3 Days of the Condor (1975, dir. Sydney Pollack)
“There was nothing explicit between them, nothing more than a slightly open door. And yet…what could be more alluring?” – Jess Walter
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald “Let’s Rumble” Rumsfeld (At the time a lot of liberal pundits pretended like this quote was some kind of impenetrable legalese when it’s actually one of the more insightful glimpses into our foreign policy)
So I’m still processing just how monumental Watergate was to the American psyche (That’s right. It’s one those posts. The word “psyche” will be used). You’d be hard pressed to find a single political event that had as much negative effect on the American public’s relationship to its’ politics and politicians. This drastic change in attitude is supremely evident in films like the subject of this month’s post, 3 Days of the Condor. It’s one film in a sweep of paranoid post-watergate spy thrillers alongside Parallax View, All the President’s Men, etc. Normal-ish people caught up in an intricate maze of government deception.
The plot of 3 Days of the Condor is centered around a vague, “traitor on the inside” scenario. Robert Redford plays a “literary analyst” for the CIA named Joseph Turner. The point is made repeatedly in the film’s first twenty minutes that Turner’s job is to “read everything”. Probably so when the plot calls for Turner to do things like bug a telephone switchboard, or hot wire a car, we’re not scratching our heads wondering where he learned this stuff. We already have the answer. He read about it. You know, the same way I read about fighter jets as a kid and now have absolutely no problem engaging the enemy in dog fights over the pacific. Turner’s knowledge of all things written is so great that when his team can’t figure out how a guy was shot but no bullet was recovered, he realizes it must have been…an ice bullet! Because he read about ice bullets in a Dick Tracy comic. Seriously.
Anyway, in the course of a routine book analysis Turner stumbles across a secret plot involving hot button buzzwords like “oil” and “Middle East”. Turns out this secret plan is being executed by a rogue agent within the CIA. When the rogue agent realizes that his plan has been discovered, he hires some assassins to kill everyone at the literary analysis headquarters. Luckily Turner decides to get a sandwich just a moment before the machine gun wielding killers arrive (the best argument I’ve ever heard for not eating in the office cafeteria). After returning to find everyone murdered, Turner goes on the run. He spends the next three days trying to convince the CIA that they have a traitor and elude an assassin who’s been sent to kill him (Max Von Sydow in full on methodical sociopath mode).
During his three days on the run Turner enlists (and by “enlsists” I mean kidnaps at gunpoint) the help of a lonely photographer named Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway). At first she’s scared that he’s a rapist or criminal. Eventually though, Redford gets into a fist fight in her living room and she starts to believe his story. We’ve seen this before. Every spy films seems to have a token female character who screams nearby as the male fights. The writers needed some romantic chemistry. They needed someone that Redford could sleep with so they’d have some skin to throw in the trailer. Kudos to them for at least playing the initial few scenes between Redford and Dunaway as unsettling but I’d love to see a reverse of this trope. A female spy who has to drag around some hapless male as she evades thugs and bullets.
The director of 3 Days of the Condor was a guy named Sydney Pollack. Pollack was an extremely accomplished director who’s body of work suggests that he should be more of a household name. He was comfortable working in the director centered cinema of the 70s (They Shoot Horses Don’t They?) and the kid tested, mother approved films of the 80s (Tootsie). But it was his close friendship and collaboration with Robert Redford where Pollack did a lot of his best work. Their most critically acclaimed film was the romance Out of Africa which went on to win Oscars for directing and picture. Though my personal favorite has to be Jeremiah Johnson. One of the greatest wilderness survival films of all time. Pollack also acted. Throwing down some pretty solid performances in films like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut or Allen’s Husbands and Wives. In fact, the lecherous way Pollack describes a prostitute’s lips in Husbands and Wives as “feeling like velvet on your cock” still disturbs me to this day.
But back to the movie, at one point Turner has to leave an apartment building without being noticed so he asks a group of hip teens hanging out in the building’s lobby to walk out with him. One of those kids is holding a tambourine. And it made me realize that one of my strongest desires, aside from owning a dilapidated movie house and marrying Elaine Benes, is to live in a place and time when kids would routinely carry around tambourines in public. Can we all just take a deep breath and try to imagine that world? Impossible right? A world so devoid of irony and cynicism that this kid is able to hang out in New York City, with a ton of friends, holding a tambourine. No one else in the group is holding an instrument. He’s not on his way to practice. He left the house that morning, ran a comb through his hair, took a swig of orange juice and grabbed his tambourine on the way out the door.
General question to the readership: Is the tambourine the lamest of the musical instruments? It’s so deeply entwined with the 1960s California sound that I wonder if we can ever get to a day when tambourines aren’t synonymous with blurry hippies and rhythmic chanting. At least the kazoo knows it’s a joke. Come to think of it, do people still carry instruments as fashion accessories? Are there still cool kids slinging guitars over their back? Are there still people who carry drumsticks around? You know, like that one kid on the bus in sixth grade who was always banging on shit.
For some reason I feel like Johnny Depp owns a lot of tambourines.
Perhaps, more than anything 3 Days of Condor is a testament to STAR power. The plot is serviceable. The action is good. But it’s undeniable that I was swept away by the sheer magnetism of Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. I guess it helps that the two of them have continued to make good movies in the forty years hence, cementing their status as two of Hollywood’s demigods. So strong is the Redford tractor beam that I could watch him whip up an omelet and find some way to see myself , my hopes, my humanity in that omelet.
Which is interesting because this is the time period when the critic Pauline Kael started to dog Redford. He was constant target of her critical ire. Although I was unable to find any illustrative quotes from Kael (her reviews seem to be locked down by Ebsco and other totalitarian academic prisons) you can get a sense of Redford and Kael’s strained relationship by reading this 2013 Esquire interview with Redford. In it he says things like “That’s where a critic goes over the line — they want to own you. They want to dictate your path. I called and she said, ‘Are you going to come by for a drink?’”.
I’ve always thought Redford was a pretty strong actor. And I’m kind of just talking my outta my ass here, but what makes Robert Redford doubly special is that he’s a massive star and yet has never succumbed to the easy money of franchise Hollywood. Everyone else who approaches Redford’s broad appeal and cinematic clout has decided at one point or another to cash in. Richard Harris (Harry Potter), Dustin Hoffman (Meet the Fockers), Al Pacino (Ocean’s 13). Don’t even get me started on Deniro. Even Redford’s heir apparent, George Clooney, did Batman and Robin. Let me be clear: Redford has made some pretty atrocious films. I’m still smarting from a Sunday afternoon when I caught Indecent Proposal on TBS and all of sudden Sundance appears. Like a finding a blonde streaked gem in your dog’s stool. And sure, films like Lions for Lambs are so preachy that they’re like being smothered by a pillow stuffed with The Nation magazine. But I love that his desire to make important, thoughtful movies is still there. It’s real. A lot of actors talk big game about making bold films or radically challenging people’s politics. But Redford’s one of the last guys who’s been going to that particular church every Sunday.
Wait?! What’s that?
He’s gonna be in Captain America 2. C’mon. After I just got through giving that spiel about integrity or whatever. All is Lost.
And if you’re wondering why I’ve gone this long without dissecting Faye Dunaway’s performance, which also receives top billing, I guess it’s because she doesn’t do a whole lot. She’s captivating of course. Just under utilized. Like I said, she gets kidnapped by Redford, makes a few wise cracks, shows off some her dreary photography, and then succumbs to a night of passionate, above the shoulder, PG-13 pigeon kisses. Sigh. If only we humans made love like in the movies, sans nether regions, just cheek to cheek like Ella and Louie.
3 days of the Condor finishes with one those uber satisfying, stick it to the man, climactic monologues that Redford is so fucking good at delivering. He unleashes a barrage of calm, concentrated shame, directly into the face of a CIA operative, that’s oh so sweet. He doesn’t gun anybody down. He doesn’t take a swing. Redford just stands firm, a judicious oak tree rooted against the hard wind of bureaucracy.
And much like The Candidate, 3 Days of the Condor makes a larger political point that rings as true today as it did back then. Okay, so Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA’s spying operations. Now there’s extra scrutiny on that organization and the promise that reforms will reign on the agency’s overreach. But like the CIA portrayed in 3 Days of the Condor, who’s to say there isn’t a program within a program? Who’s to say that exposing the NSA won’t just push their intelligence gathering further into the dark? Are they really going to change? Or just lock the truth in a stronger safe?
The pinnacle of the monologue is when Redford reveals that the CIA will pay for their cover up because he’s given the story to the New York Times. How’s that CIA?! This shit’s gonna be printed in the paper. The truth will come out…before it’s used to mop up spilled Crispix.
– So 3 Days of the Condor was based on a book called 6 Days of the Condor. I’m assuming they went with 3 days instead of 6 to save money. “Look Sydney, We love the screenplay. And it’s great that you’ve got Redford attached. But the studio can’t commit to this budget. How about we half the movie? 3 days?”.
– Pollack shot a lot of the film on location in New York City including a climax at the Twin Towers. Here’s a great resource for finding the actual NYC locations used in Hollywood films. Michael’s workplace in Mickey Blue Eyes anyone?!! And to be honest the streets of NYC don’t look that different 40 years later. The only noticeable difference is that in the 70s people on the street looked straight ahead. Now everyone is looking down at their phones…hopefully reading this blog.