"These activities have their own rules and methods of
concealment which seek to mislead and obscure."
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960
quis custodiet ipsos custodes" – "Who guards the
is a retrospective review and contains some major spoilers
for those unfamiliar with the film. You have been warned.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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;
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?
his ideal of democracy)
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.
have you found a home.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
2 release please – with real extras this time...