Three Days of the Condor Review
When a man employed by the CIA to read books returns to his Manhattan office and finds all seven of his co-workers murdered, he logically contacts the agency in fear of his life. "I just read books," he tells the operator, simplifying his position as someone who must pore through everything published in all languages in search of possible top secret information being leaked. Turner, our non-spy book reader, is a fiercely intelligent military veteran paid to be observant. When a meeting is set up for the CIA to bring him in, Turner remains suspicious. Why were there two men in his apartment? Who were they and what did they want? His district boss has brought along one of Turner's few friends, a ballistics man, to the meet, but why is the company man firing a large gun at him? As Turner narrowly escapes, leaving the other men lying in the alley, it's clear that no one can be trusted and someone at the CIA wants him dead.
It's a potentially brilliant plot idea made several degrees better by putting Robert Redford as Turner and Sydney Pollack as the film's director. Of the films where Pollack was behind the camera, this is the most representative of his legacy. He simply makes it look easy, like the motions are happening on their own. There's barbed commentary on the nature of espionage, but it's not quite the paranoid wet dream like The Parallax View. There's action and suspense, but the movie doesn't really hinge on those things either, evidenced by the fact that you can know what's going to happen when and it takes little away from the enjoyment. Pollack, with an intermittently ace script co-credited to Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel (I've read the latter supplied some especially choice dialogue) that was adapted from James Grady's novel Six Days of the Condor - this is Hollywood, we only need three - and tightly paced to run just under two hours, establishes a slick scenario of desperation where danger is always within arm's reach but never entirely threatening. We know Redford's not going to make an early exit in the middle of the picture. The character proves himself well-equipped to deal with crisis, involuntarily aided by the plain but beautiful photographer Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway).
As an example of the unlikely merging of grit and gloss (photographed with flair by Owen Roizman), the film again utilizes Pollack's knack for directing movie stars. Had he been born thirty or so years earlier, Sydney Pollack could have been a crack director in the studio system. He instead went on a run from the late '60s until basically the end of his career, peaking with Condor, where every movie was commercial and had big names, often Redford, above the title, but nonetheless still had some sense of gravity in tact. The movies rewarded intelligence but found little use in smuggling ideas under the surface. They were what they were, representing a distinct height in mainstream cinema for adults. Condor is, for me, the greatest of these movies due to its unerring ability to simultaneously captivate the audience with accomplished storytelling and four perfectly cast actors, and still refuse to lower itself into being a mere distraction for white noise enthusiasts. I can easily overlook the minor flaws of a movie when it isn't insulting my intelligence. People so frequently speak to the glory days of Hollywood in the '70s, and as much as that references Scorsese, Altman and Ashby, it also really is a compliment to the star vehicles like Condor.
One aspect of the film that typically does prove bothersome for many is the wham-bang relationship between Redford and Dunaway. He kidnaps her at gunpoint in an act of desperation, they drive back to her place in Brooklyn and have panic sex that very night. In some ways, this is indeed troubling. It seems slightly unrealistic that a man whose girlfriend was just murdered, who's on the run, would almost immediately bed the woman he's essentially kidnapped, one whose lover is waiting for her at a Vermont ski resort. However, looking at the situation from the film's point of view, you've got Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, and he's dealing both with tragedy and immediate danger while she's probably scared but perhaps also intrigued by this stranger. So it certainly defies logic, but it also isn't necessarily unrealistic or impossible to believe. People act and react in strange ways. People who look like Redford and Dunaway probably more so. After thinking it through, the strange relationship that develops between the two may actually be more likely than we might want to admit. Redford's character isn't a real threat, and once she realizes that, her innate loneliness as accented by a series of desolate, winter-set photographs could believably help in developing some attachment to him.
The film is smart to establish an immediate and obvious distance between the characters. It never asks the viewer to accept a potentially long-term situation or that these two will somehow find their way together. This is not destiny but simple circumstance. When did every movie romance have to be attributed to fate and smell of foul permanence? Redford and Dunaway use each other for what they need and move on. There's something clearly opportunistic for both parties in the arrangement. A similar sense of passing in the night exists between the even more compelling match of Redford's Turner and the hitman played by Max von Sydow. They have little obviously in common. The two men have different goals, aside from survival, and incompatible values. All that hardly matters. Von Sydow's character is an ultimate professional, lacking in any sense of viewpoint and open to the highest bidder. The reveal that he comes to betray the very cause he'd earlier killed for is almost comical but nonetheless inspired in its cynicism.
Redford and von Sydow share a beautifully written conversation near the end that truly highlights the strengths of the film. As von Sydow's character has grown to respect the amateur Turner in his quest to survive, he tenderly plays the role of unlikely mentor, someone who'll finally shoot straight where all the CIA men have specialized in untruths and dodges. The mercenary nature of von Sydow is both a reminder of the kinds of people who specialize in such affairs and the psychological league that seems so far removed from the average person. By the time Cliff Robertson's company man calls Turner a "poor, dumb son of a bitch," I found the complicated ambiguity of the situation to be very nearly overwhelming. Both sides are persuasive. Both sides are also flawed. The film lets the viewer consider it all as carefully as possible. Robertson's character is never portrayed as a bad guy, and his comments are hardly unreasonable. Turner is our protagonist and clearly the face of idealism. No answer is provided or even endorsed. No fate is offered. No carrot is dangled to appease the viewer. An unexpectedly difficult problem is presented without furnishing a solution. It's the end and things remain complicated. How refreshing.
Seemingly a strange choice for Paramount to release on Blu-ray since the only older films of the studio's currently on the market in high definition are The Godfather and its first sequel, this is still an absolutely welcomed release, and it's encoded for all regions. I hate to start off complaining, but let's begin by looking at a terrible choice of cover art where the floating heads of Redford and Dunaway appear to be emitting some sort of flame-like heat as a shadowy man's silhouette creeps along the upper left side. A tag line of "Be careful who you trust" has also been thrown on the cover, apparently for no good reason. Are there really people out there buying movies who are so swayed by such a motto as to toss it in the basket after they see a little sentence trying to sum things up in the bottom right hand corner? More power to them, I guess. Flipping the case over, we see that Faye Dunaway's identifying credit is the MGM-owned The Thomas Crown Affair instead of, say, the superior Paramount title Chinatown. Never fear if you aren't familiar with Robert Redford, the synopsis identifies him as the star of Universal's Spy Game. Ah, now I remember. The old guy opposite Brad Pitt. Thanks.
Sydney Pollack was fervent enough about this film to sue a Danish television station airing it in pan and scan, and with good reason. The wide 2.35:1 Scope images help greatly in framing the entire mood. This enhanced transfer capably reproduces the intended effect of the film. Pollack may not be known as a particularly visual director, but Owen Roizman's camera work captures a certain quality of isolation and fear that belies the seemingly obvious shots. It's all presented effectively in high definition. The transfer has only a few mild white speckles early on but is otherwise perfectly clean. The detail is obviously above the limitations of standard definition. Light and dark differentiations become commanding where they might've otherwise appeared muddled. This is yet another example of the benefits of Blu-ray. You can call it subtle, but the improvement is undeniably there. A nice layer of unobtrusive grain too.
Complaint time again, now in the audio department. Paramount has issued the disc with only English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD and French mono tracks. What's wrong with including the original English mono? The result certainly isn't spectacular. The gunshots that populate the mix during the office massacre are still limited by silencers and, frankly, quite weak when compared to anything more modern. There's not much score after the out of place opening music. It's mostly various, often melancholy Christmas tunes relegated to the background. A surround track is hardly essential here, particularly when it's included instead of the original mono. The dialogue in that lossless track comes through clearly and without issue. It's an okay listen, but shouldn't be the only option. Subtitles are a pleasant white color and can be accessed in English, English for the hearing impaired, French, and Spanish.
A nice retrospective featurette would be fun, but, alas, it's not to be. Only the lengthy theatrical trailer (3:04), which sort of condenses most of the movie into a few minutes, is provided as an extra. It's in HD but still looks a bit rough.
Three Days of the Condor has proven itself to be immensely influential, both directly and in the less obvious sense. Its plot is somewhat beholden to what's convenient at any given time, but the sheer combination of substance and entertainment value is so very characteristic of '70s Hollywood that the film has managed to age with stylish grace. GQ even cited it not too long ago in the magazine's "25 Most Stylish Films of All Time." The movie is indeed one of the decade's more visually cool-looking efforts, but aside from Redford's inherent charm, which is cultivated with precision here, Condor is actually quite good as a plot-driven conspiracy/paranoia/suspense thriller where the viewer can still feel safe enough to walk outside. It's one that you don't really want to end. The Blu-ray, while free of any bonus material aside from the trailer, looks good enough to be an enticing purchase possibility for those who haven't yet added the film to their library, or for the especially loyal fans of the movie. Maybe some sales popularity will even boost Paramount's classics output on the format.