While elitists often cite the collaboration of actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese as the prime example of a ’70s star/auteur mind-meld, it’s unwise to overlook a partnership that manifested in glossier movies—that of actor Robert Redford and filmmaker Sydney Pollack. While the films these men created together have never enjoyed the critical adoration of the De Niro-Scorsese pictures, the Redford-Pollack movies were, generally speaking, more popular with audiences and, in very different ways, just as thematically rich. Around the time De Niro and Scorsese were shooting their seminal psychological drama Taxi Driver, for instance, Redford and Pollack were enjoying the success of a slick escapist movie, Three Days of the Condor. Based on a novel by James Grady, and adapted for the screen by reliable popcorn-movie guy Lorenzo Semple Jr. and go-to Pollack rewriter David Rayfiel, Condor is a great yarn.
Joseph Turner (Redford) is a CIA analyst whose days are spent reading books and documents for clues that might benefit the American intelligence community. Though he’s got the code name “Condor,” he’s not a covert operative. One day, Turner walks into his office and discovers that all of his co-workers have been assassinated. Someone in Turner’s unit uncovered top-secret data, so now Turner, as the unit’s only survivor, is a target. He spends the rest of the movie on the run, with ice-blooded European hit man Joubert (Max von Sydow) in pursuit. And since Turner isn’t sure he can trust his main CIA contact, Higgins (Cliff Robertson), he seeks refuge with a stranger, Kathy (Faye Dunaway). This being a Pollack movie, Kathy falls for Turner, so she gets pulled into his dangerous world even as Turner tries to unravel the conspiracy.
As in most great thrillers, the mechanics of the plot are simultaneously crucial and disposable—we get enough detail to play along with Turner as he solves mysteries, but the actual information being pursued by characters within the story is inconsequential. The real fun comes from the moment-to-moment suspense of Turner trying to figure out whether people want to help or kill him. Aided by collaborators including master cinematographer Owen Roizman (The French Connection), Pollack does some of his best work here, keeping the story moving at a fast clip while still generating his signature romantic intensity. Redford plays to his strength of immaculately defining tiny shifts in mood and thought, his subtlety adding dimensions to the plot, and Dunaway is arguably warmer here than in any other movie. (Robertson, von Sydow and John Houseman are all entertaining, though their roles have fewer facets.) Exciting, sexy, and surprising, Three Days of the Condor is a great case study in how a well-matched actor and filmmaker can complement each other to produce highly enjoyable cinema.
Three Days of the Condor: RIGHT ON