Tag Archives: spy thriller

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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A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man
A Most Wanted Man

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 September 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: Anton Corbijn

Writer: Andrew Bovell

Based on the novel by: John le Carré

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Daniel Brühl, Nina Hoss, Willem Dafoe

USA, UK, Germany 2014

122 mins

A Most Wanted Man – what a weirdly plummy, English title, but this is a John le Carré adaptation, after all, even if most of the characters are Germans. Played by Americans. Doing German accents. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman is an anti-terrorist spook in Hamburg, and is as electrifying as you’d expect, though it’s odd seeing him apparently do an impersonation of Anthony Hopkins pretending to be German, while Willem Dafoe seems to be doing Peter O’Toole as another German, possibly in Night of the Generals.

A Most Wanted Man is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 19 January 2015 by Entertainment One.

Is Tarantino right to propose that films in which foreign characters speak English are outmoded? People still seem to be making them. In this case, the man responsible is Anton Corbjin, the talented music video director who made a strong debut with the Ian Curtis biopic Control and followed it with the Melvillean thriller The American. This movie aims for a similarly crisp, glassy surface, a deadpan thriller full of moral ambiguities and questionable alliances.

A Chechen/Russian fugitive arrives in Hamburg illegally and attempts to claim a vast inheritance left by his father. He could be a terrorist, or the Arab philanthropist he plans to donate the money to might be funding terrorism. Hoffman might have a plan for how to turn them both to his side, but the Americans, led by Robin Wright, might not be trustworthy (you think?).

The film’s biggest problem is one particularly affecting audiences who know le Carré’s work: the story’s outcome is never in doubt. Maybe the attempts to make it a surprise were misguided. No doubt the doom-laden setting and tragic denouement are true to the reality of these situations, but the audience would appreciate some surprises. Still, things going wrong allows Hoffman to display his extremely skilled deployment of the F-bomb one last time.

Elsewhere there are a few unfortunate sops to the dummies, which patronise the rest of us: when Dafoe, a wealthy banker, reads a name on a card, he is obliged to read it aloud, despite being alone in the room and the card being held in a giant close-up so we can read it ourselves. When Hoffman lights one of his constant cigarettes, there’s a slight hissing crackle as the tobacco catches fire, a movie cliché that has no real place here. And the early suspense scenes feature ominous music playing over shots of Muslims praying, pandering to an Islamophobic mindset the film is otherwise at pains to avoid.

This review was first published as part of our 2014 EIFF coverage.

David Cairns

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