Joe Turner (Robert Redford) works for a publishing company in New York City where they translate books into various languages, though he is well aware it is owned by the C.I.A. but doesn't know the specific reasons for what he is asked to do. He is intrigued, however, and wonders why, for example, a book that has not sold well in one territory should be translated into certain languages for which there wouldn't appear to be a market in those relevant countries. Mostly, he does what he is asked to, and if he shows up seventeen minutes late some days, he thinks he can get away with it because he's good at his job. Today, on the other hand, he will have to acquire new skills...
Three Days of the Condor opened with a terrific first act which everyone who has seen it will never forget: after spending the morning working and chatting to his girlfriend Janice (Tina Chen) Joe pops out to get the staff's lunches, and when he returns minutes later they are all dead, gunned down by an unknown assailant. It was an electrifying way to begin the movie since we know about as much as Joe does, and he cannot think of a reason why such an act would be carried out, spending the rest of the plot getting deeper and deeper into the conspiracy. Ah, there's that word, "conspiracy": this was one of the nineteen-seventies cycle of thrillers with that theme, prompted by the Watergate scandal.
Among other things, where certain citizens found themselves paid a lot of attention by the authorities, elevating the sense of paranoia that had broken at the end of the previous decade, mostly in the counterculture. Redford of course would make a film of the Watergate affair the following year, as the poster boy for Hollywood's thrillers in this vein for two movies at least, an image which followed him around to an extent as he went on to capitalise on that in later career efforts like Sneakers, Spy Game and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's easy to underestimate just how good he was at playing the hero as he made it look so effortless; director Sydney Pollack made sure to include character bits to have us see Joe is an ordinary, slightly rebellious guy who just happens to resemble a movie star.
Condor had something in common with perhaps the king of the seventies paranoia movies, The Parallax View in that they were both co-written by Lorenzo Semple Jr, a scriptwriter whose career went from the cleverer than you might think camp of the original Batman TV series and Flash Gordon, to the more serious minded but no less compelling Pretty Poison and Papillon, and this was one of the serious ones. There were a handful of chuckles, but mostly the feeling of an impossible situation closing in around the protagonist was one echoed in Parallax, only this led up to a low key, conversational climax that you cannot imagine anyone allowing a potential blockbuster to end on in the twenty-first century, far from the bleak punchline of the Warren Beatty film, yet somehow just as sinister.
Redford's co-star was Faye Dunaway, playing Kathy Hale, a photographer Joe captures on the street and forces to drive him to her apartment as a hideout what with the forces of the secret services hounding him. This relationship caused many to see allusions to Alfred Hitchcock, most patently The 39 Steps, although you cannot imagine Hitch allowing the narrative to get as convoluted as it does here, to the point where you're almost taking it for granted Turner has it all worked out in his mind. It was not all effective, as that surface gloss lent a colour supplement appearance to the inevitable sex scene, as if it were not difficult to believe Kathy would go to bed with Joe mere hours after he has tied her up in the bathroom while he goes off on his errands. Elsewhere, it nearly lived up to that opening: assassin Max von Sydow exchanging pleasantaries in the elevator, boss Cliff Robertson in his World Trade Center office pulling the strings until he begins to question his power. In the main this was a well-constructed, slick affair with just the right amount of doubt. Music by Dave Grusin.
[Eureka's Blu-ray in their Masters of Cinema line has a restored print and as extras an interview with an expert, a career documentary on Pollack, the trailer, an informative booklet and subtitles for the hard of hearing.]