Whenever I show at Movie Klub, the joke is that someone else should write the review: clearly I’m going to think my choice is he greatest of all time. So this week I wanted to show a movie which I love despite (in fact, because of) its many faults: Sydney Pollack’s 1975 thriller 3 Days Of The Condor.
Robert Redford is a reader and researcher for the CIA, undercover for seemingly no reason as he never comes within a hundred miles of anything even related to the enemy … until he becomes the lone survivor of an attack that slaughters his entire New York office. On the run, with no idea what he’s doing and nowhere safe to go, he kidnaps a woman (Faye Dunaway) at random and holes up in her apartment until he can figure out who wants him dead.
That might sound very much like the plot of a John Grisham novel, and indeed this movie is based on a novel by James Grady which is very airport-thriller-ish. The plot grows increasingly complicated when it doesn’t really need to: the movie could be equally tense with just one “boss” ordering around the eerily calm hitman Joubert (the great Max Von Sydow). I’m actually reminded of a Grisham novel, The Pelican Brief, in which one character remembers that he needed to watch 3 Days of The Condor three times to figure out what was going on; there’s nothing inherently wrong with complicated plots, but this movie doesn’t have enough heft that it really needs to be that way.
Also very airport-thriller-ish is the speed at which Dunaway and Redford end up in bed together: from kidnapping to coitus before the clock even strikes midnight. The intention is that Dunaway is both tempted and terrified by the danger that Redford brings with him; while the “terrified” part is well-handled by an amazingly uncomfortable sex scene, the “tempted” part is sold short. Dunaway basically announces that she has a dark side which is willing to work with her kidnapper, but it’s the sort of thing that the audience needs to be shown, not told. One imagines that the novel fleshed out this aspect much better, as it takes place over six days while the movie takes place over only three.
And yet, the movie’s laziness with that aspect isn’t the worst decision, because it moves the audience more quickly to the part of the film that it wants to see: Redford just barely outsmarting von Sydow and the rest of the people hunting him. Unlike a lot of modern movies, 3 Days of the Condor does not cheat with respect to Redford’s character being a total amateur at this sort of thing. My favorite set piece in the film is the awkward fight scene between Redford and a hitman (Hank Garrett) posing as a mail carrier; it’s not pretty and Garrett looks like he received his first karate class just before shooting, but it has a real down-and-dirty intensity as well. Neither of these guys is ever going to be mistaken for Chuck Norris, but there can be a certain ballet in clumsiness too. This is all choreographed, of course, and incompetence is just as difficult to stage as mastery.
(The next couple of paragraphs contain some spoilers.)
Maybe my favorite aspect of 3 Days of the Condor is how incredibly prescient it is. With our thirty years of hindsight, it’s hard not to chuckle a little bit when Redford says with amazement, “this is about oil!” But remember, this was 1975: the Shah was still running Iran and Saddam Hussein was still four years away from taking over in Iraq. Everyone was worried about the Soviet Union, and not even the people who were supposed to be futurists realized that the Middle East was the battleground to come. Five years later the author Michael Crichton would predict, in his book Congo, that the next great American war would be fought in southern Africa.
3 Days of the Condor doesn’t just foresee the importance of the Middle East with respect to oil: it sees ahead almost 30 years and predicts the future. In the film Redford discovers a sub-unit within the CIA, designed to destabilize and/or invade regimes in the Middle Eastern oil-rich states; in 2002 Dick Cheney created the Office of Special Plans, a sub-unit within the Pentagon designed to promote the invasion of Iraq. Redford hopes that he can blow apart the enemy conspiracy by reporting it to the New York Times; in one of my favorite closing shots in any movie, 3 Days of the Condor anticipates why Cheney’s opponents should not have had the same hope.
Reviewed by Mark Young