*. I’ll begin with a confession. Every time I bring this movie up in discussion I have to check somewhere to see just how many Days of the Condor it is. And I don’t think that’s because it’s based on a novel by James Grady called Six Days of the Condor, the plot of which they condensed in going from page to screen. Three Days just doesn’t sound right. I don’t know why. It’s one of those things.
*. A fairly typical entry in the great run of ’70s conspiracy thrillers. And by typical I don’t mean to diminish it. These movies, at least the ones we remember, are all classics and still play well today. The Parallax View (1974) Marathon Man (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Capricorn One (1977), Coma (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
*. Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, who has a sort of clerical job working at a CIA house. Basically he just reads books and provides executive summaries of them or highlights items of interest. Then one day assassins kill everyone in his office while he’s out getting lunch. What’s going on?
*. The answers to that question remains murky. It has something to do with oil. Or rather “this whole damn thing was about oil.” But I’m not sure how. Nor was I clear on how far up the chain of command the shadow agency went. But then, even the icy Joubert (Max von Sydow) doesn’t know, or concern himself much, with these matters. It’s enough that he gets paid. “I don’t interest myself in ‘why.’ I think more often in terms of ‘when.’ sometimes ‘where’; always ‘how much.'”
*. It’s a low-key film, as Pauline Kael recognized, attributing its being a thriller with few thrills mainly to the hand of Sydney Pollack: “The director, Sydney Pollack, doesn’t have a knack for action pulp; he gets some tension going in this expensive spy thriller (and it was a box-office success), but there’s no real fun in it. It may leave you feeling depressed or angry.”
*. It didn’t leave me feeling depressed or angry, and indeed I’m not even sure who or what Kael thought I was supposed to feel depressed or angry at. But it is a movie that focuses on little things, and these are things I think it does well.
*. Here’s just a few items. I like the way the scratching-and-thumping sound of the printer provides a kind of score throughout the scene where Turner discovers the bodies in the station office. I like the way Turner has to hold something he’s reading at a distance in order to make it out. This is a guy who reads “everything” for a living, after all, and he wears glasses. Of course his eyes are shot! I also like the way his stubble grows over the course of the three days. There aren’t a lot of movies that pay attention to things like that, or they’d probably try to excuse it by saying he might have had a shower at Kathy’s place. But that wouldn’t make sense so he just goes unshaved. And perhaps best of all, I like how Turner goes into the kitchen to turn off the stove when he’s hustling Mae out of her apartment to safety. When she said she was cooking dinner I was thinking the same thing!
*. It’s also nice that Turner is a bookworm and only manages to get by most of the time by luck and his wits. He’s a communications expert before the Internet though and he makes good use of that particular set of skills as well.
*. They get one big item wrong. That’s Faye Dunaway as Kathy. This is a clichéd character who has to be kidnapped and then fall in love with her kidnapper all in an evening. Call it accelerated Stockholm Syndrome. “Have I raped you?” he shouts at her, defensively. “The night is still young!” she retorts. But of course no rape is in the cards, only some mellow jazz sax on the soundtrack and artful cutaways to Kate’s photography as she clutches the bedsheets. Then some minor plot functions to perform before Turner can pack her off to the bus station. The ’70s cinema version of smash and dash.
*. Once again with Dunaway’s slightly stuttering delivery. Her acting really only has one gauge. But she was a star. How do you know? When you get separate credits for Ms. Dunaway’s hair, wardrobe, and make-up.
*. The supporting cast are great players. Von Sydow is an uncanny mix of warm and cold, both delivered in his avuncular manner. Cliff Robertson’s hair, if it is his hair, is almost too unbearable to look at. John Houseman is also on board as the old hand Wabash. When did Houseman stop being an actor and become a cameo? After The Paper Chase? Is he still better known for those Smith Barney commercials than anything else?
*. The mysteries of screenwriting. A lot of the time the big speeches we remember the most are only a couple of lines long. There’s more to them than just the words on the page. Because who can forget this: “It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.” Now if you just read those lines in the script they wouldn’t jump out at you as anything special. Context and delivery are everything. A great screenplay sees all of this, something I’ve heard the best screenwriters point out in interviews. I think it was William Goldman who said that a screenwriter’s most essential attribute was their eye.
*. So it’s a lot like its paranoid peers of the time, which is good company to keep. A movie I’ve come back to quite a few times over the years, always seeing something more in it. A little something, but little somethings I enjoy.