Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Classic Trailer Theater: Three Days of the Condor

Through some bizarre cosmic fluke, Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor played on Turner Classic the day after the actor and director died last week at the age of 73. It was screened during a retrospective of Faye Dunaway films; TCM didn't even have time to replace Robert Osborne's introduction about Dunaway with one honoring Pollack's life.

I'd seen Condor once before and loved it; this second viewing tempered my enthusiasm slightly, opened my eyes to the film's couple of significant flaws (mostly involving the aforementioned Ms. Dunaway, though it's not really her fault), but reinforced my belief that the movie is very solid, one of the best paranoid thrillers of its era. I also didn't realize before that the film was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., one of the guiding creative forces of the 1960's Batman television series, nor that Semple Jr. also wrote The Parallax View, Warren Beatty's spin through the jaundiced world 1970s intelligence. Looking over Semple Jr.'s career on IMDb, it's clear his filmmography is really quite diverse (Fathom and Papillon? Pretty Poison and Flash Gordon?) and actually far more interesting than I would have expected. I'm not sure that any scholarship exists on him, but perhaps there should.

But back to Condor. Those flaws I mentioned mostly pertain the movie's slightly logey middle, particularly the an all-too-convenient and borderline sexist love subplot with Faye Dunaway in one of those I-know-you-kidnapped-me-then-tied-me-up-then-beat-me-around-but-I-kind-of-get-off-on-that relationships that only really blossoms in the movies. I find it hard to believe a woman who already has a boyfriend would fall for a dude who treats her this poorly, even if that dude happens to have Robert Redford's totally spectacular mutton chops. Either I'm giving women too much credit, or the movie's giving them too little.

Regardless, the spy stuff still works and on second viewing I particularly enjoyed the amoral hitman played by Max von Sydow who murders everyone in Redford's office but misses his actual target (i.e. Redford, or "Condor" himself) and then has to try to rectify the problem to save his paycheck. I also like the idea that Condor, not a field agent, survives partly because he's not one and, as von Sydow notes, that makes him unpredictable and partly because his job as a reader for the C.I.A. has given him access to all sorts of cool tricks of the trade which he deploys with great success. It's very cool, from a geek viewer's perspective, to see a character who triumphs in the espionage world not because he's a good shot or he looks great in a tux but because he's more well-read than the guy chasing him. Then again, that only takes him so far, and I like the way the movie makes clear that Condor probably should be dead and there is also the implication that his victory may be very short lived. Also, the fact that everyone calls him Condor is pretty outstanding as well. I want a badass C.I.A. codename. How's Gazelle sound to everyone? Stegron? Callalily?

There's a fight scene, laudable for its commitment to believable sloppiness over crispness and choreography, as well as a few absolutely cracking climactic dialogue scenes; one between von Sydow and Redford about the former's lifestyle ("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.") and another between Redford and C.I.A. director Cliff Robertson about the latter's crimes ("What is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth!"). Nothing that Pollack does is overwhelming; the camerawork is not exceptional, neither is the editing. But nothing he does (save that Dunaway part) is underwhelming either. He's committed to solid craftsmanship and to getting the cinematic fundamentals down to perfection. I think in Three Days of the Condor he pulled it off quite nicely.



Blogger walter faure said...

Semple also wrote John Guillermin's still unappreciated by anybody but me 1976 remake of King Kong. He definitely possessed an anti-establishment streak.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

Mmm, can't say I join you in the KING KONG love. I watched it around the time that Jackson's version came out and wasn't terribly impressed. What is it about the film that you particularly appreciate?

11:47 PM  

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