues at the Manhattan brownstone housing their front, the American Literary Historical Society, only to find that they have been brutally gunned down during his brief absence. For years, I have argued that those who considered Redford too much of a pretty boy to be taken seriously as an actor would do well to study his reactions here, as they escalate from shock and horror to fear for his own life and the grim determination that he is not going to be next. This sequence is a tour de force in many ways, but for me at least, the film falls into the unusual trap of never living up to those first twenty minutes.
Turner’s job is to read omnivorously, sifting through novels and articles and feeding them into a computer in search of security leaks or new ideas, and he has recently run across a mystery novel with a very curious publication history. It’s now clear that his dismissed report struck a nerve somewhere in Langley, having unwittingly uncovered something worth wiping out the ALHS, and Turner—code-named Condor—is instantly suspicious when he speaks with Deputy Director Higgins (Robertson). These suspicions are in no way allayed when his last surviving colleague, who called in sick, is killed in his home, and an attempt to bring Condor in from the cold, via a rendezvous with his section chief and an old friend, goes south in the worst way, with Turner framed for his friend’s death.
A lethal game of cat and mouse ensues as Turner, unable to trust anyone he knows, forces himself into the company of a total stranger, Kathy Hale (Dunaway), first to take refuge in her home and then, as they establish a gradual rapport, to enlist her active assistance. The very fact that Turner is an analyst rather than a field agent gives him an unexpected advantage, both because of the arcane knowledge he has assimilated over the years and because his status as an amateur makes his moves unpredictable. With Kathy’s help, he moves back and forth between New York and Washington, D.C., as he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery and avoid getting killed by Joubert (the great Max Von Sydow), a freelance assassin and sometime Company employee who oversaw the hit on the ALHS.
Although I have qualified admiration for this film, I damn it with faint praise by saying that it’s my favorite among the seven that Redford made with Pollack, ranging from the classic Out of Africa (1985) to the soporific Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and the unbearable The Way We Were (1973). If you said that their joint filmography did not augur well for a spy thriller, you’d be right, and my primary objection to the opening sequence is that the main-title theme by Dave Grusin (a lightweight if ever there was one) is too upbeat for the mayhem to follow. Likewise, by the time he shot Condor, Owen Roizman was already the cinematic poet laureate of ’70s New York for The French Connection (1971) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), yet this Manhattan lacks their edge.
It’s interesting to note that the screenplay tries to amp up the tension by halving the time-frame in James Grady’s 1974 source novel, Six Days of the Condor, and the filmmakers were clearly going for a Hitchcock vibe with that whole “an innocent man running for his life must earn the trust, and the heart, of a random woman” thing. But sadly, my lifelong antipathy for Dunaway—whose films such as The Three and Four Musketeers (1973 and 1974), Chinatown (1974), and Network (1976) I loved in spite of, rather than because of, her—blinds me to any chemistry they might have achieved. By the way, I wrote my very first press release for Grady’s 1985 novel Hard Bargains, and he was very kind to a wet-behind-the-ears publicity assistant at his first real job (at Macmillan) in the big, bad city.
Overall, I found the film a little too slick for its gritty subject matter, which is perhaps not surprising coming from impresario Dino De Laurentiis, but Von Sydow predictably tries to make the most of his limited role, and I suppose that Robertson, who always seemed a little sketchy to me, is well cast as a guy who may or may not be trustworthy, interacting nicely with boss John Houseman. This is certainly one of the better efforts from Semple, whose work oscillated from the height of the superior political thriller The Parallax View (1974) to the depths of Flash Gordon (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983); Rayfiel worked on the Elmore Leonard adaptation Valdez Is Coming (1971). Someday, I’ll have to compare this with Grady’s book and check out his 1978 sequel, Shadow of the Condor.