Three Days of the Condor
Based on a really good novel by James Grady, called Six Days of the Condor. That sounds about right for a movie made from a book. You always have to cut something.
This was a damned innovative movie at the time Sydney Pollack made it. These days we would call it a techno-thriller, and this was one of the first. Computers were still largely mysterious to everyone but those who worked on the large mainframes of the time. In movies, you fed info in, and it replied either with more information than it could possibly have, or it muttered “Does not compute!” Not here. It’s all reasonably accurate, other than simplifications needed for story-telling. It all looks so primitive now, but it was state-of-the-art then. And it is great to see the insides of one of Ma Bell’s vast switching centers, a huge room with rack after rack of mechanical relays chattering like a billion starlings.
Robert Redford has a CIA job unlike anything I’ve ever seen in movies before. He’s not a field agent, and he’s not even in charge of a lot of other James Bond types. He works for a CIA front called something like The American Literary Historical Society, a suitably meaningless name, and what he and the seven others stationed there right out in the open do is read books. And other stuff. They feed stuff into computers, and they and the machines look for patterns. This is all rather vague, but plausible. I’ll bet that, in our gargantuan security apparatus of 2013 there are people squirreled away somewhere doing just that.
Because he reads a ton of spy novels and such, he is aware of a lot of tradecraft that many other deskbound CIA agents probably don’t know about. This serves him well when three men enter the ALHS and kill everyone there. He happens to have been out getting lunch for everyone. Sheer luck. After that, after he returns and discovers the murders, he has to rely on his wits, and he does a damn good job of it.
Along the way he kidnaps Faye Dunaway, and the enforced proximity works a spell on both of them. They make love, and she comes to believe his unlikely story and to help him out. An unlikely story in itself, I guess, but Redford and Dunaway make it work.
Skullduggery is uncovered within the CIA … or is it? I recall I felt the revelation that all the bad stuff was the result of the CIA working to prepare for the day when Americans would demand cheap oil, by any means necessary was … not so much far-fetched, as unsatisfying. Now, almost forty years later, after all the monstrous things we have done for oil, and our own little illegal war for oil in Iraq, it works a lot better, and may even be seen as prescient.
Cliff Robertson, as a CIA honcho near the top, has a great speech at the end revealing the huge cynicism in the intelligence community and the games they play. Games that can result in the murders of seven of our own faithful, patriotic people, because someone saw something he shouldn’t have. Does anyone out there believe they wouldn’t do that? Haven’t done that from time to time already? There is nothing, nothing on Earth, not mass murder, not pedophilia, not anything, slimier than “intelligence” work. Fuck them all.
There are several highlights to the film. One of my favorites, the one that stuck with me vividly over the years, is a hand-to-hand fight in a small apartment between Redford and the Postman From Hell, played intensely and frighteningly by someone named Hank Garrett. It looks very real. The postman knows martial arts and Redford doesn’t. The postman has an automatic weapon at first … and yet I believed it. Redford survives by being alert at first, and resourceful and determined through the rest of it. One of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen.
Max Von Sydow is hypnotically terrific as the coolest, most sympathetic professional hitman I’ve ever seen. You just can’t help liking him. He’s just doing a job, he’s good at it, and he likes it. Dunaway is very good, and so is Redford. Lord, wasn’t that man handsome, back then? Now he’s so weathered he looks ready to be hoisted up to Mount Rushmore … but still handsome.