Sydney Pollack Blogathon-3 Days of the Condor.
1975 as can be seen was a year of paranoia, fear, as was most of the 70’s for that matter. For almost 2 decades, ordinary Americans were told that the “enemy” was the big bad Soviet Union, the Red Scare, that preyed on the fears of most people. It changed in the 70’s, thanks to something called Watergate, when it was discovered, that the enemy was right at home. It was taken for granted, that America was the home of the free, a land of free speech, where you could say anything, without the fear of being prosecuted. Big brother watching was something you associated with the Soviet Union and the Eastern block, a paranoia that led to a whole lot of movies and books, about cloak and dagger games with sinister agents from the KGB. Watergate however shattered the comfortable feeling many Americans had regarding their freedom of speech. “You are being watched” was something that did not happen just in Soviet Russia or the Eastern block, it was an uncomfortable reality in the Land of the Free too. It would be illustrative to see what was the biggest hit of 1975, a movie about a shark terrorizing a small American town, Jaws, an enemy right in your home. On the face of it Jaws was your regular summer blockbuster, a slicker version of the various “Man vs Animal” B movie features, but if you look deeper at it, Steven Spielberg’s movie also plays on the feelings of paranoia and fear.
3 Days of the Condor was Sydney Pollack’s 8th feature, he had already made his impact earlier, with a series of movies, ranging from the Depression era classic They Shoot Horses Don’t They? to the Western Jeremiah Johnson to a more conventional love story The Way We Were. It was also his 3rd collaboration with Robert Redford, whom he directed earlier in Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were. The movie was in line with a series of “conspiracy thrillers” that hit the screens in the 70’s and 80’s, but with a difference. Unlike the earlier conspiracy thrillers, that revolved around the evil Soviet empire, the enemy in these thrillers was within. Big Govt, big business trying to suppress the truth, forming a shadowy cartel sometimes in cahoots with the CIA and FBI, was the main backdrop. It was not CIA vs KGB, it was CIA vs the people within it. If Jack Nicholson in Chinatown was up against a real estate cabal in LA, Warren Beatty tries to unravel a sinister organization in The Parallax View and Gene Hackmann, a surveillance expert in The Conversation , finds he ironically could be the target of it.
The movie starts rather innocuously, a nondescript building somewhere in New York City, ironically titled “American Literary Historical Society”, people going about their work, the camera panning over their workplace. And then we have the lead character Joe Turner( Robert Redford), making his way to work, on his Solex bike, through the traffic. Turner works for the CIA but is not a “field agent”, he is more a behind the scenes guy, whose job is to read books, journals, magazines, from across the world, and try to find hidden meanings or any new ideas. His latest work is on a pulp mystery novel, that oddly has been translated only into Arabic, Dutch, Spanish and Turkish, not to French or German. But why so, is something we actually become aware of towards the end of the movie. Pollack sets up what is going to follow, in a rather interesting way, the camera keeps panning to another car, where an unseen person is sitting, ticking off some names on a list, we only see the rear view mirror. Pollack builds up the tension well, intercutting between the shots of the office inside, and the lone man waiting outside in the rain. We sure know something amiss is going to be happening. The next set of scenes are even more well shot, Turner walking across the streets to get lunch for his colleagues, and now the camera slowly closing in on the man in the car as two more people join him. Pollack nicely sets up all the characters in the opening scene, as also what is likely going to be happening.
In fact I would say one of the best opening scenes ever, especially the massacre part, where the assassins, enter Turner’s office, and bump off his colleagues one by one. No big flashes here, nor any big sound, just slight sounds, people falling, shocked expressions on faces, and conventionally shot too. In fact I would say that this actually accentuates the shocking feel, people being killed in a rather professional manner, and the lead assassin Joubert, being rather casual about the whole carnage. The part where Turner comes back and discovers the shocking carnage is also well shot, just silences, clattering of some machines and the expression of shock on his face.One interesting part, something seems to pull back Turner, he is about to scream, and then realizes it is just a plaque, does seem silly, but Pollack manages to ratchet up the tension so well in the scene, your heart does skip a beat. In fact just after this, another bit, where Turner sees a lady with a pram coming towards him, assumes its an assasin, but it’s just a baby.
I would say that the first 10 minutes sets up the tone of the movie, Turner, the man on the run, becomes totally paranoid, for him every thing and every one seems a possible enemy out to get him. Even when he is making a call to the HQ, his eyes keep darting in and out, suspecting even the regular passer by. The shock of having seen the worst carnage ever, has got to Turner, who now really trusts no one. The fact is Turner is not a field agent, in his own words he “just reads books”, as he mentions to the Major. Pollack, never slackens the pace, as when Turner having finished the call, wanders around frantically, a man who is hunted, most likely the next target. In a sense the movie does echo Hitchcock’s North by North West, the man on the run, hunted and chased down relentlessly. And here Turner’s sense of paranoia is even more, as he does not seem to trust any one out there, alert even to the slightest disturbance and sound. Pollack neatly keeps intercutting with shots of the assasins tracking down, Turner, and the Dy Director of CIA’s New York Division, Higgins( Cliff Robertson), pondering over the man who had escaped the carnage.
Listen. I work for the CIA. I am 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, I look for new ideas… We read adventures and novels and journals. I… I… Who’d invent a job like that?
The chase gets hotter now, with the CIA in hot pursuit of Turner, one really good scene, has Turner escaping a mass of cars, running from his assassins. And this is where he meets up with Kathy Hale( Faye Dunaway), in a ski shop, and forces her to take her to his apartment. In fact he literally kidnaps her putting the gun on her neck. What we understand is that in spite of just being some one who reads books , Turner aka Condor is quite a resourceful person and pretty much street smart. He manages to keep ahead of his pursuers, making them wonder if he indeed is a special agent in disguise. The initial scenes between Turner and Kathy are well set up, showing the awkwardness between them, he the man on the run and she a shy, nervous young lady. It also helps that both Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway have a great chemistry, and the love angle, though going off tangent at times, does not really jar too much. Turner does not really hurt Kathy, much, but he manages to stamp his authority over here, firmly, without resorting to any violence. She is quite scared of him, and the tension in the air is always there.
Condor is an amateur. He’s lost, unpredictable, perhaps even sentimental. He could fool a professional. Not deliberately, but precisely because he is lost, doesn’t know what to do. Unlike Wicks, who has always been entirely predictable.