Pollack Paranoia

Three Days of the Condor (1975) is a conspiracy thriller by Sydney Pollack about a renegade CIA section.  There were a lot of movies then about that sort of thing:  Watergate; JFK’s assassination; Vietnam – any nutty theory seemed to have some traction.  Unlike The Parallax View of 1974 by Pakula, which is darker and takes itself much, much more seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, while I found the Pakula number predictable and pretentious.  I guess I like Redford more than Beatty too.  (I still want to know how they filmed that scene on the Seattle Space Needle at the start of Parallax though!)

Redford plays Joe Turner, a CIA researcher who returns from a lunchtime errand with the office’s sandwiches to find everyone murdered.  Why would  anyone rub out a bunch of nerdy intelligence analysts?  He may be an egghead bookworm, but he’s also Redford, so he can fight and think on his feet like James Bond:  not quite believable.

He forces Cathy (Faye Dunaway) to shelter him, she falls for him, of course, and they sleep together.  The next day, she’s feeling a bit skittish.  He tells her, “You don’t have to help me.”  She replies, “Oh no, you can count on me, the old spy fucker…”  He’s annoyed.  A funny bit; part of what makes this thriller a little quirky.

The film is shot in New York City, and it’s a real treat to see the locations.  It’s NYC in the 70s, the NYC I remember, even when I’m walking around the spic-and-span streets of today near Central Park – The NYC of humungus cars lumbering down potholed streets, garbage on the sidewalk, and grime.  Several of the shots of CIA headquarters in NYC are in the World Trade Center, a deliciously sick irony, given the fate of those structures and the CIA ineptitude that helped bring it on.  Here, the Hoboken train station take on a noir/Casablanca atmosphere as Turner walks away from Cathy, maybe to his death.

Cliff Robertson (sporting a massive, windblown rug) plays Higgins, the CIA guy trying to get Turner:  is he on Joe’s side, or does he put The Company first?  Here he stares at a primitive version of Google Maps trying to locate Joe from a phone call, but Joe was too clever to be tracked.

Joe finds the CIA guy who rubbed out his friends so that a secret rogue CIA plan to invade the Middle East wouldn’t be uncovered.  Turner realizes it was all about oil.  Sounds familiar.  The 1973 oil crisis was a recent memory.

John Houseman is the old CIA hand who craves “the clarity” of yesteryear.  Max von Sydow is  Joubert the hired murderer who has found clarity in “the precision” of his work.  He doesn’t have to worry about which side pays.  He has found peace.  He and Joe have a little man to man outside of the renegade’s house.  Joe seems cool with the fact that Mr. Death (yep, Max has a lot of experience with The Grim Reaper) knocked off his colleagues:  he’s a bit overwhelmed by it all, and asks for a lift to the train station.  This was another of the enjoyable, unpredictable elements in this film.

Joe is not quite through with The Company.  He meets Higgins again, who tries to justify the whole dirty business, although, of course, that renegade went too far.  They have a little debate about democratic accountability with Turner taking the high road, “ask the people what they want,” and Higgins telling him that when they are out of gas, hungry and cold, they will just want the ‘authorities’ to get it done, and not ask why.  He has a point, doesn’t he?

The moral ambiguity of the ending, the unresolved romance, the unknown future of Joe Turner is what makes this movie really fun.  Joe tells Higgins that the New York Times now has the whole story.  He thinks that will protect him:  he doesn’t quite trust Higgins to be gentle with him, despite Higgins’ show of concern for his welfare.  After all, Joubert told him not to trust anyone.  Higgins is aghast – another Pentagon Papers debacle – but as Joe walks away, he calls to him.  How far can you walk?  “How do you know they’ll print it?”  “They’ll print it,” shouts Joe, but he doesn’t seem totally convinced.

Sydney Pollack turns up at the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final work, and a terrible disappointment to me.  He gives the low down to Tom Cruise who cannot fathom the corrupt orgy he’s witnessed.  Pollack tells him that the high and mighty, the secret governing class, they do things you wouldn’t believe, if you only knew.  Yeah, yeah, I read the papers, we know.  It’s a pretty silly denouement.

Oops…what if they don’t print it?

4 Responses to Pollack Paranoia

  1. Man of Roma says:

    “Three Days of the Condor” is one of my favourite movies. I saw it many times, also recently.

    I like Robert Redford very much in this role and Faye Dunaway too, very sensitive and attractive.

    You don’t find believable that a bookworm can fight and think like James Bond. Of course. But I remember John Houseman, the old CIA guy – who as you say “craves ‘the clarity’ of yesteryear” – being struck by Joe Turner’s big capabilities and explaining them by saying:

    “Condor reads” (don’t know the original words).

    It hit me since in the 70’s we all believed in the ‘power of reading’ lol.

    Faye Dunaway / Cathy has a hidden dark side that goes well with the overall noir atmosphere: she is withdrawn, takes pictures of solitary landscapes and is slightly masochistic.

    It’s NYC in the 70s, the NYC I remember, even when I’m walking around the spic-and-span streets of today

    I was in NYC twice: at the start of the 90’s and again in autumn 2008. I saw a big difference in overall cleanliness between the 2 periods. I don’t like the spic-and-span thing that is prevaliing here too. I too much prefer how things used to be.

    Joubert, the killer, always struck me as the stereotype of the Europen as conceived by an American audience: he’s refined but a bit perverse in his ethical indifference.

  2. Lichanos says:

    …the stereotype of the European… Good point!

    I too much prefer how things used to be.
    I don’t! But it’s what I “see”. It was scary!

    Cathy has a hidden dark side that goes well with the overall noir atmosphere
    Good connection with the ‘noir’ theme in your observation, but I don’t think it was developed well. It all went by too fast, too much assumed. Overall, though, I like the way their relationship was handled…the chance that it will go on is pretty small. Just an episode. Unsentimental, not romantic.

    I like this film a lot.

  3. Dom-Dom says:

    Very happy to read your review about “Three Days of the Condor”, which I consider one of the best movies ever made about the intelligence community. I like the authentic feel Pakula gives about the nitty-gritty of ordinary analysts (I also like the “oddball” touch given to Turner, first seen riding a French-built Solex moped in NYC ;-))
    You seem to like Pakula’s movies (so do I). I suppose you also saw Klute, starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. It is a 1971 movie, and you can tell its age by the story and the way it is shot (pretty sedate). But Fonda and Sutherland are great, and so is NYC in the late 60’s. Ad the movie already has this eerie feeling (read : paranoïd…) which soon became Pakula’s signature.
    Best rgds.

    • Lichanos says:

      Thanks for your comment!

      I like the film, Klute, and commented on it here.

      I think you are writing from France, so you might be interested in my comments on films and novels: many of the subjects are French. And no, I didn’t notice he was riding a Solex. I just assumed it was Italian…


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