Friday, April 10, 2015

Three Days of the Condor

One of my favorite film genres is the '70s paranoia thriller. Along with Westerns and film noir, for me, it's as "cinematic" as it gets. The storylines were usually torn from the headlines, sometimes outright filmizations of real life events such as those for ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. The political climate was already sketchy in the latter years of Vietnam; then came Watergate. The nightly news may have been enough drama to intrigue and nauseate the public, but naturally Hollywood took notice.  And created some seriously good films.

And this was during that golden age when Tinseltown still created intelligent, restrained entertainments for adults.  Before the average American could quote the box office receipts of the latest blockbuster. Another element that makes me wish I had been old enough to have seen films like 1975's THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR in a theater.  Films that sported a particular "look".  Grainy yet clear cinematography that created a high gloss docudrama style all its own.  The best example of this would be featured in THE PARALLAX VIEW, though director Alan J. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis had earlier refined this visual to a similar perfection with KLUTE.

D. P. Owen Roizman creates with director Sydney Pollack another enviable visual style with CONDOR, a vision that may be devoid of vibrancy but so appropriate in its muted primary colors around (mainly) New York City at Christmastime.  This look is as important as any content within, in my opinion.  It establishes the feel, the urgency, the anxiety around every street corner.  The appearance of this film and others of its kind is of a slightly unreal, too stark texture that somehow conveys malevolence, something sinister.  This of course matches the story.

Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, an unassuming analyst for the CIA whose job is to read any printed matter he obtains.  He works in a basement office with a handful of others. Turner looks for embedded codes, subtext, and unusual plots in what he reads and reports back to the Agency.  The potboiler novel of late is odd in that it has been translated onto many unusual languages.  Even odder, one day his co-workers are all cut down by a group of assassins while he's out getting lunch.  Were they hired by the Agency?

Turner is on the run.  When he contacts Headquarters, seeking protection, he soon learns that they indeed want him dead. Why? He just reads books.  The man is no operative, but his findings uncover something that makes top brass very nervous.  After a time - and holing up with a woman named Kathy (Faye Dunaway) he randomly meets in a store - Turner learns the reason behind the massacre.  Why he is now marked.  It is more than a plot device, it's something the less conservative among us have been screaming about for years, especially following recent wars in the Middle East.  This alone makes THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR as relevant as ever, if in a conspiracy theorist sorta way.

Pollack does some Top 5 work here.  His direction is fluid but deliberate.  Like many '70s films, takes can run a bit long to 21st century sensibilities, but allow the storyline and atmosphere to really sink in.  Don Guidice's editing is world class, too.  Redford is perfect in his confusion that gradually turns to cynicism and perhaps wisdom.  Dunaway looks great and gets to deliver one classic bit a dialogue the morning after a tryst.  Max von Sydow again portrays elegant menace as a hit man named Joubert who grows to like and even respect Turner.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR maintains a serious tone but does allow some flashes of humor, evidenced by Dunaway's remarks and a throwaway bit in an elevator, shared by Turner, Joubert, and a smart ass young man.  But the story is serious, wrapped in an entertaining spy/chase thriller that disturbingly seems completely plausible.

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