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A US region 1 DVD review of 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR, an all too prescient thriller, by Camus
 
"These activities have their own rules and methods of
concealment which seek to mislead and obscure."
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960

 

"sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes" – "Who guards the guardians?"

 

This is a retrospective review and contains some major spoilers for those unfamiliar with the film. You have been warned.

 

In 1975, the talented, respected and consistent director Sydney Pollack made a taut, intelligent and frighteningly relevant-to-today thriller based on the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. Who noticed? By the time of its release (24th September 1975) the year had already found its own champion. 1975 was a watershed year for Hollywood. It was the birth-date of the modern blockbuster. The only movie anyone was talking about in 1975 starred a 25 foot malfunctioning mechanical fish named after its director's attorney. There is a perverse irony in the fact that the year in which Condor was released (a movie most Americans really should have seen) was the one dominated by Bruce, the great white shark (a movie most Americans actually saw). While Jaws gobbled up everything in its path, Pollack's thriller made a nod to the concerns of the day and life, in the United States, went on regardless.

Mistake.

The concerns of those days and their real life cumulative consequences (namely the events on that infamous date that curiously coincides with the emergency number in the US, 9/11) have been very hot topics for two and a half years. I am reliably informed by my American sources that 75% of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was the mastermind behind 9/11. "We got him!" indeed… It's a fact that makes grown men weep because the prevailing global anti-American fervour is more directed at the man who ‘stole' the election and his father's cadre of cronies who are trying and failing almost theatrically badly to make him look good. The average American, if there is such a thing, seems to be media'd to ignorance. A tonic for these sad, united states of affairs is Pollack's 3 Days of the Condor.

The novel took place over six days and featured a hero who was re-named from Ronald Malcolm to Joe Turner. It's just over 150 pages long and contains merely three set pieces that turned up in the movie – the slaying of Turner's colleagues, the abduction of Cathy and the fight with the mailman. The Macguffin (the Hitchcock phrase for the unimportant reason that motivates the characters' actions) is so mundane in the book (the bad guys run drugs through official CIA channels), it makes what the screenwriters did with Condor even more sublime. There are precedents for movies altering the basic premise of their source material (of course). As an aside my favourite is Goldfinger. In the book, Auric Goldfinger plans to steal the gold from Fort Knox. In the movie, Bond casually rubbishes this plot to his nemesis and then learns that Goldfinger plans to irradiate the gold thereby making his stock of bullion twenty times more valuable. Same thing with Condor. The denouement of the book is ‘ho hum drugs, big deal' but the movie's ending is cautionary, desperately dark (if you take it to its evident conclusion) and vibrantly honest. Before the astonishing speech delivered by CIA chief Cliff Robertson, Redford's Turner proclaims "You think that not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth."

Now why does that line sum up the political world in place right now (February 2004)? It seems that Blair and Bush haven't seen 3 Days of the Condor. Political undercurrent aside for a moment (we will return to that devastating speech a little later), Condor is a thriller. Despite the trailer's rather lame pronouncement "Redford and Dunaway are in trouble and in love…" Condor is an assured, almost faultless adventure with stars at the height of their fame in 1975. So with All the President's Men a year away, what might have attracted Redford to the source material – a way to make a political statement using the book as ‘a cover'? Malcolm loudly farts and burps in the first chapter. Given this, Redford, would have to have found something more aesthetically pleasing about his character to take on the role. Redford – the star of the seventies in my book – pushed for the political (as far as a mainstream movie could question prevailing policies and wisdom). The book was stripped of its three assets and fashioned into something with a lot more weight. We can at least acknowledge the people behind that decision – probably Redford given his oeuvre of noteworthy political movies – but also Pollack, producer Stanley Schneider and screenwriters, Lorenzo Semple Jnr and David Rayfiel.

Before we take a look at the movie itself, there are five minor asides that are worth a mention. The book is set entirely in Washington DC. For some reason, the film-makers decide to use New York as Redford's base with his chief ensconced very high up in a building that doesn't exist anymore. The twin towers appear three or four times (there're even scenes shot inside looking down on the city and one at what is now ground zero). You can't help but think of 9/11 all the way through. Secondly, if I had to criticise some aspect of the production it would be the opening music – jazzy, Starsky and Hutch funk that doesn't tease out the darker elements of the story at all. It's too hip a theme – which also effectively nails down its era. It's also refreshing to hear characters give out real telephone numbers instead of the obligatory '555' dummy number that grates whenever I hear it in modern films. The end titles are also noteworthy for being forty-two seconds long. Watch the end credits of any modern film and that little Condor roster of names almost becomes a short avant garde film in itself. The final aside is the artwork on the DVD cover – it screams porno and it's such a shame given what the film is and what it's saying.

Redford is completely convincing as the harassed, bookish Condor despite the actor's reputation for action in the late sixties and early seventies. His grace and physicality fit the mid-70s so well, it's hard to believe flares ever went out of fashion. Oh, right. They're back. Faye Dunaway plays the role of frightened, lonely Cathy with exactly the right amount of fear and bewilderment. Both central performances are pitch perfect. Robertson as CIA Chief Higgins brings the right amount of gravitas to a role that could be speaking for the entire US government. Rounding out the cast is Max von Sydow (whose youthful appearance must have come as quite a shock to those of us fooled completely by Dick Smith's extraordinary 'old man' make up on him in The Exorcist a few years earlier). He plays an assassin and he is unerringly convincing (not that I meet too many assassins in the course of my daily round).

Redford's character, Joseph Turner (in a spy movie, there's a lot to the name 'Turner') is resolutely American and proud of it. He'd 'miss it' if he left. In Condor, it's the principal assassin, Joubert, (painted curiously not strictly as the bad guy) Max von Sydow, who 'prefers Europe'. It falls on Turner's all American shoulders to uncover what is never said about how his beloved democracy is maintained. Turner is a CIA researcher/reader whose theories about an obscure book printed in Arabic languages uncovers an internal CIA renegade plot to invade the Middle East. He doesn't know this at the time and fearing discovery, the renegade chief inside the CIA has Turner's entire division (operating covertly as an Historical Society) wiped out by professional hit men. Turner, out getting lunch, returns to find his people all dead. He's now out of his depth (he's a reader not a field agent) and scared, especially after the first time the company make contact, one of their number tries to kill him.

The film takes a necessary but uneasy lurch into sexual role-play as Turner kidnaps Cathy, who inadvertently offers a random escape route. Their relationship is a fascinating one, a condensed example of Stockholm Syndrome when the captives form a bond with their captors. In the book it is Cathy who is the sexual predator thrilled by the arrival of Malcolm in her mist. The movie plays Redford as desperate, keeping Cathy physically close so she can't run. Cathy initiates sexual contact. You have to remember this is Robert Redford in his hey day. The next morning brings the stand out fight scene with the bogus mailman. The sound effects here are also noteworthy. Each blow is accompanied by breathy exertions that give the powerful scene some originality. It's also a dirty fight that harks back to the days of Connery and Shaw on the Orient Express.

Redford untangles the plot as he dodges the bullets and with Cathy as his partner, makes a successful attempt to understand the Macguffin. When it comes it's a little revelation that grows on you as you begin to think about what's going on in Iraq today.

"Oil…" says Redford. It's a sublime moment given that the United States' very stability is based on its acquisition of enough oil to keep the engines going. The US government spends a trillion dollars a year on oil. That's not small change. Even the mightiest power on Earth will play dirty to maintain its supply. It's Condor's frankness that startles here. And to prove this I'll quote CIA Chief Higgins as he explains the CIA's actions;

HIGGINS
It's simple economics. Today it's oil. In ten or fifteen years it's food. Plutonium. (Ed's note: it's still oil). Maybe even sooner. Now what do you think the people are going to want us to do then?
 
TURNER
(defending his ideal of democracy)
Ask them.
 
HIGGINS
Not now. Then. Ask them when they're running out. Ask them when there's no heat in their homes and they're cold. Ask them when their engines stop. Ask them when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You want to know something? They won't want us to ask them. They'll just want us to get it for them.


At this point, Redford has no real retort because what Higgins is saying is what defines the US government. Instead Redford's only reply is a stinging criticism of Higgins personally.

TURNER
Boy, have you found a home.

When I first heard this speech I was awed by the ambivalence that rose up in me. One side of me said "I enjoy extraordinary privileges living as a Westerner cosseted by a government who do the things covertly that I couldn't condone as an individual," and yet the other side of me was screaming (Gollum like,) "Ah, yes but you are condoning it – the oppression of others – so you can drive to the coast and live in relative luxury while people thousands of miles away ("no Britons were involved",) suffer."

It's a rare movie that sparks these debates wrapped in such an entertaining way. It's an even rarer one when it comes out of Hollywood. 3 Days of the Condor is a movie that recognises, extraordinarily, that the US way of life comes at a price. We should ask if others need to pay so highly.

sound and vision

Framed 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is one of the better transfers available of US mainstream films from the 70s, and though it lacks that sparkle you associate with recent remastered prints of films from the period, sharpness, colour and contrast are generally very good. Black levels are solid throughout. There are some dust spots here and there, but these are minor and never distracting.

There are two tracks on offer here, the original stereo and a 5.1 remix. Unfortunately, for the most part, there is little to choose between them – there is stereo separation, but the subwoofer sleeps through the whole thing and there is almost no activity from the rear speakers. On the rare occasions where they are utilised, as when Turner/Redford nips out the back way earlier in the film and a thunderclap sounds, it actually catches you by surprise. Music is usually spread across the entire front sound stage, and occasionally throws a few notes to the rear.

extra features

Only one, and that's the Theatrical Trailer. Surprisingly and pleasingly, it is 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced and in remarkably good shape. It runs for 3 minutes and has quite a few spoilers – I wouldn't watch it before seeing the film itself.

a parting request

Region 2 release please – with real extras this time...

3 Days of the Condor

USA 1975
117 mins
director
Sidney Pollack
starring
Robert Redford
Faye Dunaway
Cliff Robertson
Max Von Sydow
John Houseman

DVD details
Region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Trailer
distributor
Paramount
release date
Out now
review posted
15 February 2004

See all of Camus's reviews