Robert Redford has done it all and done it all well on the big screen: acting, directing and producing. As an actor, he’s also done it all: westerns, war movies, drama and comedy (not to mention a neat, little-remembered caper film called “The Hot Rock” – click here for my review – taken from a Donald E. Westlake novel of the same name). While there is not one genre I would say is his best, there is one that I enjoy the most: Espionage. Here I’ll look at the spy masterpiece “Three Days of the Condor,” which, although just over 40 years old as I expand this review in 2018, is as relevant today as it was in 1975. It’s also a masterpiece from Redford’s career and makes you long for the day of films of intelligence, depth and top-shelf acting throughout the cast.
‘Three Days of the Condor’
(1975; 117 minutes; rated R; directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow)
REDFORD TAKES FLIGHT WITH DUNAWAY
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion, more trivia and the updating of links on April 29, 2017. I further expanded the review on Jan. 28, 2018.)
Robert Redford was truly outstanding in 2001’s “Spy Game” with Brad Pitt, just as he was in another espionage thriller from 1992 called “Sneakers” (click here for my review). However, you have to go back two generations to find his best spy effort: The truly sensational in “Three Days of the Condor” in which he tried to keep one step ahead of a coldly efficient killer all the while trying to solve a spy mystery.
“Condor” was adapted from James Grady’s 1974 thriller “Six Days of the Condor” (I guess filmmakers only needed only half the canvas Grady required) and is under the direction of the superb Sydney Pollack, who also directed Redford in “The Electric Horseman” (click here for my review). The film is an excellent adaptation of an excellent novel, one of the few such parallels I could ever make of a film
Redford plays “Joseph Turner” (the character was “Ronald Malcolm” in the book; the original is a better name and I wonder why it was changed). He’s a CIA analyst who comes across an operation from within that’s a secret even to the CIA and tries to solve it. Of course since plotters within the CIA didn’t want their operation exposed, his actions set off a chain of events that begins with the assassinations of the group for which he works. He’s literally out to lunch when the assassins arrive, having left through a seldom-used back door because of the weather.
So begins the flight of the Condor. He’s pursued not only by his own people trying to do right, but also his own people trying to do wrong. It wouldn’t just be a spoiler alert to give away more here, it would be the destruction of an uncommonly deep plot to enjoy in a motion picture. You experience such an intricate plot in movies today that I don’t want to spoil it any further for you.
Now, on to a look at some of the primary cast:
- As I’ve already written, Oscar winner (sadly not for this one) Redford delivers a pitch-perfect performance here. He shows every range of emotion and does each well. He balances both toughness as well as compassion and actually makes it OK to do a little thing called “kidnapping at gunpoint.” Unfortunately, Redford won his Oscar for directing the pathetic, undeserving multiple Oscar-winning snifflebag called “Ordinary People.” As an actor, he was nominated for “The Sting” and as director again was nominated for the much-more deserving “Quiz Show.” Too bad he didn’t win for “Quiz Show.” Now, that’s deserving, not the other emotional crapfest. Without a doubt, Redford exemplifies all the great accolades as an entertainer: he’s iconic; he’s a legend; his work is magnificent; and, most importantly, he’s intelligent, humane and thoughtful.
- Two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Max von Sydow plays “Jaubert,” the hired assassin at the heart of the story. He does his usual solid turn in a supporting role (his best was as a psychiatrist confronting a serial killer in Russia in “Citizen X” with Stephen Rea in an HBO flick – click here for my review) and provides a thread throughout the film. His is one of the quiet foundation stones that allow the film to succeed. Vo Sydow played an assassin in a film called “Brass Target” where he kills Gen. George Patton (who, conspiracy theorists say, was killed and did not die of injuries from a vehicle accident). He was also in “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” Von Sydow was nominated for “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “Pelle the Conqueror” as part of a prolific career of 160 acting credits over eight decades beginning in 1949.
- Oscar winner and two-time nominee (not for this one) Faye Dunaway becomes Redford’s love interest “Katherine ‘Kathy’ Hale” … after he kidnaps her. It is a plumb role and Dunaway should have made a serious mark, but at best you can say she is just “solid” here. I write this because of Dunaway’s talent – her Oscar is for Sidney Lumet’s “Network” and nominations for “Chinatown” and “Bonnie and Clyde” – and it just doesn’t show here. Dunaway, who was married to J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf when “Three Days of the Condor” was released, was the co-star of Steve McQueen in the original “Thomas Crown Affair” and made an appearance as the star’s therapist in the reboot (click here for my review of the remake).
- The only cast member worthy of Redford here is Oscar and Emmy winner (not for this one) Cliff Robertson. He does a great job by not overplaying the character “CIA Deputy Director J. Higgins.” Robertson is best known for 1968’s “Charly” for which he won an Oscar and Golden Globe for best actor and he plays the disingenuous do-gooder to the hilt. None of Robertson’s considerable talent is left behind as the credits roll. He was also in the “Spider-Man” franchise and played Hugh Hefner in the quite disturbing “Star 80.” Robertson died at 88 in 2011 of natural causes.
- Oscar winner and nominee (not for this one) John Houseman, whose most famous role that earned his statue was “Professor Kingsfield” in both the film and TV series “The Paper Chase,” does an elegant turn as “Mr. Wabash” here. He is so very John Houseman as the senior official obviously pulling strings behind the scenes. Houseman, who was nominated for “Julius Caesar” from 1953, also doesn’t waste any time in his limited minutes onscreen. He has arguably the best line as a veteran of World War II when he is asked if he misses the action. “No,” he replies, “I miss the clarity.” Great line in a great film. You might not recall, but he was in the TV mini-series “Noble House” (click here for my review) in 1988 – the year of his death at 86 of cancer.
Wow! With all the Oscar winners, you’d have to have believed then that this one was going to be a winner – but not so! Many directors waste the talents of a wonderful cast or manage to destroy a great screenplay. However, Pollack didn’t and he directed it to perfection.
In the final analysis, you won’t find a better plot in many films; you won’t find better acting in many films; and you won’t find any better direction or cinematography in most films. “Three Days of the Condor” is a special work and is a classic.
A very personal note: The reprinted book in electronic form notes in a new forward by the author that a non-fiction book about the Soviet spy agency the KGB reports that it set up a unit of book-readers similar to Redford’s after its leaders saw the “Condor” film. Cool. Of course in the Kindle edition of the book, the forward misspells Pollack’s first name (again proving there is absolutely a bare minimum of editing and absolutely not even the most basic fact-checking in the conversion of books from print to digital … thanks electronic book publishers, you’re as incompetent and stupid as the rest of the digital publishing world).
“Three Days of the Condor” was the outside the top 10 at U.S. theaters in 1975, according to Wiki. It had a worldwide take of $41.5 million, but a quick check didn’t reveal its actual rank for that year. Of course it’s no surprise that the No. 1 film was “Jaws” with its $260 million more than double that of the second place film, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with $112.8 million. The two other films from 1975 that I’ve reviewed are “Murph the Surf” with Robert Conrad (click here for my review) and it’s about a South Florida beach bum-turned-jewel thief; and “The Killer Elite” with James Caan and Robert Duvall with the legendary Sam Peckinpah in the director’s chair (click here for my review). I did compare 1975’s “Rollerball” with its horribly awful reboot from 2002, but didn’t officially review it (click here for my comparison).
Some cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Jess Osuna, who also appeared in “All the President’s Men” and “Coogan’s Bluff” (an Eastwood flick), plays “The Major.” He has a small part, but his voice with the sharp “this is The Major” on the telephone with Redford is an instant trademark.
- Hank Garrett, who plays the pasty-faced killer “The Mailman” alongside von Sydow, has a great fight scene with Redford in Dunaway’s apartment and was also in “Serpico” and “Sniper.”
- Robertson found himself blacklisted in Hollywood after being the spark to a scandal two years after “Condor.”
- Richard Helms, a former director of the CIA, was a consultant to Redford.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “When they are reminiscing, Higgins asks Wabash whether he served with ‘Col. Donovan’ during World War II – a reference to William Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services and precursor of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Wabash replies, ‘I sailed the Adriatic with a movie star at the helm’ – referring to actor Sterling Hayden, who served with the OSS, running the German blockade of the Adriatic during WWII to get supplies to Yugoslav partisans.”
- Also directly from IMDb.com: “In the coffee shop, Turner says that Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime. He did, in fact, sell one painting.”
- “Three Days of the Condor” has a low quotient for its actors having gone on to appear on “The Love Boat” TV series. None of the major cast made an appearance from what I can research. I know many would say that speaks volumes about the cast of “Condor,” but I enjoy “The Love Boat” (click here for my look at the series). Plus, a number of “big names” actually did an episode or two of “The Love Boat,” including today’s A-lister of the A-list Tom Hanks, who was Gopher’s frat brother in one episode, and Billy Crystal, who played a kissing bandit that plants a kiss on “Miss Jane” of the “Beverly Hillbillies” in another).
- Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page for the movie …
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