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.
Watch the trailer: