Friday, July 27, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Three Days of the Condor

Note #1: Throughout this retrospective I’ve referenced this interview with Pollack. I couldn’t find a place to reference it in this piece, so I figured I would put it up at the beginning. 

Note #2: Many, many thanks to Odie, whose fresh look at this piece helped trim a lot of the fat. This was one of the first pieces I actually started working on when I decided to do a retrospective on Pollack, and I was dreading the due date because I knew I was nowhere close to finishing it since I found myself adding more and more every week. If I were rich, I would hire an editor for this blog because god knows I often need one. Thanks, Odie!

In 1975, Sydney Pollack released two movies that were polar opposites in tone and style. His first release that year was the Paul Schrader-penned The Yakuza – a violent tale of a begrudging partnership that was new territory for Pollack – and the second release was yet another vehicle with his favorite star (to that point) Robert Redford that tackled a popular theme of the mid-‘70s (paranoia), Three Days of the Condor. The former is something of a cult classic now and thought fondly by those that like the divergence in style and tone Pollack took in directing that film; however, the latter is the more popular (and one of the most popular of Pollack’s oeuvre) and the film that stays with me much more so than the former. Three Days of the Condor is not Pollack’s best film, but it’s one of my favorites  in the way it sets up themes and tropes he would later tackle in films like The Firm (and in the films he acted in like Michael Clayton and Changing Lanes) and for what is probably my favorite performance that Redford gave Pollack.

The film is not unlike other paranoia thrillers being released at the time (Parallax View, Marathon Man, and Redford’s follow-up to Condor, the extremely popular All the President’s Men).  Based on the James Grady novel Six Days of the Condor, the story follows Joe Turner (great everyman name) who works in a furtive building reading books for the CIA. His codename is Condor, but lest you think he’s some super-secret agent, Turner simply works with other bookish types pouring through text after text to see if any of the government covert plans are popping up in spy/mystery novels. It’s a job where seemingly nothing happens, and Turner mocks the security protocol he has to abide by. When Turner thinks he’s found something suspicious, he files a report to the CIA and awaits their reply. All in a day’s work, it seems; however, one day while Turner is out getting lunch, three mysterious men (led by the always-stoic Max von Sydow) walk into the building and gun down all of Turner’s co-workers.

When Turner returns, he initially thinks a prank is being pulled, but soon realizes that his co-workers are actually dead. In a great bit of acting by Redford, he books it to the nearest phone booth and calls the CIA. From this point on, Three Days of the Condor is a perfectly paced and executed thriller about a man in over his head who cannot convince his superiors (played by John Houseman and Cliff Robertson) that he had no idea what happened or who was responsible for the murders of his co-workers. When Higgins (Robertson) suggests that Turner meet some of his men in a secluded location so that they can bring him in safely, Turner acquiesces because he doesn’t see the harm in trusting his government employer. However, when Turner shows up at the agreed-upon location, something seems awry and before he realizes it, he’s killed an agent and he’s on the run.  Distrusting his government, he tries to piece together why it wants him killed.

While on the run, Turner realizes he needs a place to hide out.  While ducking for cover in a ski shop, he sees a random woman, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), picking up a ski jacket, so he holds her at gunpoint and forces his way into her car. Kathy takes him to her apartment where he clumsily plays the role of “captor” and tries to relax for one second so that he can wrap his mind around what’s been happening. It is with Kathy – and their subsequent conversations – that Turner begins to realize what’s really going on. The mystery crystalizes in his head as he sets off on a cat-and-mouse game with the intention of righting the wrongs being done by his government employer.

The film’s convictions are one of its most intriguing aspects. Here is a thriller where the protagonist doesn’t have to be convinced to take action because someone has kidnapped his wife or children or some harm is being threatened; Three Days of the Condor is an old-fashioned thriller in the sense that the protagonist does what he does because he feels it’s the right thing to do. This element—characters committed to outing those who perpetrate wrong in society – is missing in a lot of the modern thrillers.  It’s one of the reasons Pollack decided to make The Interpreter, which was sadly his last film. Three Days of the Condor may have looked like “just another thriller” on the surface, but it had convictions; it had something to say and a big part of that reason is due to Pollack’s political beliefs and those of the film’s star.

In the ‘70s, message pictures were becoming the norm. Films were starting to reflect the mood of society. They were beginning to mean more and be more socially responsible for bringing social issues into screenplays and to the public. Redford wanted to make these socially responsible films, which is  why he turned down much more prominent roles being developed at the time (including Richard Donnor’s Superman). In Redford’s biography by Michael Feeney Callan, his agent at the time has this to say: "He had great personal skills with agents. They liked him most because he was a money magnet, but also because he was earnest. He was the real deal. No one was going to get him into a Mel Brooks movie." At that point in time, Redford was making Three Days of the Condor, The Candidate, and All the President’s Men (he also had The Great Gatsby and The Great Waldo Pepper, two lesser films, released around that time).  Though I take umbrage with the idea that a Mel Brook’s film is somehow “lesser” than the films Redford worked on, it speaks to the conviction  and earnestness  with which Redford approached his roles and screenplays (this was noticeable throughout Jeremiah Johnson –it‘s an uneven film, but Redford’s love of the material is palpable).

Redford was more of a hands-on actor in the vein of other creative control-minded actors like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. These actors heavily influenced their scripts (and sometimes even took over directing duties). Actors in general were taking a more creative role in the filmmaking process, and it was Redford’s idea to take the basic story for Three Days of the Condor from the source material and turn it from a CIA potboiler about heroin smuggling into kind of a postulation of the CIA’s ambiguous morality. Again, this fit well with the Watergate zeitgeist and the type of movies Redford was interested in making. Redford added lines of dialogue – he had an intuition for drama in trimming elements of the script that he didn’t think worked – and he even helped cast Max von Sydow (who stands out the most as far as the supporting cast is concerned).

Redford has a good everyman quality about him and plays Joe Turner perfectly. When he has to call the CIA (represented by a great shot of one man at a giant switchboard with a world map in front of him) about the murders at his office, it’s so well played because of how confused he is by everything that’s happening to him (“I’m not a field agent. I just read books!”). He’s given these covert directions to not resurface until 14:30 (and I love the way Redford utters Turner’s reply, “Wait, that’s 2:30, right?”), then he’s told to not to hang up the phone as the person on the other end hangs up. Redford’s facial expressions are just perfect here as a man totally confounded by his situation. It’s a wonderful performance, filled with great reaction shots to ridiculous situations and requests. Joe Turner isn’t some smooth, Jason Bourne-esque spy; he is essentially, and pardon me for doing this, just your average Joe.

So, what then to make of Faye Dunaway, the other major star in this movie? I’ll put this simply and succinctly: she’s absolutely wasted here. Kathy Hale could have been played by just about any other actress. That’s not a knock on Dunaway – she’s given nothing to do throughout the film – but I don’t know if it were just Pollack shoe-horning his obligatory male-female relationship into the story or whether it was the reported heat between Redford and Dunaway on set.  Whatever the reason,  almost every scene between Redford and Dunaway feels superfluous (especially the eye-rollingly gratuitous sex scene).  One possibility why Kathy Hale is here is that it continues the motif of relationships in Pollack’s films. Pollack adds the elements of human connection/human relationships  to all of his movies. He believed that this is what brought people into the movie theater and pulled people into the story he was telling. In addition to loving/needing this kind of storyline in his films, he also loved big stars, so this may be why we have Kathy Hale and why a big star is playing her.

Pollack needs a love story in his films (even when he forces it into films like The Yakuza and Jeremiah Johnson) because, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, he sees it as a metaphor for opposing world views (a metaphor “for everything in life”). Even in Three Days of the Condor – where there is seemingly no time for such a thing to develop and mean anything – Pollack insists on connecting Joe Turner and Kathy Hale and giving them a brief love affair in order to explore the theme of suspicion that Pollack wanted. There’s a brief interaction when Turner first enters her apartment and she yells at him, “This isn’t fair,” and he just calmly replies, “I know.” However, the relationship is important as the catalyst for Turner’s ultimate suspicions about his government. Kathy is established – albeit very briefly – as a suspicious person, and so by spending (forced) time with her, he not only eventually enlists her aide, but he begins to see more clearly what’s really going on within the organization that employs him. This relationship also allows for one of the film’s best moments where an agent disguised as a mailman tries to kill Turner in Kathy’s apartment.

Pollack called the film “a Russian doll kind of a storyline.” This is no more apparent than in the film’s ending and the final conversation between Turner and the assassin (for hire, as we learn) Joubert (von Sydow): Joubert wants to know how he got a girl to go along with his plan: “Was it age, care, willingness to help?” Turner simply responds: “Random. By Chance.” This response doesn’t seem to compute with the almost robotic Joubert as he and the “organization” that now employs him by film’s end cannot seem to fathom that Turner was not some cerebral, covert agent.  When Turner asks Joubert why he was working for the CIA after betraying his previous employer, he responds in a chilly manner (in a way only von Sydow can deliver): “I don’t interest myself in ‘why;’ I think more often in terms of ‘when,’ sometimes ‘where,’ and always ‘how much.’”  It’s a great line that sums up the confusion of trying to follow such a convoluted plot about a convoluted agency and the characters that work for it.

Turner’s response to both Joubert and Higgins at the end of the film is perfectly articulated by Redford acting as orator for the rest of the country’s wariness about government organizations. It also says something about Pollack the director (and, since these two go hand-in-hand, Pollack the visionary) as his character’s suspicions fall in line with Pollack’s own suspicions about art cinema. We’ve established early and often here that Pollack’s primary interests lie in working to elicit great performances from major stars and working with scripts that highlight relationships over flashy aesthetic. Certainly other directors may have taken this material and made something a little more flashy or kinetic; however, I like how static and languid it is (and this is true of a lot of paranoid cinema from the ‘70s). It’s indicative of the fact that Pollack was very much indeed wary of art cinema – which ties-in with his upbringing from the Midwest and his love of the movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s. His films stand-out during the ‘70s because of how they melded classic Hollywood aesthetic (which was seen as the downfall of the studios and the rise of the director as autonomous auteur) with screenplays that were socially aware and had convictions that were indicative of its time.

So, just as Turner reacted in the beginning with the shootout in the alley (I love the way the CIA higher-ups tell their agents to “make it look like a controlled shot” when reporting the shooting to the press),in the phone booth, his conversations with Dunaway, and in the clumsy fight scene in her apartment – we not only understand Turner to not be your usual protagonist for such a film, but we also understand that Sydney Pollack – director of deliberate human stories – was not your usual director for what is essentially a paranoid-driven chase film. In fact, Pollack felt that it was kind of ironic that the action in the original screenplay actually slowed the film down; it ruined the films momentum. He wanted the story to unfold like a Hitchcock film would. When Pollack screened the film for Dino de Laurentiis and the other producers they complained about the pace of the film, claiming that for a mainstream thriller, the timing was all off. So, Pollack asked his editor, Don Guidice, to go back in and cut the head and tail-end off of all of the scenes. This is somewhat of a revolution for Pollack (that is to speed up his movies). cutting scenes so that they play more kinetically.  It worked, for Guidice was nominated for an Oscar for his work.

The director’s sensibilities and patience are assets here (especially with the benefit of hindsight considering what the modern thriller is today). I don’t know that the film would hold up with modern audiences today; they would probably seem confused by its pacing and themes and by the fact that there isn’t some kind of Jason Bourne-secret of how to kill and survive locked away in the character’s past. They would probably even be bored by such a movie. Michael Clayton (a movie that is very much in the vein of a Sydney Pollack film) kind of disproves this theory, though I don’t know if  Michael Clayton would have made as much as it did (90+ million) without George Clooney, and I’m not sure Three Days of the Condor would have been as successful (40+ million, a big hit at the time) without its star Robert Redford. But Pollack also deserves a lot of credit, too. He knew how to work with Redford better than anyone, and he understood what was interesting at that time about the film’s central thesis. He reins in a lot of what could have been bad about the movie and focuses it into one of the most memorable of the paranoia thriller from the ‘70s.

Three Days of the Condor is a lot of things: a big star vehicle, a slick thriller, a socially aware film about disillusion that acutely matched the ethos of its time; however, it’s ultimately a film about isolation. Turner must decide what to by the end of the film – despite being offered his life back as long as he cooperates – and ultimately favors doing what is right in spite of the consequences (here it’s loneliness). The ending is a tad preachy when Higgins tells Turner, “There is no cause, only yourself,” but it’s earnest and effective in how it feels about that kind of lonely cause; it’s also a well-made, tense classic thriller – the Hitchcockian kind that I’m sure influenced Pollack while he was making this film. Redford’s performance is memorable, too, as he does a superb job with it all, and it’s a portent of the types of films (and endings) found in Pollack’s later thrillers like The Firm and the films he would have an imprint on as actor/producer like Changing Lanes and Michael Clayton.


  1. Watched this last week for the first time, and it's my favorite Pollack to date. It feels as though it's directed by somebody more familiar with this genre, like Fred Zinnemann for example. Based on his 80's work and beyond, I had always assumed Pollack preferred working with Hollywood vehicles centered mostly on good dialogue and minimal action. But this film has a youthful energy that I dig.

    Redford's great, yes. I don't mind Dunaway, although I do agree that the role didn't require an actress of her talents. Ben Mankiewicz from TCM once said one of his minor complaints with this movie is that Redford and Dunaway fall in love so quickly, which -- apparently -- is mentioned by Clooney and Lopez somewhere in Soderbergh's Out of Sight (ANOTHER movie I haven't seen!).

    Robertson and Von Sydow are very good in their roles. And I have to say: whenever John Houseman opens his mouth, I feel like I'm in Professor Kingsfield's classroom.

    I actually think modern-day viewers would find this film to be of rich relevance. After all, there are all those scenes set in the World Trade Center, and the story is centered on a plot to extract oil from Muslim territories -- information which the CIA doesn't want leaked. I can't imagine somebody like, say, George Tenet, sitting through the whole film without grimacing. When viewers back in '75 watched the movie, they probably saw Watergate -- when I watch it today, I see 9/11 and Iraq.

  2. Adam, thank you for such a thoughtful comment. Don't great insights here. I'm on my mobile, so once I get to a computer I'll respond in depth to each of your observations. Thanks for checking this out. I'll check back in later tonight.


  3. And that should read "You've made some great insights..." Damn fat fingers. This is why I don't comment via phone. Hehe.

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  5. Adam:

    Good call on this seeming like a movie Zinnemann would make. Also, I haven't seen Out of Sight in YEARS (I really should fix that since I've always proclaimed it one of my three favorite Soderbergh movies), so I don't remember the specifics of the conversation Clooney and Lopez have, although I assume it's the scene where they're in the trunk of a car.

    And, yes, I suppose the themes would resonate with today's audiences, but I think the pacing would turn off a lot of viewers. I think Michael Clayton is an anomaly. I think if more thrillers like that were made, they wouldn't be as successful. Still, there's something that continues to resonate about Condor, so perhaps I'm wrong in assuming a slew of movies like it (like the ones released around the time of Condor) being released today wouldn't make draw an audience.

    Thanks, Adam, for checking this out!