Remember a time when the espionage film wasn’t required to move at breakneck speed or involve the protagonist performing death-dying leaps around rooftops and engaging in high-octane car chases? Watching the opening credits of Three Days of the Condor reads like a ‘best of’ 70s US cinema. The DP is The French Connection‘s Owen Roizman (giving New York that same gritty, washed-out look here), while co-scribe Lorenzo Semple, Jr. was one of the writers behind the similarly-styled The Parallax View a year earlier. Add to the mix gregarious powerhouse producer Dino De Laurentiis, plus regular Redford directorial collaborator Sydney Pollock and, unsurprisingly, the resulting film is a cracking thriller.
Using the well-traversed machination of an ordinary guy wrapped up in extraordinary circumstances, but imbuing it with that post-Watergate malaise and creeping paranoia, Three Days of the Condor belongs next to the aforementioned Warren Beatty-headliner as a classic of the subgenre. Of course, you’ll need to initially swallow Redford as a bookish character to be fully onboard (the opening scene, which sees him in an oversized woolly hat and awkwardly riding a small pushbike, attempts to make that jump for the audience). He plays Joe Turner, an embarrassingly low level CIA analyst employed to decipher any possible hidden messages in printed material churned out by sources from around world.
Popping out for the lunch order one day, he returns to his brownstone office to discover his whole team has been slain. Understandably terrified, Turner contacts his employees for safe haven, only to be then double-crossed by the CIA boss who was supposed to bring him in safely. On the run and with no one to turn to, Turner is forced to essentially kidnap an unwitting civilian (Faye Dunaway) and hide out in her apartment where he can lay low until he figures out his next move. With a hitman on his trail (Max Von Sydow) it’s a treacherous and unpredictable quest for Turner as he attempts to wade through the murky inner politics of the intelligence service that has betrayed him.
Bringing a restraint and composure without skimping on the requisite tension and intrigue, Pollock builds a credible, character-led adventure. Redford’s easy charisma and his strong chemistry with Dunaway helps carry the film through its most problematic turn as a love story develops between Turner and his captive (added apparently at the behest of the director). However, its Sydow’s chillingly buttoned-down portrayal of a killer who casually treats his ‘job’ as just another day at the office which is truly unnerving. For a film once unceremoniously relegated to the BBC weekend matinee screening slot, in an extremely watered-down form (the deeply shocking scene of Turner’s colleagues being brutally assassinated almost completely absent in that version), it’s heartening to see Three Days of the Condor receiving the kind of reverential treatment via Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series which it has long deserved.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76