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Friday, March 8, 2013

Sydney Pollack | Three Days of the Condor


the reader
by Douglas Messerli
 

Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel (screenplay, based on a novel by James Grady), Sydney Pollack (director) Three Days of the Condor / 1975

For many years now I have thoroughly enjoyed the mystery-thriller-spy movie Three Days of the Condor, watching it annually since its premiere in 1975. Certainly this is not a great work of cinema, but despite Jean Baudrillard grouping it with films that he describes as “retro cinema,” films that are “remakes” of what he describes as historically “real” cinema, I enjoy its slick maneuvers as the handsome hero, Joe Turner (played by Robert Redford in his prime) attempts to discover who has murdered all his co-workers in a small New York office, a branch of the C.I.A. that looks for “clues” by reading books. I have a penchant, I must admit, for films that find evil-doing in organizations of authority, and I enjoy watching works wherein these often maniacal men and women of power are undone. And how could I—a full time reader, of films, fiction, and poetry—not like a film which features a man who is employed as a reader.

      As often happens with films I have watched many times, I saw the film somewhat differently this time around. It began with my wondering what I might have done if I snuck out to lunch only to find, when I returned, that six of my co-workers had been brutally shot to death. Even that first question, however, posed further dilemmas. I realized that, although we are meant throughout to sympathize with the “hero,” I personally would never have joined up with an organization such as the C.I.A. in the first place. Turner, when queried by his superior, Dr. Lappe (Don McHenry) about his ability to fit into the organization, responds with extreme naiveté, suggesting he would like to be able to tell close friends what he does at his job. It is almost as if Turner had never considered the implications of signing up with the government agency. And when he calls the FBI to report the murders, he can hardly even recall his code name. Told not to go home, he does precisely that, almost being caught in the trap which would surely have meant his death. While movies such as Three Days of the Condor, as well as the Watergate affair and numerous news articles, have taught me to be highly suspicious of anything a C.I.A. agent might tell me, Turner believes he can be “brought in” to safety by meeting up with an old friend in all alley. It is, of course, a trap, and his friend is killed as he attempts to save Turner from the shooter.

     His next step is one that should have long ago made clear that Joe Turner and I have little in common, even though the movie tries to maintain the myth that Turner is a kind of befuddled everyman: he kidnaps, at random, a beautiful woman, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), who just happens to be a photographer, living alone in a nice, if small, apartment, who, instead of screaming, allows herself to be carried off.  She is just slightly sexually kinky enough to not wildly protest, later, his tying her up.  Although she finds his story a bit unbelievable (who could believe a line that begins: “Listen, I work for the C.I.A. I am not a spy. I just read books”?), she helps him ward off a would-be murderer, and, ultimately, joins in a caper that includes a series of tricky meetings with the local C.I.A. head, J. Higgins (Cliff Robertson) while Turner himself finds his way into a telephone terminal where he cleverly splices together several lines so that when he again calls the C.I.A. he cannot be traced. Meeting with his murdered friends’ wife, he encounters the man behind the murders, Joubert (Max von Sydow) and escapes by paying several children to surround him (he pretends to have locked himself out) on his way back to the car.

      Yet this clearly clever man does not, until very late in the work, pick up the obvious links to his question asked at the beginning of the film in response to the mystery books published “in Dutch. A book out of Venezuela. Mystery stories in Arabic.” Oil is the obvious connection, and once he sees the link he also begins to perceive that the murder has been ordered by someone in the “company,” a C.I.A. exec, Leonard Atwood (Addison Powell). Is he a “damn good amateur” or just a fool? Perhaps he is both, as Jourbert suggests:

 
                            Condor is an amateur. He’s lost, unpredictable, perhaps  
                            sentimental. He could fool a professional. Not deliberately,
                            but precisely because he is lost, doesn’t know what to do.

     Turner, in short, is no “everyman,” not even a real human being, but is a figment of the writers’ imaginations, a man who can do incredible things when the script calls for it, and is dangerously innocent at other times. It is not that he is simply contradictory, but that he is an illusion: a man able to escape the most internecine machinations. A good man in an evil organization, Turner, nonetheless, might also be described as a kidnapper, robber, rapist, and murderer (even though it is Jourbert, not he, who shoots Atwood dead)—even if these acts have been committed out of self-defense. It is his research and question, moreover, that has led to all of his co-worker’s deaths. He has saved himself only by destroying several others.

      Is it any wonder that by film’s end—although he has attempted to protect himself by recounting the facts in a sealed letter to the New York Times—he is destined to become, as Higgins suggests, “a very lonely man,” the film hinting that reading, in its isolation from the real, is a dangerous profession.

Los Angeles, March 7, 2013

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