In researching the films of the 1970’s that I hadn’t seen I came to a surprising realization that I had never seen 1975’s “Three Days of the Condor” front start to finish and un-cut. I was a bit too young to see an R-rated thriller when it was first released but how I had gone almost 38 years without seeing it was beyond me. So I set out to make it my next retro review as I try and watch as many movies from the 1970’s as I can, when I can.
“Condor” stars Robert Redford, then at the height of his enormous popularity, as a reader for a small organization that is a front for the CIA. What does he read? Books and magazines that may have hidden codes and messages in them that could be considered a threat to the security of the government and to the nation.
As the film opens Redford arrives at work for another day on the job, only this isn’t going to be another regular day on the job. What he (and the rest of the office) doesn’t know is that their building has been targeted by assassins and soon everyone is wiped out. Luckily, Redford was (literally) out to lunch at the time so when he returns he finds an office filled with dead bodies.
Redford immediately escapes the building and calls into CIA headquarters (where we discover his CIA code name is Condor) and, reasonably so, asks to be brought in safely. He is instructed to stay underground for several hours and to call back. The CIA then sets up a meeting with Redford and an old friend he can trust but then the friend is shot dead and Condor is on the run. The movie then becomes a sharp thriller about how one man stays alive, growing paranoia and, in the process, tries to uncover a major conspiracy within the CIA.
I imagine that in 1975 this film’s underlying theme of paranoia within the government agencies was quite ripe what with the Watergate scandal, stories of bugged hotel rooms and Richard Nixon’s resignation. The film’s impact is a bit less powerful in 2013 but director Sydney Pollack crafts a suspenseful thriller that still resonates. Pollack made a wise decision in backing Redford up with some strong supporting actors, most effectively Max Von Sydow as the head assassin (a woman stares down Von Sydow’s gun and tells him, “I won’t scream” to which he replies, “I know” before shooting her dead). Cliff Robertson is also strong as an operative trying to aid Redford’s save return to the agency. Or is he? John Houseman appears briefly as a top man who wants things done quickly and cleanly. Faye Dunaway plays the film’s heroine, a role that could have been effective but the screenplay takes a left turn with her character and grinds the film to a halt.
In the midst of hiding, Condor kidnaps the woman and gets her to take him back to her apartment. He ties her down on the bed and explains his situation. She is terrified at first (naturally) and thinks he is nuts but soon she begins to warm up to him (after all this is Robert Redford in his prime) and believes his story. Not long after they are making love. Now what woman in her right mind is going to allow a stranger, who is spouting conspiracy and murder stories, to do that? I don’t care who he looks like. The sequence is so ridiculous I was taken right out of the story. I imagine with two top stars such as Redford and Dunaway (both of them in their prime), director Pollack was probably forced to put a love scene in the film but it’s all wrong and totally unnecessary.
Thankfully Dunaway’s character becomes an asset to the Condor and he uses her very well in a few scenes when he is close to finding out the truth. Pollack keeps the suspense level up when the chase is on. Two of his most effective scenes are when Redford and Von Sydow take an elevator ride together. Both men size the other up with their peripheral vision but say little. It is obvious that each man knows who the other is. How Redford gets out of the dilemma is simple but very ingenious. The other scene involves an assassin dressed as a mailman getting himself let into Dunaway’s apartment and having a fight to the death with Redford. The scene is well choreographed and edited.
This was Redord’s fourth collaboration with Pollack (This Property Condemned; Jeremiah Johnson; The Way We Were being the first three) of what would be eight total films. Obviously the two had a great work relationship with one another. I wish they had taken even more chances with this film and eliminated Dunaway’s character altogether. There are great moments in this movie and, as it stands, it’s still a pretty effective thriller. What it should have been was a masterwork by a top director and his favorite star.