Saturday, April 7, 2012

Genre Spotlight #1.2: Three Days of the Condor

Every decade brings new worries, and genre films are particularly good at capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist of the time. Every month, Genre Spotlight takes a look at a genre in a particular time and place, shows a certain director or screenwriter approached said genre, and tries to shine some light on what the cultural significance of the movement was. This month takes a look at the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

Grade: 85 (A-)

Following the Watergate scandal, more films tapping into the paranoia of the 1970s were released. One could not trust the government to simply do the right thing for the American public- all sorts of shady dealings were going on behind closed doors. The 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor is one of the best films to evoke that paranoia: innocents die, people are betrayed, and it all comes down to something that seems so simple.

Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is an analyst in the CIA’s New York headquarters. His code name is Condor, but he is not a field agent. He reads books to look for leaks of CIA information and code. One day, while fetching lunch for the office, mysterious Alsatian assassin Joubert (Max von Sydow) enters the office with two associates and kills everyone in sight. When Turner returns, he panics and runs. He tries to call headquarters, but his rendezvous turns out to be a trap. Turner kidnaps Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) at random in order to find a hiding place, but he can only hide for so long, and he needs answers.

Three Days of the Condor was directed by Sydney Pollack, a journeyman filmmaker who would probably have admitted that he wasn’t a terribly accomplished visual director. But Three Days of the Condor comes in the middle of a well-respected run (including They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Jeremiah Johnson, and The Way We Were) for the director, and it’s a well-crafted thriller that’s more than willing to take its time. Pollack has the asset of an exceptionally taught script at his hands- he just needs to guide it to port. Pollack’s real strength was working with actors- he was a gifted Meisner actor (as seen by his exceptional performances in Husbands and Wives and Eyes Wide Shut), and he gets committed performances from Redford, Dunaway, von Sydow, Robertson, and others.

Three Days of the Condor takes place in a world where the biggest wars are no longer fought on the battlegrounds. Information is king, and if the wrong person finds something out, their life is in danger. That’s what happens with Turner- he and his office come across a scrap of information that’s far more important than they realize it, and before they can figure out what’s at stake, they’re eliminated. Nothing has been left to chance- the government is always watching, and when it looks like everyone in Turner’s office is there, the hit begins. It doesn’t even matter that they’re little more than a bunch of bookworms.

Redford brings a relatable presence to the fore- he wasn’t an exceptionally gifted actor, but he had a likable, youthful charm to him and exuded intelligence and curiosity. When we see him in danger, we want him to make it out alive. When he goes about figuring out what’s going on, we believe that he can do it. When he and Dunaway start to bond, their chemistry is wholly believable (the “kidnapped woman falls for the kidnapper” storyline is referenced and even improved upon in Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece Out of Sight).

The most interesting character in the film, however, is von Sydow’s Joubert. The character is mysterious- very little is known about him other than the fact that he’s an Alsatian and a skilled assassin. He’s confident, creepy, and unnervingly polite. The character is almost a reflection of Edward Fox’s the Jackal in The Day of the Jackal- he admits that he has no real stake in these dirty games other than the money. He even finds it peaceful that he has no need to believe in anything or no cause to fight for. When he admires Turner’s ability to survive so long, he advises he take up his profession- “you believe in your own precision”. It’s almost easier to live in a world fraught with battling causes and ideologies to believe in nothing but one’s self, and that’s a terrifying fact of the 70s paranoid thriller.

The tie-in to Watergate is clear. All of the decisions are made by men behind desks- educated, intelligent, “normal” men who decide at the drop of the hat that something is a threat to national security. The government is just as paranoid as the American public, and far more secretive. They’re always watching, and that Three Days of the Condor employs a trustworthy face like Cliff Robertson as one of the main antagonists only adds to the feeling that you just can’t trust anyone anymore.

SPOILER: when it all turns out to be the decision of a particularly paranoid man (Addison Powell), the government can’t own up to his mistake. Better to neutralize him and tie up any loose ends. Turner and company accidentally stumbled upon a plot to take over Middle Eastern oil fields (relevance to today’s politics: high), and one man took their discovery too seriously. When Turner confronts Higgins about it, however, he says that the plan is sound. Turner charges that the CIA believe that “Not getting caught with a lie is the same as telling the truth”. But the people will need oil in an upcoming crisis, and the fact is that they don’t want to know about where it came from. He’s not wrong, and Turner’s hope that the story will break is uncertain. He can’t trust anyone, he doesn’t know if the truth will get out, and he’s about to be “a very lonely man”, spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

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