Review: ‘The Three Days of the Condor’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Even the most casual glancer at the credits is going to smirk at the fact that The Three Days of the Condor is taken from a book called The Six Days of the Condor; a certain suspense factor tied up with significantly designated slices of time is distinctly compromised before the action can get underway. That difficulty aside, the movie version is not only twice as fast-paced as the book but also approximately 600% improved. Literarily, James Grady’s novel is sufficient to make Frederick Forsyth look like Graham Greene by comparison, and Sydney Pollack and his screenwriters have wisely compressed the itinerary of Condor—the code name of a CIA-employed reader and analyst of spy, mystery, and adventure novels who goes out to lunch one rainy noon and returns to find his utterly innocuous section totally “damaged” (everybody has been machine-gunned) by, just maybe, another CIA faction. Indeed, Pollack jams the plot past so fast that I wonder whether nonreaders of the book will be able to follow its every turn, especially when (Altmania again) key clues and crucial awakenings on the part of one character or another are often thrown away in a stepped-on line of dialogue or murmured soliloquy.

One factor militating against such irritation is that Grady’s personnel, who consist of nothing save a name (often deviously concealed from the reader) or a phrase like “a tall man in a raincoat,” are incarnated by such watchable screen folk as Robert Redford, Max von Sydow, and John Houseman: Von Sydow’s mere presence eye to eye with a girl about to be blown away is enough to guarantee a sudden renewal of human interest in the contemporarily perfunctory act of one person murdering another. In this small but intrinsically cinematic way, Pollack restores a sense of individual importance, involvement, and ambiguity to a genre that has been debased by filmmakers almost as fast as the intelligence game itself by those soulless sentinels of American liberty they purport to expose and denounce.

But don’t give the putative auteur too much credit too fast. The evidence suggests mainly that he’s aware it’s more entertaining to look in on a battle of wits between Redford and Von Sydow—the characters they play and the players themselves—than to follow the computer-punched peregrinations of behavioral neuters. I certainly don’t wish to discount that as a critical value; but elsewhere Pollack shows himself to be as tackily, tediously, pointlessly “inventive” as when, say, in The Yakuza he overlapped Herb Edelman’s biography of Robert Mitchum with Mitchum’s own moseying toward a rendezvous with his past. When Redford and Faye Dunaway get together in her apartment—he grabs her off the street and commandeers her company, her car, and her pad when he needs a respite from pursuit by nameless, faceless assassins—the writers are careful to write in sufficient shorthand motivation for Dunaway’s eventual going-along with Redford’s designs, as a man on the run and in need of consolation. But their eventual lovemaking (Redford and Dunaway Go At It Heavy Enough To Draw An R-rating! … ? …) is conveyed via tritely arty intercuts of her amateur photographs on the theme of Loneliness; in other words, on a sheerly cinemagenic as well as narratively ethical level, Pollack literally doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it.

Dunaway is stunning when permitted onscreen, creating a compelling character where only the merest signals (mostly simplistic or Lorenzo-Semple-cute) exist in the script. (Something has changed here: remember the long years between Bonnie and Clyde and Chinatown when Dunaway in bad movies was simply just as bad, terrific looks or no.) And Redford effortlessly invests Grady’s Everyman-on-the-run with enough charm and snotty temperament that his metamorphosis into halfway-competent espionage agent becomes credible within the requirements of the film. But an overall point-of-view is lacking. The seams show, the joins between movements in the film; the sense of we-need-a-way-to-nifty-up-this-sequence comes through loud and clear. Another hapless CIA employee on the spot (Walter McGinn, who is permitted to die out of films much too soon) is changed from a former teacher of Condor’s to his best buddy, who just happens to have married the girl Condor used to go with; but this goes by (“How was that again?”) without any relevance to the rest of the movie, unless you want to write your own well-meaning intentions into the scenario. Pollack isn’t above dropping extraneous details calculated to tap artistically heftier associations with the performers: Von Sydow, for instance, who emerges as some kind of philosopher-king of freelance killers, is glimpsed in claustrophobic closeup painting a tiny, quasi-religious figurine during off-the-chase hours in his hotel room, as though still freighted with Bergmanian introspection. And other collaborators feed their potentially expressive energies and talents into the mix: some travel in streets, on foot and by car, is visualized distinctively enough to remind us that Owen Roizman photographed The French Connection (I). But in the final analysis, Three Days of the Condor lacks persuasive evidence that any but a commercially competent point-of-view controls it, right up to and through a tendentious and-The-New-York-Times-shall-make-you-free conclusion that seems a subliminal plug for the next Redford picture, All the President’s Men.

RTJ

THE THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR
Direction: Sydney Pollack. Screenplay: Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, after the novel The Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. Cinematography: Owen Roizman. Music: Dave Grusin.
The Players: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson, John Houseman, Michael Kane, Tisa Chen, Walter McGinn.

Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson