Thursday, September 5, 2013

FI: Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor
US, 1975
Directed by Sydney Pollack

It's easy to say "They don't make 'em like they used to." You hear it applied to everything from cars and appliances to TV shows and films... and it's usually hogwash. However, there are some styles or genres where the truism actually holds. I would say paranoid conspiracy thrillers are one such genre, a genre that has rarely approached its 1970's peak in the decades since. Three Days of the Condor might not be the best of the bunch, but it's certainly an effective, archetypal example. Directed with flair by Sydney Pollack and featuring tight, precise, tension-building editing by Don Guidice and Fredric Steinkamp, Three Days of the Condor works hard to establish a mood of mistrust and unease, with the looming potential for cold, impersonal violence haunting every scene.

In the film, Robert Redford plays Joe Turner (code name Condor), an analyst for the CIA specializing in finding patterns in books and published material. He's usually the smartest guy in the room and he knows it, though his arrogance and devotion to the truth make him an odd fit in the regimented, protocol-loving CIA. But those wild card tendencies save his skin when his entire office is gunned down after he leaves slightly early to pick up lunch. Now, Turner is forced to rely on his instincts to survive long enough to figure out what's going on. To get off the grid, he takes a random stranger named Kathy (Faye Dunaway) hostage, and retreats to the (relative) safety of her apartment. There, Turner tries to uncover a conspiracy while avoiding an Alsatian contract killer (Max von Sydow) and working out who, if anyone, he can trust.

Pollack uses real New York locations to add a sense of verisimilitude and grounding to the film's intrigue. He focuses on the details, on the little things only Turner's much-lauded eyes see, placing us in Turner's mind via the connections Steinkamp and Guidice's editing creates. As much as this presents the film as a puzzle to be solved, the conspiracy's details and resolution don't matter that much. The pleasures, here, come from watching smart people play chess with each other while lives are at stake. As the more "heroic" player, Redford brings an intensity and roguish charm that keeps us on his side, especially since his opponents remain largely shadowy and uncertain. But the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel subtly undercuts this by reminding us that, as smart and cautious as Turner is, he takes some needless risks and is obstinately determined to "win," even when he could just cut and run. Or could he? The film's world is a dark, dangerous place, and as difficult as escape is for Turner, it is equally difficult for the audience to turn away.

If you have an Amazon Prime membership, you can stream Three Days of the Condor for free on your computer or on many devices via the Amazon Instant Video app.

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