Three Days of the Condor: The definitive Robert Redford star vehicle is also a first rate paranoid thriller

Three Days of Condor(1975), starring Robert Redford, Max Von Sydow and Faye Dunaway and directed by Sydney Pollock,  is a brilliantly crafted conspiracy  thriller as well as a terrific star-vehicle for Robert Redford

Robert Redford is my most favorite modern movie star . And I’d put MOVIE STAR in capital letters, because Redford is not a character actor like a lot of his contemporaries; not like Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman, who transforms themselves completely into the characters they are playing. He is neither a star-actor like Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, in the sense that they bring both their personality as well the character’s personality together in a role. Redford is in the mold of golden age Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, who transforms a character fully to fit their personal style; and what we see on screen is basically the star’s persona. Redford is a little different from the old-guards as there is an element of modernism, both in his acting and his personal style, even-though he always play the traditional hero; Not as rustic or earthy as John Wayne , not too polished and sophisticated as Cary Grant, somewhere in a comfortable middle. Even when he plays a not-so traditional hero, a hero with flaws, his performances tend to downplay the flaws and highlight the more charming and heroic qualities of the character; a complete opposite to what the Actors studio trained method actors like Al Pacino and De Niro were doing at the time. Redford doesn’t do accents, nor does he adopt any special tics or mannerisms for his performances. Whether he’s playing Sundance Kid, Bob Woodward or Denys Finch-Hatton, he is Robert Redford, first, foremost and all the way through. A typical Redford character is charming, intelligent, stylish, smug, remote, anti-authoritarian and isolated – more often than not by his own choice. He has an extraordinary gift at being both cool and vulnerable at the same time; something that separates him from the other iconic movie-stars of his time, like Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood – both of whom are as immune as a bullet proof vest.  When Redford gets into trouble, we care and we fear for him, though we know he is smart enough to get out of it. And for someone who is one of the most gorgeous and  the most charming men ever to grace the silver screen, he comes across as rather unfeeling, hostile and unromantic . One of the main traits of a Redford character is its unattainability, especially for woman. He is more or less indifferent to women and he is more comfortable loosing them than winning over them. And , in film after film, we see some of the biggest and the most gorgeous female stars – Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Barbara Streisand, Meryl Streep – doing their best to posses and tame him, only to fail miserably. He gives the women his time, his affection, his loyalty, but, rest assured, when the time comes, he will not think twice before leaving them and riding off into the sunset alone. In short: Redford represents the apotheosis of  the archetypal American hero.

Redford channeled these character traits in films ranging from westerns, to romantic dramas, to crime capers, to become  one of the biggest American movie stars ever. In the early to mid 1970’s, he had a run of back to back releases and successes that’s equaled by very few. From the Sundance Kid, to the drifter in The Sting, to the mountain man in Jeremiah Johnson, to the dashing romantic foil to Barbara Streisand in The way we where, he played variations of the same character to great success. His CIA agent Turner in Three Days of the Condor is cut from the same cloth. Three Days of the Condor is directed by Sydney Pollack, and this was his fourth collaboration with Redford; they will do a total of seven movies together. Pollock was a director who arrived on the scene in the 1960s ,when Hollywood was at a crossroads. There was a transition taking place in the industry , when the traditional ‘old Hollywood’ was giving way to an emerging  counter-cultural ‘New Hollywood’ . Though he is a contemporary of new Hollywood directors; like Coppola, Scorsese, Altman,… who were making rather cutting edge films by breaking the traditional form of American cinema, Pollock was very much a traditional Hollywood director. His films are , by his own admission , very middlebrow; that follows the conventions of a traditional American cinema narrative in all its beauty and predictability, albeit interspersed with a few elements from the modern ’70s cinema aesthetic. Though an ‘invisible’ craftsman, and never considered anything close to an auteur,  Pollock does repeats a lot of themes and motifs in his films. His heroes are loners, always trying to adapt to alien and hostile surroundings. And his films are always anchored by a love story – an absolute must for Pollock, whether the main plot for the film calls for it or not; where we find the man and the woman locked in an intense, passionate relationship which appears hopeless from the start , and more often than not , failing to make a success of it .Now this makes Robert Redford  the perfect actor for Pollock. It’s very rare to find an actor’s persona so compatible with a director’s aesthetic. Pollock and Redford first met on the sets of an obscure film called Warhunt, in which both had bit parts, and they became great friends. After that Pollock gravitated towards direction , and with the blessings of  Burt Lancaster, he would make films like The Scalphunter and Castle Keep. Pollock directed Redford for the first time in the 1966 film This property is Condemned. But it’s their second collaboration, Jeremiah Johnson(1972), that cemented their professional relationship , and is, in my opinion, their greatest film. It was quickly followed by The way we were(1973) , a romantic drama that co-starred Redford with Barbara Streisand. Both these films were big hits and turned Redford into the most bankable star in Hollywood.

Though Condor is today considered the quintessential Watergate-era paranoid thriller – that included such films  as The Conversation and The Parallax View, it did not start out as so. After making some serious, intense pictures, both Redford and Pollock wanted to do something light and fun for a change. So when Redford was offered Three Days of Condor (Then called The Six days of the Condor, based on the novel by James Grady) – a thriller, a genre they had not tried till then – he immediately passed it on to Pollock. Pollock liked the concept , but he didn’t like the script written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. So he hired their regular collaborator David Rayfiel to spruce up the script. Redford and Rayfiel  are one of those made for each other Actor-writer pairings in the vein of John Wayne and James Edward Grant. Rayfiel’s main job as a writer was to retool the dialogue to suit Redford’s unique line reading skills. Redford , like Wayne , preferred his dialogue to be terse, economical and to the point. Though he was not someone uncomfortable with lengthy, eloquent prose- like McQueen or Eastwood were (Just watch his bravura 10 min unbroken scene in All the President’s Men, where his Bob Woodward is talking with two people at the same time on the phone trying to piece together the mystery) ; Redford always preferred economy, in his histrionics and  his words, that went well with his image as the quintessential laconic American hero. Pollock too, at that point  in his career, was someone who stressed on economy. It was only later, especially after his Oscar winning Out of Africa – which by the way is a terrific movie and a favorite of mine – that his films started becoming bloated and boring; It’s impossible to sit through Sabrina and Random Hearts which he made in the ’90s. Condor, like some of Pollock’s early films like The Yakuza and Castle Keep, has some really stylistic flourishes and palpable energy, which would be completely absent from his latter films , appearing only sporadically- like the time he adapted a John Grisham potboiler like The Firm. The ’70s and early ’80s early era Pollock was definitely a very different and  more interesting filmmaker than the one that he morphed into in the ’90s , starting with the disastrous Havana(1990)- the final Redford-Pollock collaboration that is not without its virtues, but overall a bland, bloated box office misfire that ended their partnership; and by many accounts, their friendship too.

Three Days of the Condor could be considered a sort of a remake of Jeremiah Johnson; both films deal with a stoic hero trying to survive in a hostile environment, except for the fact that the former is set in the urban jungles of contemporary New York City, while the latter was set in the American western frontier  of the Nineteenth century. Condor is a character driven drama, which is typical of the 1970s films, where we go on a journey with the protagonist ,and we discover the plot, or unravel the mystery, along with him. Redford plays Joe Turner who works for CIA. But he is not a field agent , as he repeatedly asserts throughout the film, he is an analyst, ‘a reader’ : who read books, newspapers, and magazines from around the world looking for hidden meanings and other useful information. And as his name suggests, he appears to be  an average Joe and a geek- in his jeans, bowler hat and glasses. At the beginning of the film, he is seen riding to work in his motorbike through peak-hour New York traffic. The first fifteen minutes of Condor is as  economical and cinematic you can get. Pollock establishes his characters , the environment and also executes the main ‘action set piece’ that would put the plot in motion. It’s quite a damp morning in New York. we see a car come and stop outside the American Literary Historical Society building – The clandestine CIA office that Turner and other six staff members are working . One of the occupants of the car is Max von Sydow : the venerable actor of several Ingmar Bergman classics , here, playing the role of Joubert – a freelance assassin, who has a list of names in his hands, which he is ticking off every time a new employee arrives at the office. One of them is Joe Turner. Turner had, some time back, filed a report to CIA headquarters on a thriller novel with some strange plot elements, noting the unusual assortment of languages it has been translated into (despite not selling well). Turner is expecting a response to his report and he inquires about it , but he is told that no one at the headquarters has yet responded. We are then introduced to his co-workers , including  Janice, who appears to be more than just good friends with Turner .From his interactions with his superiors and co-workers we get an inkling that perhaps Turner is much smarter and much different from what we perceive him to be.

The film then cuts back to the exterior of the building , where we see Joubert and his accomplices getting ready with their weapons, and when they are about to step out of the car, it starts raining.  Turner usually picks up the lunches for the staff from a nearby deli. And on a rainy day, he uses a shortcut that goes through a back basement door to the  deli. This is what he does on this day as well, and while he is away, Joubert  and his men enter the office and murder the other six staffers (including Janice). Turner returns to find his coworkers dead; frightened, he grabs a gun and exits the building. From this moment on, the film is one lengthy chase; With Redford trying to make sense of what is happening to him and trying his best to stay alive, while Joubert and his men closes in on him. As a ‘company man’, he still trusts his agency to bring him in unharmed. But a series of double crosses – involving a CIA agent named Wicks – that leads to the death of one of his friends and almost gets him  killed , leaves Turner disillusioned. Now having lost all faith in the agency, he decides to strike it out by himself and get to the bottom of all this. And to that end, he kidnaps Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway); someone he randomly chooses from a shopping mall, and forces her to take him to her apartment. He holds Hale hostage while he attempts to figure out what is happening.

Now here is the beginning of the love story that is a must for Pollock to make any film. And for moment there, the love story appear to be superficial and unnecessary. After all, Redford had just lost his girlfriend and it seems highly unlikely that he would jump into the sack with another woman so quickly- something that’s going to happen soon. But, as the love story between Turner and Kathy evolves, you realize its importance in the larger scheme of film; both in setting the mood of the film – which is drenched in paranoid and mistrust- as well as fleshing out Turner’s character – or rather the Redford persona. Turner and Kathy starts out as adversaries; Kathy being repeatedly locked up in bedrooms and bathrooms as Turner is on the move. Turner and Kathy are coming together at a time when both of them are experiencing life transformations. Turner, who was a hardworking, trustworthy employee of CIA, is now a man who finds it unable to trust anyone; Like a priest who has lost his faith , he is disoriented ,rootless and a bit unhinged. On the other hand, Kathy , by her very nature , is distrustful and someone who likes to be alone. She has a boyfriend in her life ,who is skiing somewhere in Vermont, but she choose not to be with him. But then she slowly starts trusting Turner and ends up falling in love with him. Their scenes together, once they have broken through their initial animosity, are most touching and poignant and becomes some of the best moments in the movie, which is rather surprising for a thriller. The scenes gives a real emotional heart to the film and David Rayfiel’s dialogue really sparkles. This is just before they make love:

Kathy: Sometimes I take a picture that isn’t like me. But I took it so it is like me. It has to be. I put those pictures away.
Joe Turner: I’d like to see those pictures.
Kathy: We don’t know each other that well.
Joe Turner: Do you know anybody that well?
Kathy: I don’t think I want to know you very well. I don’t think you’re going to live much longer.
Joe Turner: I may surprise you.

My favorite scene from the entire movie is the morning after they have made love . We see Turner in the hall working out a plan to get to the truth, as Kathy comes out of the bedroom. She seems a little shy and awkward as Turner quizzically looks at her. Their conversation is also a bit awkward as they both seem to be trying hard to ignore what happened previous night. The conversation that follows is both romantic and funny, with Dunaway showing a more playful side of her character

Kathy: You had bad dreams. Talked in your sleep.
Joe Turner: What did I say?
Kathy: Who’s Janice? Well, was she a volunteer or a draftee like me?
Joe Turner(ignoring her remark): I’ve got a plan. I don’t know if it’ll work or not, but I’ll need your help.
Kathy: Have I ever denied you anything?
(Redford’s reaction to her mocking is priceless)
Kathy(Continues): Oh no, I’ll help. You can always depend on the ol’ spy fucker.
(But now he gets really upset and Kathy hold his hands and quietly apologizes)

There is something about that scene that i find very moving. The love story lasts for just about half an hour in this 2 hr. movie and i wish there was more of it. Pollock did lavish a lot of love in developing this part of the film, and it shows.

Kathy helps Turner kidnap Higgins (Cliff Robertson), the deputy director of the CIA’s New York division. Higgins identifies Joubert as a freelance assassin who has undertaken assignments for the CIA. Meanwhile, Joubert  discovers Turner’s hiding place and sends a hitman,  disguised as a mailman, to  Hale’s apartment to kill Turner. The ensuing hand-to-hand fight scene between Turner and the hitman is one of the best – and as evidenced in both Jeremiah Johnson and The Yakuza, Pollock is very good at choreographing these sort of mano-a-mano fight scenes – and it ends with Turner killing the hitman. But now it’s clear to Turner  that Kathy is not safe anymore – what happened to Janice will happen to Kathy as well- and he insists that she leave for Vermont immediately. She obliges and they part ways – maybe forever. Their farewell scene is very poignant and extremely well written, with Redford again in top form

Kathy: You… you have a lot of very fine qualities. But…
Joe Turner: What fine qualities?
Kathy: You have good eyes. Not kind, but they don’t lie, and they don’t look away much, and they don’t miss anything. I could use eyes like that.
Joe Turner: But you’re overdue in Vermont. Is he a tough guy?
Kathy: He’s pretty tough.
Joe Turner: What will he do?
Kathy: Understand, probably.
Joe Turner: Boy. That is tough.

(Redford’s reading of the last line and the expressions that go with it, vow! It’s to die for)

The love story is also used by Pollock to assert the Redford persona. Turner tragically loses his girlfriend, Janice, at the film’s beginning, but, she’s forgotten soon enough. He meets Kathy on the night of the massacre and winds up going to bed with her. But then he splits from her too. And though she isn’t dead, their separation has the same finality as in the case of Janice. He’s  a man whose only commitment is towards himself and he never makes a meaningful connection with anyone else. He deals with women on his own terms and  they pass through his life without changing it, but, he manages to make some lasting changes to theirs. In the end, they are truly grateful to him for ‘using’ them and fully understands his reasons for abandoning them. Not that the final separation doesn’t cause him any pain; it certainly does ,but, he’s a man who goes his own way and prefers to be alone doing so and the pain is the price that he’s more than willing to pay for it. In the end, Turner – and Redford’s persona- represents a man who is quick-witted, quick on his feet and also able to exert an extraordinary control over himself- in love or in war. Very sexy and very dangerous ; at once appealing and disturbing. That’s what makes the Redford persona so unique.

The same thing could be said about Redford’s acting style too. It’s all about timing and control; to say the precise thing, or give the precise reaction, in the precise beat , without exposing himself too much emotionally. Even when he shouts , there is an element of control in it; it’s not like Pacino’s shouting or Nicholson’s shouting. Redford’s characters, more often than not, are always the sum total of his snappy lines and quick reactions, which , on a moment to moment basis, is exhilarating, entertaining and absorbing , and when married to the right material, it soars and envelops the viewer. But when he is called up to create a real character , as in Havana or The Great Gatsby , it doesn’t work. It has to be a ‘Star’ character for him , where the viewer takes a ride with the star and go the places where he takes us. as in Jeremiah Johnson or The Natural or Condor. Just take the penultimate scene in the film, where he he finally cracks the mystery: Turner  finds out that  it was Leonard Atwood (Addison Powell), CIA Deputy Director of Operations for the Middle East, who ordered the hit on his office; He confronts Atwood in Atwood’s Washington area mansion, interrogates him at gunpoint, and learns that Turner’s original report filed to CIA headquarters had provided links to a rogue operation to seize Middle Eastern oil fields; fearful of its disclosure, Atwood privately ordered Turner’s section be eliminated.

The confrontation scene is again classic Redford, with David Rayfiel supplying the ammunition. The way he peels away the mystery in his conversation with Atwood is a masterpiece of timing and control. Turner’s interrogation of Atwood  starts out very quietly, but with every sentence his voice keeps getting louder

Joe Turner: What does Operations care about a bunch of damn books? A book in Dutch. A book out of Venezuela. Mystery stories in Arabic.
Atwood: Wait!

(Redford’s voice rises to a crescendo)
Joe Turner: What the hell is so important about…
[He stops as he sees the connection, and his voice lowers as he zeroes in on the mystery]
Joe Turner: Oil fields. Oil. That’s it, isn’t it? This whole damn thing was about oil! Wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?
Atwood: Yes, it was.

But then there is a surprise. Joubert walks in and shoots Atwood , much to the shock of Turner. Looks like the CIA has figured out that Atwood is an embarrassment and has now hired Joubert  to kill Atwood – Poetic justice indeed. Joubert is now more than friendly with Turner and gives him some sage advice:  Leave America and become a full time freelance assassin ; you don’t have to worry about what is right or what is wrong or which side you are on. But Turner rejects the offer and chooses to stay behind. The final scene finds Turner confronting Higgins in a busy street , telling him that he had given the whole side of his story to New York Times. A shocked Higgins quickly composes himself with a rather threatening question:

Higgins: Hey, Turner! How do you know they’ll print it? You can take a walk. But how far if they don’t print it?
Joe Turner: They’ll print it.
Higgins: How do you know?

And the film ends on that ambiguous note – somewhere between hope and hopelessness, as a lot of the Redford films of the time ended. The camera freezes on Turner – just as it froze on Sundance Kid and  Jeremiah Johnson – as he looks on doubtfully, and then, the frame fades to Black & White; one more instance of that iconic Redford persona is frozen for posterity. Three Days of Condor was released at the height of Redford’s stardom, in 1975, and was an unqualified success. It’s one of the most popular films that Redford has ever made, and for me, it remains the definitive Redford character\film that showcases the Redford persona in all its shades.


4 thoughts on “Three Days of the Condor: The definitive Robert Redford star vehicle is also a first rate paranoid thriller

  1. Great review, I have thought many of the same things about Redford, but could not express it as well. I would love to hear what you have to say about Faye Dunaway, she is the same as Redford in many ways, always herself, the character molds to her.


    1. Thanks Egmiller. Yes agree about Dunaway. But I think she’s a more emotional performer than Redford, and when she gets a great role that suits her, like Chinatown, she is great, but sometimes she goes over the top, which never happens with Redford


  2. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a co-worker who was doing a little homework on this. And he in fact bought me dinner due to the fact that I found it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending the time to discuss this matter here on your site.


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