Video Vault: Three Days of the Condor

Reviews of the best (and worst) classic flicks and cult movies
“Three Days of the Condor”

Paramount Pictures, 1975

Starring: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Max von Sydow

Directed by: Sydney Pollack

The plot: Joe Turner (Redford) gathers intelligence for a New York City CIA cell — they read everything, including spy novels, to harvest ideas. When Turner makes an unauthorized exit from the brownstone for lunch, all of his colleagues are machine-gunned in a professional hit. His bosses seem as mystified as Turner as to what happened. Arrangements are made to bring Turner (code-named “Condor”) in from the cold, but a trusted friend sent to meet him is gunned down in an attempt to kill Turner, too. Knowing his own protectors are trying to murder him, he forces at gun-point a random stranger, Kathy Hale (Dunaway), to provide safe haven as he figures out what happened and how to stay alive. He learns that a top-notch European hit-man, Joubert (von Sydow), is in pursuit, and stays one step ahead of his pursuer.

Why it’s good: Director Sydney Pollack turned an adept hand to every genre he approached, whether character study (“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”), comedy (“Tootsie”), or romance (“Out of Africa”). He was a smart guy who made smart films and he is sorely missed. His roots as an actor and love for them is in top form here: Redford is a handsome lead, but he is allowed to explore the thoughtful processes of a former telephone repair man turned unambitious CIA “book worm.” Though a kidnap victim, our sympathy is not with Dunaway; we get to know Redford with her, and her eventual fatalism about his future evokes our empathy. As Redford’s bosses, Cliff Robertson seems pained that an international mess has landed in his lap when he’s close to retirement, and John Houseman does his “grand old man” shtick beautifully, lamenting the simpler era of World War II espionage. Von Sydow makes the most dramatic impression here as the cold, well-mannered professional killer who finds murder as restful as painting his miniatures. That we can somehow admire a reptile like Joubert is an astonishing testament to this master actor.

The legacy: The late ’60s and mid-’70s saw a genre of intense, often low-key, thrillers that contrasted the more spectacular James Bond films. Intelligence and elegance were the order of the day in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “Funeral in Berlin,” “The Kremlin Letter,” and “Marathon Man.” This superlative thriller, beautifully adapted by Lorenzo Semples Jr. and David Rayfiel from a James Grady novel, reached the zenith of this approach. The idea of a CIA within the CIA playing games with oil and innocent lives was easily palatable to an audience with Watergate and the collapse of Saigon fresh in its memory. When Redford chides Robertson’s use of banal CIA jargon, he could only imagine a world of enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, and extreme prejudice. The grown-up pace, complex plot, and character development of this film serve now, 40 years later, as a welcome relief to the action-packed tedium of the Bourne Explosions. The Warner Bros. DVD has a good transfer, unlike the Blu-ray.