Skip to main content

Condor is an amateur. He's lost, unpredictable, perhaps even sentimental. He could fool a professional. Not deliberately, but precisely because he is lost, doesn't know what to do.


Three Days of the Condor
(1975)

Sandwiched between two grittier, but equally star-powered, conspiracy thrillers (The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, both from Alan J Pakula), Three Days of the Condor essays a shift from the bleak resignation of the machine (be it corporate or state) consuming all resistance that was found in the 1974 Warren Beatty picture. There, a dogged journalist finds himself completely ill-equipped for the truths he uncovers. In contrast, Condor finds its protagonist already part of the system. And, only being a lowly “bookworm” (reading manuscripts from across the Globe to sniff out hints of spy code and communication within them), he proves surprisingly resourceful when the agency that gave him an easy-going job, requiring little self-reflection, turns against him.


I’m not sure that any of this could be argued to represent a more benign (or, perhaps, less malign) government/corporate structure than had been depicted in the first half of the decade, following late ‘60s comedown. But there is certainly a sense of acceptance and resignation that this is how things are, no matter how many times Redford’s Condor expresses outrage at this superiors (“Son of a bitch” being a frequent go-to expression).


It could, in part, just be a natural consequence of the mainstream tendencies of its director and lead actor. Redford’s was proficient by this point at turning the least likely (liberal and politically-aware) properties into box office thanks to his easy-going blonde-haired, blue-eyed charisma. Condor represented a hat trick of collaborations for the star-director team, following Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were. You only have to look at the romantic fluff masquerading as insightful commentary of the latter film to realise that Redford’s choices did not necessarily stand-up to the same painstaking analysis that Beatty brought to his projects (which isn’t to say that the results could not be as valid; they rarely felt obsessed over, however).


Pollack, who started out as an actor and thus found himself a frequent repeat-collaborator with stars, possessed a reliable eye and an adaptable style which saw him helming fare that varied from thrillers to romantic comedies (most famously, Tootsie). Out of Africa, another Redford starrer, was showered with Oscars although it’s probably fair to say that post-‘70s his acting roles (and producer ones) tended to be much more interesting than his director vehicles. Condor remains one of his most satisfying films. It was a big hit too (although there are discrepancies between the grosses recorded by Box Office Mojo and The Numbers it appeared to be in the region of the Top 10 films of 1975 in the US).


It’s a shame, in some ways, that Pollack didn’t dabble in thriller territory more often as his instincts for drawing out tension tended to be spot-on. He’d later give Tom Cruise a big hit in that genre (The Firm) but there was more uncertainty with what might happened to a lead actor at the end of a film during the ‘70s. Redford didn’t expire often in his pictures, but it wasn’t unknown.


The opening sequence is allowed to play and play by Pollack, because he knows he has something shocking in store; every choice he makes in teasing it out for all its worth is the right one. Of course, this also means an introduction to a very Redford-tailored persona; brilliant (his high IQ is mentioned), idiosyncratic (he rides a flimsy motorised bicycle amidst heavy traffic) and outfitted in scruffy professor-chic (glasses, jeans and sports jacket). Despite his lazy brilliance, he gets on great-guns with the blue-collar types in the diner where he buys lunch. But this indulgence works to the benefit of the set-up; it tells us he’s a nice guy (fortunate, as later he won’t be in very nice situations) and it allows us a brief spell getting to know his co-workers.


We see that his office is under surveillance almost immediately. It just so happens that Redford’s Joseph Turner (his codename is Condor, but he has difficulty even remembering this when he calls in the incident) has left by the back door to pick up lunch when the three hit men (led by a menacing-but-later-to-prove-erudite Max von Sydow as Joubert) converge on the entrance and proceed to gun down all those within. Pollack only appears to have reservations about showing the impact of this when it comes to Turner’s girlfriend , Janice (Tina Chen).

Joubert: Would you move from the window, please?
Janice: I won’t scream.
Joubert: I know.

Pollack cuts before the bullets spray her. Redford sells the panic of discovery and flight from the scene effectively. The paranoia that anyone on the street might be your assassin is palpable (Turner zeros in on a mother in sunglasses pushing a pram).


You’d think that, in an era of limited computer technology and no mobile phones, the tracking down and surveillance of a subject was much more difficult. But, for all his craftiness at times (Turner scrambles the lines at a telephone exchange so the CIA can’t trace his call), rudimentary mistakes are inevitable (a number plate here, an obviously predictable pattern of movement there). Condor is something of a progenitor in the genre, as this is a world where we see the technology in development that will later make the spy business more omniscient. Compare this to the tech on display in Enemy of the State (another on-the-run from a government agency thriller, also set at Christmas; it bears more resemblance to Condor than The Conversation which it overtly refers to in the casting of Gene Hackman). There is much emphasis on the CIA’s use of computers, both by the bookworms and in the analysis of Condor’s possible agenda.


Condor’s contact with his CIA masters (headed up by Cliff Robertson as Higgins) leads to an agreed meeting place where he will “come in”. That this turns out to be a trap further blurs the boundaries of who is doing what to whom and why. As mentioned, fear of government’s proclivities is a standard response by this point in the ‘70s. Most contemporary movies include some level of suspicion (even if it is of the localised variety; keeping the beaches open for the worshipful dollar, in the face of shark attacks, in Jaws), and one might argue that there is a degree of appeasement in Condor. It is not, after all, the CIA itself that is the villain. Rather it is a splinter cell within the organisation. This would later be the formula adopted by Enemy of the State. It’s left to the viewer whether this controllable and solvable presentation of corruption and lies is a comforting indication that it will all be all right in the end or leaves the unmistakable message that the state is never to be trusted.


Indeed, in Condor it is quite clear that Turner’s problems have not gone away now that the CIA splinter faction has been put to rest. Turner is a loose-end.

Turner: I’d like to get back to New York.
Joubert: You have not much future there. It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.

Condor provides a “heroic” solution in that Turner disappears off the grid; it is enough that he survives. He doesn’t get the girl, doesn’t really see justice served. He even makes sort-of friends with the man responsible for killing his colleagues and girlfriend. But he has the moral high ground, which has to be worth something.


Higgins: It's simple economics. Today it's oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
Turner: Ask them?
Higgins: Not now - then! Ask 'em when they're running out. Ask 'em when there's no heat in their homes and they're cold. Ask 'em when their engines stop. Ask 'em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won't want us to ask 'em. They'll just want us to get it for 'em!

One might claim prescience in respect of the splinter faction’s plan (to take over Middle East oil fields), but given the out-of-control oil prices around the time the film was made it doesn’t seem all that abstract. If one were cynical one might suggest that the plan has not-so-covertly been put into effect since the turn of the millennium.


Where Condor arguably isn’t an outright success is the romantic subplot with Faye Dunaway’s character. You can see why an interlude was necessary, both in terms of raising the stakes (for a subsequent assassination attempt) and fleshing out the plans and objectives of Turner, but Kathy just doesn’t really work. Initially, the attempts at making her respond realistically to abduction and bondage are commendable. But you’d believe them more if Turner were a really ugly kidnapper. And because Dunaway’s a star there’s a sop to her in fleshing out her character that only ever feels artificial. When Kathy and Turner sleep together it isn’t clear if this is some weirdly accelerated case of Stockholm Syndrome, whether Kathy is just a bit weird anyway or if she’s been overcome by her proximity to Golden Boy’s tousled locks. Ultimately, Kathy is more of a plot convenience than a character in her own right. It is at least something that Pollack and Redford don’t reduce themselves by having Turner and Kathy reunite in the final scene.


Condor was adapted from James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor. In the book, the rogue CIA group was importing drugs from Laos; a decidedly small-fry enterprise next to the film’s machinations. It was adapted by Lorenzo Semple Jr and David Rayfiel. I don’t know who came on board first, but I’d hazard that it was Semple Jr, whose script for The Parallax View was resolutely uncompromising the previous year. Semple Jr shifted from working in television (notably the ‘60s Batman TV series) to film scripts in the late ‘60s. Condor was part of a brief period of more serious-minded scripts (including Papillon). Subsequently he would pen the 1976 King Kong remake and the likes of Flash Gordon and Never Say Never Again. David Rayfiel was co-credited, who worked both credited and uncredited, on Pollack films from his debut The Slender Thread. They collaborated right up until the 1995 remake of Sabrina and it’s likely that he was asked by Pollack to smooth out what were seen as rough edges on the Semple Jr draft.


One trick Pollack gets right with Condor is that if you set up the this kind of thriller correctly much of it will sustain itself. You don’t need constant encounters with danger by the protagonist because the audience is expecting it at every turn anyway. So the visit by the “Postman” to Kathy’s flat is the second of only two physical engagements by Turner in the movie. It’s a pleasingly messy, awkward encounter. Turner emerges on top by luck rather than skill. We’ve been informed that he was enlisted (the Signals Corp) but any proficiency in fighting a trained assassin would have beggared belief. Once again too, Pollack allows the encounter to unspin slowly before the first blows are rained. We saw the Postman in the opening extermination, so the scene is all about how quickly Turner realises what the audience knows.


Another aspect of the film that deserves particular credit is the presentation of the agency hierarchy. Usually the power structures are virtually faceless or unblinkingly nefarious in conspiracy thrillers. Robertson’s Higgins is transparently just a cog in the wheel, though (it is even noted that he has not risen in the organization as fast as might be expected). We see whom he answers to (who treats him dismissively) and what he doesn’t know. It doesn’t make him more sympathetic, since he has no qualms about ordering any necessary business, but it makes Joubert’s warning to Turner one that we know could apply to Higgins as well, at some point.


Joubert’s philosophising in the penultimate scene should perhaps come as a surprise. Until you reconcile that Max von Sydow had to be employed for some reason other than as relatively taciturn gunman. It’s an interesting character moment, both cynical and revealing. In part it is required to spell out the schemes that have brought us to this point. Possibly it does this with unnecessary flourish; I’m willing to forgive this indulgence as it’s wonderful to hear von Sydow add depth and resonance to his dialogue. Joubert, formerly a freelance, has been retained by the agency to take out the guy who initially employed him to take out Turner’s division.

Joubert: Well, the fact is, what I do is not a bad occupation. Someone is always willing to pay.
Turner: I would find it... tiring.
Joubert: Oh, no - it's quite restful. It's almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There's only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.

This is as close as you get to an espousal of the post-‘60s collapse in idealism. Working for a better world has dissolved into resignation of working for the dollar. In Joubert’s case there is as at least a pride in one’s skill, so he hasn’t fallen victim to morass of ‘80s “greed is good”. But there is no conscience involved, and in that sense blindly following a skillset is not so different to pursuing unchecked capitalism.

Turner: Why?
Joubert: I don't interest myself in "why". I think more often in terms of "when", sometimes "where"; always "how much".


The final scene sees Turner confront Higgins and inform him that he has taken the story to The New York Times. Higgins is initially shocked (“Oh, you… you poor dumb son of a bitch. You’ve done more damage than you know”), but then mocks Turner’s faith in it being published.

Higgins: Hey, Turner! How do you know they'll print it? You can take a walk. But how far if they don't print it?
Turner: They'll print it.
Higgins: How do you know?

It’s curious that this uncertainty (and, let’s face it, the audience is in little doubt that publication will be halted) will receive a fact-based reproof in Redford’s next film (All the President’s Men). Truth can out in certain circumstances.


Condor isn’t the unqualified success of the two Pakula films surrounding it, but as a thriller its qualities are undiminished in the 37 years since it was released. Dunaway’s character doesn’t really work, and Turner is occasionally given to surmisals that aren’t quite germane to character or situation (“Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?”). Additionally, Pollack’s choice of Dave Grusin to provide the score is varyingly effective. Grusin’s quite capable of complementing a dramatic scene, but elsewhere his jazzy doodlings seem out of place with the tone. I’ll readily admit to finding his soundtrack work tends to date a film more than any other aspect (Tootsie’s a prime offender). But these are relatively minor issues within the whole, an intelligent and literate thriller that remains relevant.

****1/2



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

That’s what it’s all about. Interrupting someone’s life.

Following (1998) (SPOILERS) The Nolanverse begins here. And for someone now delivering the highest-powered movie juggernauts globally – that are not superhero or James Cameron movies – and ones intrinsically linked with the “art” of predictive programming, it’s interesting to note familiar themes of identity and limited perception of reality in this low-key, low-budget and low-running time (we won’t see much of the latter again) debut. And, naturally, non-linear storytelling. Oh, and that cool, impersonal – some might say clinical – approach to character, subject and story is also present and correct.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c