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Cinemalphabet: T is for Three Days of The Condor

October 22, 2010

Three Days of the Condor is a 1975 Sydney Pollack political thriller based on the fantastic novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady.

The late, great Sydney Pollack is underrated in my book. This isn’t to say that he was not well known or even unappreciated. He is to a certain degree, based largely on his wonderful persona, rather than his expertise at making utterly unwatchable fare, completely riveting. Critics might have been correct to tear apart his remake of Sabrina, though I challenge ANYONE to sit down on a Saturday afternoon and not find themselves entertained with its fine performances and serviceable update of the story. That’s what Pollack does. He made the “okay” much, much better than it should be. (see also: The Firm, The Way We Were, The Electric Horseman).

Ms. Tina Chen, shutting it down

Pollack was also very gracious and not a braggart, which is probably why many don’t realize how incredible his talents were. I’m talking Absence of Malice, Jeremiah Johnson, Toostie and, of course, this here film – Three Days of the Condor. I am not ashamed to say, for consistently satisfying grown up movies my three Sids (Lumet, Pollack and Poitier) are the go-to directors (with the latter two, of course being brilliant actors as well). Of his own strengths, Pollack stated (quite humbly, I might add):

“I am not a visual innovator,” Pollack told me shortly before the release of his “Out of Africa,” (1985), which won seven Oscars, including best picture and best director, and was nominated for four more. “I haven’t broken any new ground in the form of a film. My strength is with actors. I think I’m good at working with them to get the best performances, at seeing what it is that they have and that the story needs.”

(via Roger Ebert)

I’ve stated before, this is a man who can draw out the BEST out of ANY actor. Again, The Firm the best example. When we lost Pollack we lost the ultimate actor’s director. While not being a visual innovator – though I respectfully disagree with Mr. Pollack, I love how he uses light, shadows and muted color palettes, particularly in the otherwise forgettable Random Hearts and the gorgeous The Yakuza – Pollack was the master at cinematic elegance and creating timeless films that transcend the era in which they were created.

Omg, I love Syd’s and Harrison’s “Two Old White Guy Review”. They are both so doggone charming. Who knew, Ford could be charming and funny on purpose? Well I knew, because I saw Pollack’s remake of Sabrina!

From my definitive post on Pollack, Sidney (Lumet) and Sydney (Pollack):

Like Lumet, Pollack can draw refreshing and interesting performances from his actors and Absence of Malice [Paul Newman’s performance] is a spectacular example of this. Pollack is also great at getting the more – how do you say, um – wooden of our acting populace to be a bit more complex. I count three different facial expressions on Harrison Ford in Sabrina and two of them are in the same FUCKING SCENE!!!

Love this vid of Syd talking about widescreen stuffs as it relates to The Interpreter:

Roger Ebert’s 1975 review states:

“Three Days of the Condor” is a well-made thriller, tense and involving, and the scary thing, in these months after Watergate, is that it’s all too believable. Conspiracies involving murder by federal agencies used to be found in obscure publications of the far left. Now they’re glossy entertainments starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. How soon we grow used to the most depressing possibilities about our government — and how soon, too, we commercialize on them.

Ebert’s observation regarding the idea of conspiracies moving from left to center is apt and entirely fascination in its own right. I wished he could have parse it more. As a political thriller buff, I am not entirely able to locate the moment when the studios migrated toward this worldview, but I feel in some ways it can be attributed to films such as the 1969 Costa-Gavras film Z, Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 showstopper The Parallax View and the Fred Zinnemann tour-de-force (ha!) The Day of the Jackal.

Cliff Roberston shutting it down as Higgins.

Nevertheless, of the films mentioned Three Days is by far the most exciting and it’s a pretty exciting bunch. Pollack – an oft mentioned favorite of mine – makes some of the most delicious choices ever committed to film. Meticulous attention to every detail from set design, costuming and music (more on that in a bit) in addition to pitch perfect script and masterful direction are the elements I believe make the film infinitely better than the others of the genre.

For starters, it’s a thriller about NERDS and not just any kind of nerd, but BOOK READING NERDS. Redford’s Joe Turner holds what I believe is – leaving aside the dramedy – the coolest job for bibliophiles: tremendous close reading of novels in order to ascertain if they contain any naughty secret messages. Working at a CIA store front called the American Historical Literature Society, Turner spends his days reading the likes of Dick Tracy and spy novels, which while being translated into a dozen seemingly unrelated languages are often critical and commercial failures as noted by their notched spines and one way ticket to the remainder bin.

Max Von Sydow

Mr. Max Von Sydow in Company.

And that’s all fabulous, except Turner is one of those memo happy spooks who just doesn’t know when to leave a tender moment alone. One of his memos touches off a chain of events, which results with his entire office being De Palma’d before we’ve even had a chance to really get to know them.

Speaking of BDeP…

De Palma’s reboot of Mission Impossible would later pay homage to Three Days in its own DePalmalicious way and ending very much in similar fashion – freaked out lead character flip shitting into a pay phone while the section chief on the other end sips coffee, fondles papers on his large mahogany desk, and finds the entire phone call entirely unremarkable.

bet laura mars would have seen this coming.

Don’t just take my word for it. See who else is all about some Condor:

  • Tarantino’s Jackie Brown – in addition to paying homage to Sharky’s Machine with use of “Street Life” – also evokes Condor stylistically in the credits, albeit subtly.
  • Tony Scott’s SpyGame is quite the love letter to Condor both in subject matter, costuming and, of course, casting Redford essentially as Joe Turner gone Higgins. Brad Pitt’s 70s costuming is bang on for Redford’s particularly at the climax of Condor.
  • Even Leverage sends up Condor with the hilarious episode entitled The Three Days of The Hunter Job.
dig those 'burns, Bob!

dig those sideburns, bob!

As for the acting. Everyone is dressed in their Sunday best. Stand out performances from the aforementioned Robertson, John “The Paper Chase” Houseman and Max Von Sydow, who charms as the refined model making enthusiast hitman-about-town and Alsace-Lorraine’s deadliest export. Faye Dunaway shows up as the love interest who remains rather non plussed by paranoid handsome stranger who has decided to kidnap her for reasons, I find amusing, though not entirely crucial to the story. Is it just me or did Dunaway play a photographer in every one of her mid to late 70s roles?

Trigger Warning: The gorgeous shots of the WTC Towers are liable to make you sob.

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