' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Friday, October 23, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Though Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is a CIA codebreaker, combing books and magazines and letters to try and deduce patterns that might be useful to American intelligence, as “Three Days of a Condor” opens, he goes about his work day like, well, any old Joe. He exchanges pleasantries with co-workers, discusses a new novel with his boss, one Joe believes bears some sort of lingual subterfuge, before being dispatched to pick up lunch for the whole gang. For a second there, “Three Days of a Condor” feels just like “The Office.” But when Joe is at the nearby diner, an assassin slips into the building and murders everyone, shootings we see in cold, hard, clinical detail deliberately at odds with the initial warmth. When Joe returns, everyone is dead, putting him out on the street, literally, calling in to The Company via payphone who wave off their charge’s pleas for a safe house and tell him to find a hiding place on his own. That the setting for “Three Days of a Condor”, then, is Christmas comes across essential rather than coincidental. If for some the Christmas season suggests coziness, family, togetherness, for others it can signify chilliness, emptiness, loneliness, epitomized in Joe, a suddenly orphaned codebreaker fighting for his life.

If Joe is in the dark, we are not, not entirely, as the movie cuts back and forth between Joe and the government pursuers who may or may not all be on his side, scenes reminding us that cloak & dagger stuff really looks better on 1970s film stock. The German assassin nipping at Joe’s heels (Max von Sydow), meanwhile, proves not to so much be one of Them as an Independent, utterly detached from what he is tasked with doing, seeing all events as part of some calculus and eventually coming undone, in a manner of speaking, by an unlikely agent whose moves he can’t predict because they are predicated on desperation and instinct. Redford’s own innate movie star-ness, alas, expressed as an unwillingness not to appear cool and in control, means that in moments when Joe is ostensibly in over his head, like wielding a metal pole in a fight, he looks distractingly right at home. His bookishness plays better when he’s trying to work things through, foreshadowing “All the President’s Men”, or playing art critic in evaluating the monochrome photography hung on a woman’s wall.

That woman is Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) and that photography is hers too, seen by Joe because he takes her hostage to use her apartment as a hideout. This emerges as the movie’s most dangerous, delicate relationship. Dangerous because he’s pointing a gun at her from the moment they meet, yes, but also because they fall into bed not longer after, suggesting unsettling connotations. Delicate because Pollack avoids those unsettling connotations by tying their relationship into the movie’s broader theme of loneliness and how they each need someone else, right this very moment for their individual reasons, a manifestation of co-dependency as much as infatuation. Granted, inserting flashes of Kathy’s desolate photos might drive this point home a bit too forcefully. But that’s forgiven considering how Dunaway, at the peak of her powers, embodies the desolation of those photos, looking for all the world like she’s a bare tree in autumn. 

If “Three Days of a Condor” is filled with characters, twists and various other convolutions, the ultimate endgame is surprisingly simple and, by extension, truly hysterical. “This whole damn thing was about oil,” Joe says upon finally putting the puzzle together, a line reading that Redford gives the ring of being insulted more than surprised. It’s funny precisely because of how it renders this web of intrigue as uniquely American, not some bold, new conspiracy but much ado about the same. That’s why the movie nearly comes undone at the end when Joe gives a lecture about right and wrong, nearly tipping the movie into the territory of annoyingly righteous, though quickly recovering by demonstrating that his righteousness is misplaced. When he threatens to go to the news, he is told such a move might make him an outcast, those seemingly out of place carolers just behind him suddenly making complete sense, rendering a lone American hero as just another guy alone at Christmas. 

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