By Marc S. Sanders
Sydney Pollack is such a hero of Hollywood filmmaking. He was a terrific actor and a better director. As Three Days Of The Condor opens I got completely engrossed in its simple, yet frightening set up.
Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) arrives at his office where he works day to day as a “book reader.” He chats a little with his colleagues, jots a few notes down, and steps out the back door to pick up lunch for everyone. When he returns, he finds the entire office staff has been shot to death. This seems like a common day in the life of an Everyman, until it’s not. Alfred Hitchcock capitalized on this motif over and over again.
Turner makes a phone call and is asked for his code name, but before he reveals he’s known as “Condor,” he asks a very good question to the man on the other end of the line. Why is it so important that Turner reveals his code name, but the man he called doesn’t feel the need to share his own?
Having recently watched the film adaptation of The Firm with Tom Cruise, made almost twenty years after this film, I can see that Sydney Pollack knows how to not only build suspense very, very quickly but also how to maintain it too. Still, in both films the complications of the why and how become overbearing. With Three Days Of The Condor, it’s best to just watch the tight editing and well drawn characterizations all the way from Max Von Sydow as a disciplined assassin to John Houseman as the elder authority who relaxes himself with his tweed suit and bow tie behind a large table as the problems unfold. Cliff Robertson is Higgins, the contact for Turner. He’s serviceable in the part.
The entire first hour of the film is perfection; taut and gripping as we uncover what purpose Turner as a book reader serves, and for whom. The second hour found me feeling less engaged, regrettably. To aid himself, Turner kidnaps a woman shopping in a sporting goods store. Faye Dunaway plays Kathy Hale. He forces Kathy to take him back to her apartment where he hides out. Never would it occur to me that these two characters over the course of a day and a half would fall for one another and make passionate love. This is not that kind of movie, and yet there it is. Some producer must have said “Fellas, we’ve got Dunaway and Redford on screen. This is a no brainer.” Faye Dunaway is fine in the part. I bought that out of desperation Redford would hold her at gun point and force her to help. But, c’mon! Really? They gotta bang each other too????
As for the plot behind killing people, the film doesn’t work its way into car and foot chases. It relies on its wording. The problem for me is that Turner works it all out himself. There’s little reference back to earlier moments for an audience to connect the dots along with the hero. So when Turner realizes one of the motivations is in regards to oil trading, I was trying to figure when anyone said anything about oil to begin with. Revelations just seem to be pulled out of a rabbit’s hat at times. They could have said people had to be murdered because the price of milk went up by fifty cents, and that would’ve held about just the same amount of weight as oil. What ABOUT oil????? Nothing ever needed to be so explicitly discussed here.
Part of the fun sometimes in Hitchcock films, for example, is simply seeing the man unexpectedly on the run and then watching how he outwits his adversaries. Harrison Ford does that in The Fugitive. Tom Cruise did it in The Firm. Cary Grant did it plenty of times with Hitchcock. In this film, however, I never felt there was any need to explain. Once it tried to grow a brain, I thought sometimes less is more, because now I’m stuck feeling frustratingly confused amid a lot of convoluted mumbo jumbo, on top of an out of left field, unsubstantiated love sequence.
Three Days Of The Condor was one of the best, edge of your seat suspense stories I’d seen…until it wasn’t.