A 1975 espionage thriller directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford, the fourth of their seven collaborations, Three Days of the Condor is an adaptation of James Grady’s 1974 thriller Six Days of the Condor. Given the modern propensity for squeezing two films out of one novel, a modern viewer could be forgiven for thinking this is the first of two films but back in the seventies the very idea would have been considered absurd. Rather, the title change reflects the many significant plot changes to Grady’s novel in its transition to the big screen.
The action opens on the streets of contemporary New York while accompanied by an of-its-time bluesy score by Dave Grusin (On Golden Pond, The Fabulous Baker Boys), linguist Joseph Turner (Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) cycles through the traffic and December rain to his place of work in a small office which ostensibly translates foreign-language texts into English. It is, in fact, a cover for a CIA monitoring station in which foreign texts both fiction and non-fiction are translated and scanned for any kind of hidden reference to CIA activities.
Whilst Turner is out fetching lunch for everyone from a local deli, a hit squad led by a more-than-usually-saturnine Max von Sydow (The Exorcist, Flash Gordon) descends upon the office and kills all its occupants including Turner’s colleague and girlfriend Janice Chong. When he returns and finds the bodies Turner realises he too must be on the hitlist and summons assistance from his section head using his codename Condor. However, after an attempt on his life during a supposed safe meeting it soon becomes clear to him that the hit was an inside job and Turner/Condor ends up on the run.
What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game as Turner has to avoid both von Sydow and his goons and his own CIA section head who all appear to want him very much dead. To this end he steals a car driven by photographer Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway, The Eyes of Laura Mars, Supergirl) and although initially his captive, she later collaborates with him as he attempts to make sense of his situation while trying to stay alive.
Regarded as one of the great Hollywood directors of the late twentieth century, the filmography of Sydney Pollack is relatively slender with only twenty features to his name. Following an acting career in the fifties, by the early sixties he was a jobbing television director and in 1965 he moved into features with The Slender Thread starring Sidney Poitier. Over the next thirty years he brought to the screen a series of features ranging across many genres from thrillers (The Firm) to westerns (The Scalphunters) to romantic comedies (the remake of Sabrina) to period dramas (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) to social satires (Tootsie).
Most are now considered well-crafted classics and he has very few, if any, duds to his name, his works having amassed almost fifty Academy Award nominations and eleven wins, including seven for Out of Africa alone. His final film as director was The Interpreter in 2005 starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, but he continued to act right up until the end of his life in 2008.
Regarded by many as an “actors’ director,” Pollack eschewed any overt auteurial hand and favoured an “invisible” style that served the text and the cast best which was why he could turn his hand to any genre. Following This Property is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor would be the fourth time Pollack directed Robert Redford who held him in very high regard and who felt Pollack brought out his best performances.
At the time of filming in December 1974, Redford was 38 years old and a major star at the height of his powers who presented a charismatic and highly-attractive screen presence, and he is matched though by Faye Dunaway who, at the time, was on a career high having been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar the year before for Chinatown and who would win Best Actress the following year for Network. Both actors have a magnetic presence on screen and there is little need to resort to bombastic elements to progress the plot with a leading cast of this quality.
To modern eyes Kathy’s treatment at Turner’s hands would be considered reprehensible but Dunaway has sufficient star power and talent to make her a much more psychologically interesting and sympathetic character than the script would allow. Similarly Max von Sydow brings a great deal more to his character than is written on the page, and the supporting cast includes Cliff Robertson (Charly) and John Houseman (Rollerball).
By the mid-seventies the spy genre had swung away from the larger-than-life Bond shenanigans of the sixties to the more mundane reality of daily paper-pushing which changed the genre from that of spectacle to a more introverted psychological nature. To this end, Three Days of the Condor is a relatively low-key film eschewing spectacle and excessive effect and instead relying on star power and plot to maintain tension and atmosphere. With twenty first century thriller “necessities” such as action setpieces and overblown musical scores conspicuously absent, in fact Dave Grusin’s jazzy score is barely there, only being used for occasional emphasis.
Now available in a new high-definition presentation on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, this release comes with two special features. There is a very informative and accessible twenty minute interview with film historian Sheldon Hall who examines Pollack’s career and places Three Days of the Condor firmly in the context of its times. There is also a one-hour episode from 2000 of the television series The Directors examining Pollack’s life and career with contributions from many of the people he worked with over the years.
Planted firmly in the wave of government conspiracy thrillers which were popular with Hollywood at the time largely as a response to the Watergate revelations of the early seventies, Three Days of the Condor is definitely one of the better examples. By the time of its release in September 1975, the box office was helped by contemporary real-life revelations about covert CIA activities overseas although Pollack maintained he had no knowledge of these during filming and it was all a topical coincidence.