Last days of chez Nixon
By Michael Roberts
"There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment."
~ Hunter S. Thompson
A minor miracle - In the middle of the Nixon v Counterculture battles of the early ‘70s, American filmmakers suddenly found fertile ground and funding for films with an overtly political agenda. Prior to this, and certainly subsequently, the idea that American mainstream cinema could consistently deliver political films with edge and depth was absurd, but for a brief, shining moment politically themed films actually were popular and made money! One of the more savvy and talented directors of the period was the versatile Sydney Pollack, who had started as an actor in the ‘50s before moving into direction in the mid ‘60s. One of his acting buddies was Robert Redford, who ended up starring for Pollack in 7 feature films, of which 3 Days of The Condor was the fifth collaboration between the pair, and one of their best.
Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is a CIA agent, employed to read books in a New York building and to report on plot lines and ideas they may contain. He sneaks out a discreet back door short cut to get the lunches on a rainy day and comes back to find his small unit murdered. He goes on the run and calls his CIA handler (Cliff Robertson) for instructions. It soon becomes clear he has just as much to fear from his colleagues as he does from the unseen and unknown enemy. Joe lays low and presses an unsuspecting woman, Kathy (Faye Dunaway), into hiding him in her apartment while he figures out what to do.
Joe is no Jason Bourne, i.e. a spook in the muscular, macho sense of the common image of a CIA operative; he’s a literary man, an arts major who is essentially a fish out of water, and a naïve one at that. Joe seems to be something of a college dilettante, a grown man enjoying an extended adolescence, getting by on his looks and charm and not taking anything too seriously. Joe is first seen as a boy in a man’s world, arriving on a push bike late for work, breezing through the office and deflecting his boss’s opprobrium for his tardiness. He sets about flirting with his co-worker (Tina Chen), who is obviously a girlfriend of sorts, and generally takes the whole ‘spy’ thing as a bit of a joke. The film is about Joe being suddenly forced to grow up, a metaphor for America being asked to wake up and take seriously what its government is doing in its name.
Robert Redford was the biggest box office star in the world at the time of the film’s release, and had used his political interest to promote a series of politically themed films like The Candidate for Michael Ritchie, and the HUAC/McCarty era themed The Way We Were for Pollack. 3 Days of The Condor was an attempt by Pollack and Redford to make a contemporary drama that spoke to current concerns about the increasing use of surveillance in American life, much as Coppola had examined in his brilliant 1974 thriller, The Conversation. Redford would make his finest political film the following year, All The President’s Men, playing Bob Woodward to Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein. Quite what they'd make of the seemingly unlimited ability for 21st century governments to surveille their populations is anybodies guess.
Redford provides a fine central performance as the ordinary guy thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Joe has to grow up in a hurry and scramble for his life as the placid world of ‘spying’ that he knew comes into close contact with the ‘off the grid’, dirty deeds department of his own company. Joe also has to find a balance between threat and empathy when he kidnaps Kathy, and as she comes to appreciate the danger he is in the pair develop a bond. Dunaway is also effective in a pivotal role that requires some delicate work, “I don’t think you’re going to live much longer” and Max Von Sydow showed a creepy and sinister side as the mercenary villain Joubert. Cliff Robertson creates a memorable and duplicitous handler, “he’s in the suspicion business," a prototype for many slippery CIA types that would follow in cinema.
Pollack had the source novel (Six Days of the Condor by James Grady) adapted into a screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr, who had enjoyed a hit the year before with the intrigue of Alan J. Pakula’s superb political thriller, The Parallax View. A nice synchronicity had Pakula direct the premiere political mega-hit of the era, All The President’s Men the following year, with a William Goldman screenplay that forensically outlined the Washington Post investigation that broke the Watergate incident that subsequently brought down Nixon. 3 Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, arrived at the perfect moment, as the Baby Boom and counterculture students were now working for the man, and America was coming to realise that they could elect a government they could not trust.
In 1974, with America being led by the Paranoia in Chief himself, the sinewy mystery of 3 Days of the Condor chimed perfectly with the rampant paranoia of the Nixon years and the unfolding Watergate scandal. Modern audience’s will no doubt feel a frisson of recognition when an incredulous Joe realises part of the issue relates to foreign oil fields says, “Do we have plans to invade the Middle East”? only to be told by his handler, “Don’t be crazy”. Joubert reminisces about the life of a spook after WWII and how it’s changed, “I miss that kind of clarity”, but looks on the bright side of being paid by the highest bidder now, “it’s almost peaceful, no need to believe in either side.”
Sydney Pollack was at the end of a productive first stage of his directing career, having been an in-demand A-list director for nearly 10 years. He moved into an uneven phase of alternating between darker, interesting projects like The Yakuza and Bobby Deerflield and more mainstream product like The Electric Horseman, before making two enormously successful mainstream films in the early ‘80s in Tootsie and Out of Africa. Like Howard Hawks before him he proved adept at making fine films in many different genres, and it’s possible that as a result he’s never enjoyed the critical reputation of some of his peers. Pollack’s best work combines mainstream entertainment tropes as well as deeper layers of thoughtful and insightful artistry, 3 Days of the Condor is a prime example.