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Non-Review Review: Three Days of the Condor

Reflecting the political climate of the time, the seventies produced any number of high-quality conspiracy thrillers. I think what helps Three Days of the Condor stand above most of the rest is a great leading performance from Robert Redford at the height of his charisma, confident direction from Sydney Pollack and a rather clever central premise that feels interesting in its own right, rather than just a vehicle to create a palpable sense of paranoia.

Branching out...

From the outset, with a sexy jazz soundtrack, the old Paramount Pictures logo, and Redford’s sideburns, it’s immediately apparent that we’re watching a very seventies thriller. It’s Pollack’s sense of style that holds the movie together, and in spectacular fashion – simply put, it looks great. I rarely go on about the virtues of high definition (as a good film is a good film regardless of screen resolution), but Three Days of the Condor looks absolutely stunning in HD. The colours are more vibrant, the detail is crisp. The movie has a beautiful production design, which seems to recall the rather wonderful bright and vibrant colours we would have seen during the sixties. In particular, the sets within the CIA – the brightly-coloured meeting rooms, and the maps of the world – look absolutely impressive.

However, none of this would really add up to anything if Pollack didn’t have a hook – and he has a great one. The story essentially sees Robert Redford playing the eponymous Condor, a CIA agent tasked with reading books, helping the Agency “look for new ideas” in fiction, which is a clever idea. If there isn’t a department that already does that, there should be. His job also involves looking through suspicious texts (for example, “a mystery that didn’t sell, being translated into an assortment of different languages”) for codes and cyphers. Naturally, this being an espionage thriller, he finds something he shoudn’t and is targeted for assassination. This being a seventies pespionage thriller, it isn’t a foreign power that’s behind it all.

A thriller with some bite...

Redford’s spook is something different from what we’ve come to expect from these sorts of films. With his carefree attitude and golden sideburns, he seems like he’d be more at home at a peace rally than in the nerve-centre of a CIA counter-intelligence operation. His service record makes it clear that he doesn’t have experience with a handgun, and he seems to enjoy every aspect of his work except the secrecy. “It bothers me that I can’t tell people what I do,” he confesses at one point, which seems to suggest that he’s really not cut out for this whole espionage thing. “I’m not a field agent, I just read books.” Redford, at this stage in his career, had an effortless appeal, and I think he anchors the movie very well, creating a protagonist that we want to root for.

At its best, the movie taps effortlessly into that sense of mistrust and paranoia that seemed to fester in the America of that era. “Somebody or something is rotten in the company,” our lead insists. It’s also somewhat telling that the newspapers play a key part in the conclusion to the story, much as they did in exposing the Watergate Scandal to light. There’s the ever-present sense of a government lying to its own people, just as the intelligence organisation seems to lie to its employees – the impression being that it’s some sort of noble act to spare those not involved the dark and disturbing details.

The government machine (gun) at work...

Pollack plays up the wonderfully impersonal aspects of the script, immediately making us aware that Redford’s character is nothing but an anonymous cog in the machine. Upon phoning in with the report of the attack on his office, the operator asks, “Are you damaged?” Not “hurt”, “damaged.” The Agency refuses to deal with him using anything except his codename, which he notices when he’s transferred to an official who is senior enough to be allowed a name. “How come I need a codename and you don’t?” he asks. The Condor laughs at use of the words like “community” to describe the organisation, finding it darkly hilarious, while a sinister gun-for-hire uses euphemism “business arrangements” for assassinations. It’s all wonderfully creepy, and creates a palpable sense of unease.

That said, I was a little unsure what to make of the somewhat forced romantic subplot between Redford’s spy and Faye Dunaway’s hostage. It just feels completely unnecessary, and more than a little trashy – of course, it could be that I’m more than a little tired of the “man takes woman hostage and they fall in love”subplot, which has a whole manner of unfortunate implications. Dunaway and Redford are both great, and they do share a lovely little chemistry, but it just feels a little tacked on to a film that already has enough going on.

Talk about a desk job...

Other than that, though, it’s a great little conspiracy thriller that manages to support a sense of paranoia with a genuinely fascinating plot. They genuinely don’t come much better than this.

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