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Sydney Pollack Blogathon-3 Days of the Condor.

July 1, 2013

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.
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The other  key person in the  entire plot is  Joubert(  Max Von Sydow), the professional hitman, who  earlier had led the carnage in the opening scene. Sydow had made a career usually playing the bad Nazi in countless WWII flicks, though one of the best actors when it came to European cinema. He is quite effective here as the ruthless hitman, who is engaged in a chase with Turner. The twist in the end is a bit of a surprise though, when you realize with  Joubert’s  real intentions were.
3 Days of  Condor is one of  Pollack’s best movies, effectively building up  the sense of paranoia and fear, so needed for it. Unlike some of his  counterparts,  Pollack has never really been a visual stylist. Most of his movies have a very straight forward style of narration, with few visual flourishes. That  said, he effectively employs the use of angles well in this movie, and the intercutting shots between Robert Redford on the run, and  the CIA men planning to get rid of him,  build up the tempo well.  The romance track between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway does not seem too forced either, and  flows along quite well with the story.  It sort of works on a Stockholm Syndrome, with the kindapped falling in love with her captor. The growing attraction between the two is well etched out, not going too over the top any time.  The final denouement, effectively elevates the movie, eerily echoing what is happening in the current world. That is where you understand why that novel was translated  only into Arabic, Turkish, Dutch and Spanish.  I have not read the original novel, but  I believe the movie changed the ending to reflect the then geo political scenario. Almost a good 38 yrs later after it’s release, 3 Days of Condor, still remains relevant, if only because of the ending denouement.
Robert Redford’s  drop dead gorgeous looks, have often distracted from his acting abilities, and he showcases that again here. As the man on the run, fighting to survive, Redford, infuses the character with sufficient warmth, credibility, vulnerability. He makes you feel for the character of the man trapped and fighting back, in a memorable performance. Faye Dunaway is an effective foil to Redford’s charisma, shy and vulnerable, and slowly awakening to the romantic side in her.  Cliff Robertson who had earlier won an Oscar for does rather well, as the CIA officer who is one of the main figures behind the coverup.
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