Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: Sydney Pollack's THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR
James Grady’s novel Six Days Of The Condor was published just a year before Sydney Pollack’s big-screen adaptation, and yet almost every aspect of the story was changed. It is difficult to imagine such a flagrant disregard for the source material today, but in 1975, Three Days Of The Condor was a huge success. Buoyed up by big name stars Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, the film unseated Steven Spielberg’s Jaws from its perch atop the US box office, where it had sat unchallenged all summer.
More important than its star power or literary origins, Three Days Of The Condor tapped into the zeitgeist of a nation reeling from the Kennedy Assassination, the Vietnam War and Watergate. The American People were coming to the realisation that their government had been lying to them, and that those in charge of the country might not have their best interests at heart.
As events unfold in and around the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the film is also unknowingly prescient in its signifiers of what was to come. Watching the film in a post-9/11 context, it is uncanny how close to the truth Pollack came, especially when the CIA’s ultimate motivations are finally revealed.
In many ways, Three Days Of The Condor is the precursor for The Bourne Identity, as its central protagonist unwittingly becomes a rogue agent and his own employers turn against him. The film is a survival story, albeit in a contemporary urban setting, utilising state-of-the-art technology as much as old-fashioned wit and ingenuity. While Jason Bourne was a trained assassin, Joe Turner has precious little field experience - a reader, not a fighter.
Employed under the seemingly innocuous cover of the American Literary Historical Society, Turner scours vast expanses of published material looking for anything that might seem strange or provocative. When a report Turner files unwittingly uncovers a secret intelligence network operating inside the CIA, his office is immediately terminated by Max Von Sydow’s ice-cold assassin. Blind luck sees Turner avoid elimination, but now “Condor”, as he is codenamed is on the run, and it quickly becomes apparent that nobody can be trusted.
A TV series based on Pollack’s film is apparently in development , but if the show is to successfully adopt the brevity of its predecessor, it might do well to follow the model of Fox’s popular series 24, in which each season unfolded in supposed real time over a single day. Pollack already felt it necessary to half the time period of the novel in order to maintain pace and tension, so this could prove a viable option. Like Bourne, 24 also drew many elements from Pollack’s film, not least painting an increasingly murky picture of US foreign policy and its covert operations going largely unaccounted for.
Producer Dino De Laurentis originally wanted Warren Beatty to play Turner, and Bullitt’s Peter Yates to direct. However, after Beatty stalled and procrastinated, De Laurentis turned to Redford, who agreed, if certain stipulations were met. Having just signed on to make All The President’s Men with Dustin Hoffman and Alan J. Pakula, Redford asked that the film’s primary location be changed from Washington DC to New York City. He also insisted that Sydney Pollack be brought in as director.
Pollack first met Redford on the set of War Hunt (1962), where both had landed their first feature film acting gigs. They remained friends ever since and Pollack directed Redford in seven films. After successful collaborations on This Property Is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were - the last of which had been a huge hit, despite Redford’s reluctance to do it - De Laurentis agreed, Yates was paid off, and the film fell to Pollack.
An eclectic, some might say workman-like director, Pollack’s style is hard to pin down, and has tried his hand at many different genres. In the run-up to directing Three Days Of The Condor, Pollack’s three previous films were a western (Jeremiah Johnson), a romance (The Way We Were) and a far-east exploitation thriller (The Yakuza). Pollack would often say that he quickly lost interest in scripts unless they featured a love story. While Grady’s novel did include Turner partnering with a female accomplice, it was under Pollack’s guidance that the role of Kathy was expanded into a less willing participant and more complex role for Dunaway.
Once Pollack and Redford came on board, the film changed significantly. Lorenzo Semple Jr’s screenplay had been far closer to Grady’s book, which followed CIA employee Ronald Malcolm as he uncovers a drug-smuggling operation within his department. Bringing in his regular writing partner David Rayfiel, Pollack not only changed the location of the action and the names of all his principal characters, but also rewrote the covert operations in question to be far more sinister and reflecting of the current paranoid climate.
The central relationship between Turner and Kathy also became more prominent in the story. The film plays smartly with the notion of trust. Turner is introduced as a bookish, unassuming intellectual who nevertheless trusts his employers until they give him violent reasons not to. Kathy on the other hand has struggled with trust issues in the past, forcing Turner to work hard in order to convince her that he is telling the truth and needs her help.
Perhaps even more interesting is the relationship between Turner and Joubert, the mysterious assassin played by celebrated Swedish actor Max Von Sydow. Turner is introduced from the outset as a counter-culture liberal (he rides a bike in New York!) whereas Joubert is a ruthless killer. However, as events bring them closer together and Joubert’s allegiances are dictated according to where his paycheque is coming from, they come to a strangely logical, if unsettling agreement over who is ultimately to blame.
Three Days Of The Condor is a film that epitomises its historical setting perfectly, from its political sensibilities to its depictions of cutting-edge technology. While it may be 40 years old, the film remains a slickly executed, tightly paced thriller that paved the way for decades of action-packed antics. It can also stand tall alongside the likes of The Parallax View, All The President’s Men, Blow Out and The Conversation as one of the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s.
The Masters of Cinema’s new dual-format release includes a new high-definition presentation of the film with Stereo and 5.1 audio tracks. There is an excellent new video interview with film historian Sheldon Hall, as well as The Directors: Sydney Pollack - a television retrospective of the filmmaker’s career, featuring a host of interviews with various collaborators (although Redford’s absence is notable). The release also includes a 32-page booklet including new writing from critic Michael Brooke and an extensive interview with Pollack.
Three Days Of The Condor is available on dual-format DVD/Blu-ray courtesy of The Masters Of Cinema Series in the UK now.