Thursday, June 18, 2015

Film Friday: Three Days of the Condor (1975)

I’m not a fan of Robert Redford. I don’t think he’s a great actor. His timing feels like he’s acting. His characters are too perfect. And he’s too pretty for most of the roles he plays. That said, I really like him in Three Days of the Condor. Condor strikes me as one of the few genuinely interesting and engaging spy films out there. Too bad it’s utterly without substance, but it’s still a good film and you should see it.

The Plot

Robert Redford works for the CIA in a satellite office in New York. His code name is Condor. He’s a reader whose job is to read books, newspapers and magazines from all over the world and look for hidden meaning within them. In performing his duties, he comes across a pulp thriller with strange plot elements which has been translated into an unusually large number of languages, with a particular emphasis on oil producing countries. He files a report with CIA headquarters.
As Redford waits for an answer to his report, he is sent out for lunch. When he returns to the office, he discovers that everyone has been killed. He quickly calls the CIA’s New York headquarters for instructions and is told that he will be picked up to be debriefed. The meeting, however, is a trap and his supposed rescuers try to kill him.

What follows is a cat and mouse game between Redford and a contract killer named Joubert (Max von Sydow) as Redford tries to solve the riddle of who at the CIA has been trying to have him killed. In the process, he kidnaps and befriends Faye Dunaway, who needs a boyfriend.
What Makes This Film Stand Out

Condor is a fascinating film that you all should see. Let me start with the criticisms, however. First, little about the film makes any sense once you stop to think about it. In fact, take the underlying premise, that Redford has spotted some secret plan in published books. This is nonsense. Why in the world would the CIA or anyone else put their plans into published books for the world to stumble upon?

Moreover, why would they communicate with whomever they are supposedly communicating with in this manner? Consider that it takes months to get a book published. And it probably takes even longer to get it translated and published in other countries. Wouldn’t it be easier to call these people or send radio communications or even make cryptic announcements on the news?
Why the CIA decides to kill Redford’s entire department makes no sense either. In movie terms, I guess it does, but in real life what Redford has stumbled upon sounds like it would be more easily covered up with a “Good work! We’ll take it from here!”

The film also suffers from too-convenient-itis, as all the characters act in ways they need to for Redford to survive. It also tries to skate by with a near total lack of substance. What is the CIA's plan? SomethingsomethingOIL! Who is Joubert? He’s a hired killer from somethingsomething. Why does the CIA use him? Somethingsomething. Even the ending is kind of ambiguous as to what really happens. In effect, the whole film is ephemeral. There is an evil plot, worthy of someone at the CIA killing CIA employees for finding out about it. They hire a mystery guy who gets instructions to kill Redford, except when it would end the film. In the end, some or all (maybe?) of the bad guys get killed and the plot is foiled... or not.

That said...

I really do like this film, and the reason is that this film provides the atmosphere of a genuine spy story, and there simply aren’t very many of those out there. Indeed, this film has all the elements we love about spies. You have the secret shop hidden right in the middle of the city as something else. You have the cool assignment of searching for hidden meanings in books. You have the clean up team of contract killers who wipe out an entire division without anyone knowing. You have the “who can you trust” paranoia that adds genuine tension to these films. You have the cool foreign assassin who would rather talk about the craft than shoot the hero dead, and he delivers a truly memorable speech about how the CIA will one day kill Redford. And the hero must use extraordinary skills to solve the problem they face.
All of this is excellent and you just can’t find it anywhere else. Indeed, despite the Cold War, there was almost nothing done by Hollywood that addressed spies in any realistic and interesting way. Instead, you had James Bond being a Playboy or John le Carré’s depressing and slow stories that feel like you are watching accountants try to find a mistake in a tax return.
What’s more, the characters in this story are likable and intriguing. Max von Sydow plays the mythical contract killer who follows an honorable code which almost makes him a good guy. This is not a man who will kill the unsuspecting and unprepared and we like him for that and we find him mysterious in a way which makes us want to know him better... despite the fact that he’s a cold-blooded killer. Faye Dunaway plays the kind of woman most men want to meet. She’s cold and hard at first and quite strong, but the more Redford gets to know her, the more you see the broken heart and the woman ready to give her all for the right man. She is not a cardboard character like most women on film today.
Redford is the key though. Redford simply can’t play a gangster or a miner or a construction worker because he’s too pretty and you can’t picture him ever getting dirty, but he fits perfectly as a bright young academic who finds himself terrified as he ends up stuck in the middle of a mess because of his naiveté. He’s also believable as the man who could seduce Faye Dunaway without even trying to seduce her, and he comes across as smart enough to believe he could learn what he needs to know on the fly. Further, he is rather likable in this film because for once he doesn’t play a know-it-all, he plays the guy who knows nothing and better learn fast.
Each of these characters is likable and interesting and they do an excellent job giving you a reason to care about the cat and mouse game that is taking place, and that is what drives this film.

So would this film still be worthy of recommending if there had been competing spy movies? Absolutely. This film has a strong atmosphere that pulls you into the world of spies very effectively. It has likable characters and a memorable plot. It is worthy of seeing. The fact that there really is no competition really only enhances that.



ScottDS said...

Max von Sydow is the man! As sad as it was when Christopher Lee passed away, it'll be just as sad when von Sydow shuffles off the mortal coil.

I like this movie and I recognize its status as one of the classic 70s thrillers, but there's just something about it that prevents me from really enjoying it on the same level of The Parallax View or even All the President's Men. Sydney Pollack was certainly on his A-game and all the actors are fine...

...I don't know. It's a rather cold movie and at the end, it's like, "That's it?" (An ironic comment from me, considering Parallax has an even less-satisfying and more ambiguous conclusion!)

Perhaps another viewing is in order.

BTW, I could totally buy villains coding their plans into books. Sometimes the best secrets are the ones right out in the open. In fact, I always thought a good way of transmitting information in secret to specific individuals would be to include messages on bits of shredded newspaper used for packaging.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Max von Sydow has been in a great many films I've loved. He's always excellent.

I know what you mean about the film lacking something. That's why I had to highlight the criticisms. This is a classic and all the critics loved it, but even then, they all felt it lacked substance. I think that's true. But I still enjoy the film a lot and I recommend everyone see it as part of their film background.

In terms of the books, it really just doesn't make sense, which I think is why they don't go any deeper into it. There are so many better and quicker and easier and safer ways to communicate. But then, it ultimately doesn't matter because the film doesn't depend on that... it's just the setup.

wulfscott said...

Long time, no comment - been very busy at work and home.
3 Days of the Condor - yes, the plot elements involve a lot of hand waving. Communication through books and magazines looks clunky, and finding plots through that seems even more incredible. The rogue operation is over the top, a plot to seize control of the Arab oil fields. Pretty unrealistic to anyone except a conspiracy theorist, although governments and intelligence agencies sometimes get caught up in fantastic schemes. It is, however, the suspense and performances make up for it.
Max Von Sydow is excellent: a cold blooded killer who earns respect and sympathy from us, or at least me, even though I know I shouldn't. Robert Redford plays a role that suits him well, without any sucker punches. Faye Dunaway is very good, giving us a complex character who is intrigued by the mystery that Redford represents. The question of who can be trusted keeps the suspense going well, as even Redford's contact in the CIA (Cliff Robertson, I think) begins to suspect that there's a rogue operation going on. He is thoughtful enough to see that all is not right, and starts investigating within the agency.
The violence in the film is not much even by the standards of the day, but it's shocking because of the betrayals. Starting with the whole section Redford works in getting killed, which is unexpected, and adds suspense and mystery right from the start. Later, Redford's friend, a CIA accountant and not a field agent, goes to help bring in Redford, and is shockingly murdered. Finally, the murder of the head rogue operative comes completely out of the blue. These were natural twists in the story, they fit so well once they occurred, but I never saw them coming.
So I would recommend this one. It's not perfect, and Redford gets in a little rant at the end, but it's good. And it captures the cynicism of the time perfectly.

AndrewPrice said...

wulfscott, Thanks for commenting!

I agree entirely with your comment. The scheme is unrealistic, but it's the kind of thing conspiracy theorists would believe and, in that, it definitely reflects the paranoia of the era rather well. This was the post-Watergate era where people believed that the government was doing all kinds of crazy things.

I've always found it fascinating how likable Max von Sydow is in this, even though he's a rotten human being. I think the film manipulates you in that a bit by letting him talk about his code, by having him actually give genuine advice to a man he was just hunting, and by making him seem like a sad and lonely figure as he sits by himself in his hotel room.

I also agree in particular about Dunaway. She is so much more than 99.9% of the women you see on film today. She has depth and produces genuine emotion other than "she's hot." She comes across as a real person, and that is a great thing.

wulfscott said...

Dunaway is very good. Her character is the contrast to Redford's, providing stability and a reminder of innocence - what Redford's character was before all this started, all while going from fright at being kidnapped to helping Redford.
I think all the characters were well done. Redford's accountant friend is a very minor character, but he's shown at home with wife and kids, called in to the office to help. That establishes his character as someone like all of us, quickly and with little exposition, which makes him memorable. His coworker/girlfriend, onscreen for maybe five minutes at the beginning, interacts with Joubert in such a way as to establish both characters. It's little things like these that make a film flow and makes even minor characters memorable. That is part of why the film is so good.

AndrewPrice said...

wulfscott, Exactly! Memorable characters make a movie memorable, and in this case, you remember all the characters. As you point out, you are given large amounts of information about them all, even if you only see them for a few minutes.

Some of the most interesting moments to me in that regard are (1) how easily the secretary reaches for her gun, like she's used guns before and she would have no problems shooting whoever comes through the door, (2) seeing Max von Sydow smile at the young people and then painting the toy soldier, (3) the whole description Dunaway gives of the boyfriend you never meet, but who you know in perfect detail, and (4) how innocent and oblivious Redford's friend's wife seems as she goes about preparing dinner; the idea that her husband might die has never occurred to her.

These are amazing moments that speak volumes to who these people are and if makes their world so much more real than you normally get in films where minor characters are there to pass on information and stay out of the way of the plot.

It's really too bad that modern filmmakers don't study films like this to see how "simple" (in terms of presentation, not in terms of inventing) it is to add so much depth to a film.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Good point about those small character moments. I've always referred to bits like that as "notes in the margins" and, sadly, when films are edited, those moments are often the first to go. Plus Hollywood's need to pander to foreign audiences isn't helping since so much of what makes these films unique is left out. It's a generalization, but it's not entirely untrue either.

BTW, I just watched a couple movies:

-Chappie... after Elysium, I'm sure you're in no rush to see another Neill Blomkamp movie, but this one wasn't that bad. Sure, it glosses over some deeper things (meaning of life, sentience, AI, etc.) but I took the movie at face value: it's a big, colorful, grotesque comic book. And while it's a total RoboCop clone, it actually works better as a RoboCop remake than the actual RoboCop remake!

-Blackhat... I've never been bored faster with a movie than this one. If it wasn't Michael Mann directing, I could see it going straight to video.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Hollywood has certainly streamlined films to be pure plot and then dumbed down the dialog to make it easy to translate and that has hurt films. But even the dramatic stuff intended for the US is missing those characters these days. I think there has been a change in writing style.

I'm not a fan of Blomkamp at all. Everything he's done has been politicized and not satisfying.

Dave Olson said...

"Do we have plans to invade the middle east?"

When I was a young, naive, liberal (almost radical) college student, I thought this was the deepest, most meaningful cinematic question since Scarlett asked Rhett wherever would she go and whatever would she do.

One grows up.

Of course the CIA and DoD have plans to invade the Middle East. Plans on top of plans. Somewhere in the Pentagon there's a file cabinet filled with plans to invade every country on Earth, from North Korea to Norway. There's at least one more just like it in the bowels of Langley. The reason you have plans to invade countries is to take them out as quickly as possible with minimal losses for both sides.

This point is lost on Redford and Pollack. Their little spy movie tries to portray the CIA bureaucrat, whose job is to safeguard those plans, as less moral than the assassin who just does it for the money. As Joubert said, "I don't interest myself in 'why'. I think more often in terms of 'when', sometimes 'where', always 'how much'." That's morality according to Hollywood, a town where the question is ALWAYS "how much".

The filmmakers' heartbreaking naiveté is on full display in the scenes that actually take place inside the World Trade Center. I can't watch this movie without wondering who may have jumped from the window of Cliff Robertson's office. I can't watch Robert Redford standing on the 2nd level balcony without seeing people fleeing on that same balcony in Jules and Gedeon Naudet's amazing film, "9/11". (That was the only camera crew to not only capture footage INSIDE the towers after the attack, but they caught the first plane's impact.) And I can't watch the movie without realizing that Redford and Pollack's political allies spent the 26 intervening years doing everything they could to hamstring the CIA and the FBI.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, That's absolutely true about the Pentagon and the CIA. Their job is to plan for all events, and that means being ready to invade any country if called upon to do so. That's the key. It doesn't mean the Pentagon or CIA is full of people salivating to take over other countries. It means their job is to be prepared if the politicians say we need to go in. As you note, liberals don't get that. They want to think that the very act of planning means both agencies are full of bloodthirsty empire builders.

In terms of 9/11, I don't get the same feelings from the movie, but I do blame the left for 9/11. They did their best to neuter the very people whose job it was to stop things like 9/11 and then they whined and cast about to blame those very people. That pissed me off.

ScottDS said...

Coincidentally, it looks like a TV series adaptation is in the early stages of planning!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This film was so not meant to be a television series.

KRS said...

This is pretty late in coming, but just for the record this movie is based (verrrry loosely) on the book, "Six Days of the Condor," which came out in the early seventies. I read the book then saw the movie. The movie, of course, seemed very thin to me (of course, it was three days shorter!).

In the book, Condor's section was being used by a rogue CIA group as a front to smuggle in illegal drugs from Laos. CIA investigates so the rogue group has to sweep the entire section. The story and the fates of every major character is completely different from the movie. Look it up - well worth the read.

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