13 July 2014

Almost 40 Years of Three Days of the Condor Still a Great Film that Still Stirs Memories

On a Saturday night in the Fall of 1975 Becky and I went to see a new film called Three Days of the Condor (1975). Becky and I were living together at the time. She was quite functional as a lover and friend but was devoid of intellectual curiosity and I’d guess that to this day she has maintained her streak of not picking up a book since high school. I didn’t realize it at first, but I was quite fortunate when she packed her bags and left the next Spring. Anyhoo we went to see this movie and I really liked it. Not sure that Becky cared for it. It should have been a clue that our relationship was not built to last that we generally didn’t like the same sort of films. I recall watching They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969) on TV with Becky and wanting to discuss it afterwards and she didn’t see the point either of the film or my musings on it. Warning sign.

Last night I watched Three Days of the Condor for maybe the fifth or sixth or seventh time. As I have previously on several occasions, I watched it with the missus with whom I’ve been happily married for 27 years. (Happy for me. I think the jury's still out for her.) She does pick up books and she reads them and she likes and loves many of the same films as I do and we both really like TDOC. In terms of “serious” relationships I’ve made up for my earlier misstep many many times over by this marriage.

TDOC one of the many 1970s films like The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Marathon Man (1976), The Conversation (1974), Serpico (1973) and Alien (1979) in which there is a conspiracy afoot and one or two brave men — in one case a woman — tries to uncover it and live to tell the tale. Some uncover. Some don’t. Some live. Some don’t. If you want to know how the protagonist in TDOC fares — one Robert Redford — you’ll have to watch the movie and by the way I heartily recommend that you do. If you've seen it before, watch it again. What, you got something better to do?

Redford plays a CIA agent of sorts. Joe Turner reads books for the agency to see if the material is being used or planted by national security agencies for the US or enemy regimes in actual operations. He works in an office with seven other similarly employed agents. One seemingly typical day it is his turn to pick up lunch. He returns to find everyone in the office has been killed -- as he was meant to be. It seems our friend has uncovered something that some folks wish he hadn't (after all these viewings I'm still not clear on why they wiped out the whole office). Wisely Joe hits the streets (of New York) and soon realizes no one can be trusted. Though not a field agent, Joe is a resourceful sort which is a good thing because anyone on the run from the CIA has to use his wits to good effect. Not surprisingly his home is being monitored. This is the proverbial nowhere to turn scenario. So Joe kidnaps a woman, Kathryn Hale (Faye Dunaway) to aid and abet him. She is understandably reluctant at first but becomes a willing accomplice as she senses his sincerity and falls for his dashing good looks. This is after all Robert Redford.

A few posts ago I mentioned -- not for the first time -- the incredible run of films in which Ms. Dunaway appeared over a ten year stretch starting with Bonnie and Clyde (1967). This is not her meatiest roles from among those films, but as was her custom she handled it very well.

Among Joe's foils is a mysterious paid assassin played most ably by Max von Sydow. It's a helluva good story and for my money (what little there is of it) the finest directorial effort by the late Sydney Pollack. The computers are of course quite anachronistic but the storyline holds up well. Particularly the notion that oil is of paramount importance and would lead a country to go to war (sound familiar?). There are many elements of the film that have been subsequently borrowed by others such as the Bourne films. Here is the original rogue agent defying his superiors and foiling them at every turn. In TDOC Cliff Robertston and John Houseman have the type of roles that the likes of Chris Cooper and Judi Dench would later play as frustrated higher ups trying to reign in someone who "knows too much" and is a threat to national security. The stripping of trust is a staple of many very good films; its something Hitchcock did to perfection. It is a terrifying scenario when those closest to us can no longer be counted -- or are dead -- and our institutions betray us as well.

This is what makes TDOC among the great paranoia films of the Seventies coming out in the wake of government exposed lies about Vietnam, assassinations, domestic spying and Watergate. They were intelligent films that did not rely on prolonged action sequences, special effects, exotic locales or gratuitous love stories. America didn't feel it could trust its government anymore and this fear was reflected in film. Actually it might be more accurate to say that these weren't paranoia films as much as they were telling it as it was and is. If not in actual fact then certainly in feeling.

As to the movie going experience I can say unequivocally I feel much nostalgia.  Mind you I'm very very happy to own a veritable library of films on DVD and to have access to hundreds of others via such providers as Nextflix and Hulu but there was something special about movie going in bygone days. For me the Seventies were the pinnacle. It was the golden age of cinema with story the king and the shackles of censorship removed and a passel of great directors working. There were no computers to watch movies on and anything on TV was interrupted by advertising and edited for sexual content and language and extreme violence. Even without knowing what was to come in a few decades, many of us only rarely bothered trying to watch a movie on the telly. So going to the theater was a special experience. The one chance to see a film. There was no notion of waiting for anything to come out on video.

In those days I would actually go to movies at night, even and especially Saturdays as I did when I saw TDOC with Becky (it's bargain matinees for me now, the smaller the crowd the better). It was an event and there was always something good playing. Also the theaters were actually theaters and not the sterile multiplexes of today that have no character. Individuals theaters were unique. And the experience was actually called "going to the movie theater." Theater. 

I wonder whatever became of old Becky. We had a few good months and I'm only embarrassed that it was she who saw that we were going nowhere. The damndest thing though, I have no clear recollection what she thought of Three Days of Condor. Probably not much. Today's current crop of Spider X Wolverines probably suit her taste more.

But I am happy that the missus loves the Three Days of the Condor. She's aces.

No comments: