Sydney Pollack’s ‘Three Days of the Condor’ (1975)

11Jun09

Though I didn’t know it when I saw the 1996 action thriller, the plot of Brian De Palma’s filmic interpretation of Mission: Impossible borrows quite a bit from Three Days of the Condor. In Condor, CIA employee Joe Turner finds himself running for his life after all of his colleagues are killed while he is literally out to lunch. The head of his department tries to shoot him at the rendezvous to “bring him in” for safekeeping, so Turner wounds him and goes on the run. Turner then becomes the prime suspect for the murders of his coworkers, just like his Mission: Impossible counterpart Ethan Hunt. There’s even a similar call made from a phone booth when Turner and Ethan discover that all of their colleagues have been killed.

But while Turner may work for the CIA, he’s not a spy like Ethan. His job seems to consist of reading and analyzing everything that’s printed, looking for leaked information about CIA operations that has been coded into the text. He served in the military, as most 30ish men in the 1970s had, but he doesn’t possess any particular training in self-defense, technology, or weaponry. All his knowledge of evasive tactics has come from reading books. So where M:I is about spectacle, Condor is about strategy. And the quieter approach of the earlier film allows for more character development. Turner never intended to enter this world of assassins and spies that he finds himself in, and he doesn’t have the skills to go mano a mano with the professional killer who hunts him. While he starts out all open-faced and trusting, Turner gradually hardens as he struggles to stay alive and discover why he has been targeted.

Turner hardens to the point of becoming something of an anti-hero in the middle of the film when he kidnaps a young woman named Kathy so that he can use her apartment as a safehouse. While I never thought that he wanted or intended to hurt Kathy, Turner does treat her roughly, maybe more roughly than necessary, and she is frightened by him. But then she suddenly develops Stockholm syndrome, and they sleep together. (The intercutting between the sex and Kathy’s photographs makes this scene my least favorite for another reason.) To screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s credit, he attempts to make Kathy sleeping with Turner a character moment for her, but it’s handled awkwardly. The conversation between Kathy and her “friend,” and the fact that she never calls him her boyfriend, reveals that she has trouble following through on her commitments and maybe even has commitment issues. This set-up allows Turner’s statement about his appealing to her because of his probable short future to land to a certain extent. But then Kathy goes from implying that he might still rape her, to being annoyed that Turner tied her up while he was gone, to being confronted by Turner’s insight into her psyche, to sleeping with him in the span of one disjointed scene. Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway try to sell it as best they can, but I just don’t buy it. I do like that the following morning both Turner and Kathy feel weird about the sex, and Kathy gets that awesome “spy fucker” line. But then she wants to help Turner and acts all cocky at her sit-down with Higgins, and it’s strange again. I like Kathy, and I like Dunaway in the role, but I think her characterization is rocky.

I’m not sure if the character was significant in 1975, but I find Janice to be a refreshing portrayal of an Asian character. She doesn’t speak with an accent or practice martial arts or work in a dry cleaners. Yes, her job is kind of bookish, but Janice is portrayed as stylish, attractive, and socially competent rather than nerdy. Too bad she dies.

Three Days of the Condor is a political thriller with a healthy dose of paranoia aimed at the government, making it very much a product of its era, namely the Watergate scandal. But the film has aged surprisingly well with perhaps the exception of some of Dave Grusin’s score. All the spy stuff still seems plausible and not too hokey. The ending also feels vaguely prophetic of this country’s current predicament, which makes Condor an engrossing watch for modern audiences despite the minor wear and tear along its edges.

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