Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 11 April 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Sydney Pollack

Writers: Lorenzo Semple Jr., David Rayfiel

Cast: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway

USA 1975

118 mins

Sydney Pollack’s tale of CIA deceit is a great New York film and an entertaining conspiracy thriller.

‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.’
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

In the early 1970s the American people were finally becoming aware of the nefarious doings of the Central Intelligence Agency. The New York Times was publishing the leaked ‘Pentagon Papers’ (despite CIA attempts to block this); The Rockefeller Commission revealed Project MKUltra, an illegal mind-control programme; and the Watergate Scandal was slowly revealing how responsibility for such criminality reached highest level – the President himself. There were accusations of the CIA illegally printing their own bank notes; of supporting Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile; and even an accusation that one operative had been selling real-life plots to spy novelists.

A short cycle of films appeared around this time that seemed to reflect this world of surveillance and paranoia, cover-ups and lies. In Three Days of the Condor (1975) the enemy within is clearly labelled as the CIA. The film’s hero Joe Turner (Robert Redford) works for ‘the company’, employed to read books and add his analysis to a computer database. He returns from lunch to find all his co-workers murdered. [SPOILER ALERT] He soon discovers the murderers are within the CIA, but the real bad guys are a ‘CIA within the CIA’ – an extremist splinter group with aims to invade the Middle East unknown to ‘the company’ heads. It was perhaps this ‘few bad apples’ cop-out that helped placate the CIA chiefs who were invited to a pre-release screening. [END OF SPOILER]

Sydney Pollack directs with great style and invention. The use of real locations gives the film a realism that recalls Henry Hathaway’s FBI film The House on 92nd Street (1945). Three Days of the Condor is also a great New York film. We see the Twin Towers, the Guggenheim Museum, Central Park, deli sandwiches, pretzels and yellow taxis galore. It is less a ‘gritty realism’ and more of a ‘shabby realism’ – grey rainy weather, overflowing rubbish bins, an office of jammed printers, awkwardly stacked books and chain-smoking receptionists. Even the opening credits with their computer-style font – which must have made the film seem very up-to-date in 1975 – remind us of the dull technology of the workplace. This may be a spy-thriller but we are a long way from James Bond.

The cinematography is self-consciously stylised with shots through branches and windscreen wipers but in general this adds nicely to the mood of the film. It is only in the love scene – where the love making is intercut with black and white artistic photographs of empty park benches to the soundtrack of the ubiquitous sexy saxophone (perhaps a novel idea in 1975) – that the style is over-cooked. The intricacies of plot (I’m still not sure why they were after him) and the occasional ethical and political pronouncements are not allowed to intrude too much. It is of course a major Hollywood studio film with A-list stars and it would be unfair to expect a detailed analysis of CIA wrongdoings. What we have is a genre film – a man-on-the-run thriller much like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or Sabateur – with the CIA as the ‘macguffin’.

The film is fortunate in the casting of Robert Redford as a bookish intellectual who can win a shootout in an alley, kidnap and seduce Faye Dunaway and outfox the CIA phone call tracking unit. Redford can do all these with a degree of plausibility. He can be an appreciator of artistic photography and – as Dunaway’s character puts it – he’s ‘a very sweet man to be with’ – although the way Dunaway’s character falls for her abductor suggests that the film’s sexual politics are rather less than progressive.

Although Three Days of the Condor is the perhaps a little brother to the genre’s masterpieces – Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) – it a well-crafted and entertaining film with a few political points to be made. Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford were both well-known for their politically liberal tendencies. They had previously worked together on the ecological Western Jeremiah Johnson (1972). It is those key liberal values of honesty, openness and democracy that the CIA are shown to be against. But perhaps the only really interesting political point is when Cliff Robertson attempts to defend the CIA as dedicated government agents who believe what they are doing is for the good of the American people. The film ends with Turner putting his trust in that great bastion of the liberal press – The New York Times. In the final freeze-frame the fear and doubt on his face shows what would happen if that freedom of the press were lost.

Paul Huckerby

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Man with a Movie Camera

Man with a Movie Camera
Man with a Movie Camera

Format: Limited-Edition 4-Disc Dual-Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 18 April 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Dziga Vertov

Writer: Dziga Vertov

Cast: Mikhail Kaufman

USSR 1929

68 mins

Dziga Vertov’s silent Soviet classic remains a visionary masterpiece.

Made in 1929, Man with a Movie Camera was unlike any film made before (or since). It was directed by the cinematic visionary Dziga Vertov – a pseudonym that seems to translate as ‘whirling spinning-top’ and sounds more Soviet than David Kaufman. As he declares at the beginning of the film, Vertov’s aim was to find a new art form, a truly cinematic cinema free from the influence of the theatre and literature. And with Man with a Movie Camera he was wholly successful – creating an essay on the language of cinema written with the movie camera itself. Arguably one of the greatest films ever made, it is wildly entertaining, technically breathtaking and intellectually and theoretically fascinating. And yet this brave new direction was to lead to a dead end.

Lenin had declared cinema to be the most important of the arts and thus nationalised film production in 1917. He saw its great potential to educate and inspire Russia’s mass of illiterate workers. Dziga Vertov cut his teeth making agitprop movies on the famous propaganda trains that spread news of the revolution around the enormous Russian hinterland. Like many Soviet directors he rejected the language of bourgeois cinema and sought to create something new – a cinema fit for their great new society. Vertov thus passed a ‘death sentence’ on contemporary cinema, and with typical communist zeal, set about writing his manifesto – Kinoks: A Revolution. Writing in the style of a revolutionary poet he claims: ‘The innards, the guts of strong sensations are tumbling out of cinema’s belly, ripped open on the reef of revolution.’

Vertov and his collaborators, including his brother Mikhail Kaufman and his wife Elizaveta Svilova, shot news reels and documentary footage often shown on a train called ‘The October Revolution’. With his two documentary series Kino-Glaz (Kino-Eye) (1924) and Kino-Pravda (Kino-Truth) (1925) Vertov set out ‘to see and show reality in the name of the proletarian revolution’. The films show positive depictions of communal farming, village fetes and other slices of revolutionary and/or communal life. They were shot without a film studio, actors, sets or even a script, in candid camera style, filming participants unawares.

Vertov would continue to use these techniques in Man with a Movie Camera. Like Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), the film depicts a day in the life of a city – although actually shot over three years in four cities (Kharkiv, Kiev, Moscow and Odessa). All of life is contained in these 68 minutes – sleeping and waking, commuting, working, relaxing, drinking and more. We see two weddings, one divorce and a funeral. We see a baby as it is born and a dead body surrounded by flowers. There is the dramatic – fire engines and ambulances rushing – and the mundane – packing cigarettes, shining shoes and dying eyebrows. All of this is shown without the context of a story.

Man with a Movie Camera is as much about the process of making the film and watching the film as it is about the daily life depicted. The film crew are characters too. It is their everyday work we are seeing. We see the car coming to pick up the cameraman to start his day. We see shots directly into the camera lens, we see the cameraman carrying his tripod. This is more than a simple Brechtian distancing device or a post-modern gimmick – it is showing the reality. After the low-angle shot of the miners dragging the carts over the camera, the film cuts to the cameraman lying on the floor under the carts, employed in his own labour – the making of a film. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that what we are watching is something created. The film opens with a movie theatre and an audience arriving. We are even shown a film of a film being projected.

For Vertov it is a cinema free from exploitation – nobody is being fooled. He saw himself as a ‘positive illusionist’: there are camera tricks aplenty but Vertov is never trying to trick the audience. We see how the camera works – window blinds closed then opened to let in light; a vase of flowers is blurred and then focused. And yet Vertov does all this playfully and for entertainment. Double exposures show the cameraman in a beer glass, an edit shows a foot on the railway line as a train approaches. Fellow Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein called the film a ‘compendium of formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief’. Without Eisenstein’s didactic montage Vertov’s message is more subtle. He is showing reality on both sides of the camera, and he is making audiences think rather than telling them what to think. He is teaching his audience to read a film. And with no or minimal intertitles, he is creating an international language to match the Esperanto the Soviet leaders were learning – a cinematic language that could become a tool of international labour solidarity.

The film celebrates the process of rapid industrialisation that the USSR was going through at the time. And cinema, the exciting new art form, is perfectly suited to show this. Cogs and gears of industry are edited to match the movements of the camera apparatus. Cinema is the art of the mechanical age.

However, the times were conspiring against Vertov. The late 1920s were perhaps the greatest turning point in cinema history. With the coming of sound the newest art form began to develop new modes of production. The freedom of movement that the silent pioneers were allowed disappeared as cumbersome sound equipment restricted camera movements. The camera that Vertov’s cameraman seems to take anywhere and everywhere was stuck inside a sound studio. And the language of the theatre (script, sets, dialogue, acting) began to reassert itself.

Similarly the USSR was approaching its own turning point after a difficult first decade of civil war, the death of Lenin and compromise in order to feed the country. The next phase saw the internal struggle that would determine where the great social experiment would go next, and who would control it.

Both Vertov and Eisenstein were to find themselves out in the cold (though, unlike some, not literally) as Stalin consolidated power and the new doctrine of ‘socialist realism’ came to the fore. The regime famous for its doctored photographs – as disgraced former leaders were air-brushed from history – had no interest in depictions of reality. Art would be used to obscure the truth and create myths. Great heroes (often proletarian heroes) doing great deeds were needed. Dyed eyebrows and shiny shoes were surplus to requirements. And although Vertov’s influence was eventually to be felt – in the direct cinema, cinéma vérité and other such trends in the West in the 50s and 60s – his career in the USSR was over.

Vertov’s films were criticised for artiness, intellectualism and lack of popular appeal, and yet he had always imagined Man with a Movie Camera as mass entertainment. And it is an entertaining movie, fast-paced, funny, visually accomplished and full of fascinating details. The new Alloy Orchestra soundtrack adds to these delights. The drum kit and repetitive riffs enhance the pace. The metallic percussion punctuate the mechanical themes. We even get synced voices of crowds and synced bell chimes. Man with a Movie Camera now looks and sounds amazing – it is what cinema could have become had it been allowed to break free of the chains of literature.

Paul Huckerby

This review was first published in July 2015 for the BFI’s theatrical release of a remastered print of the original film.

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