Thursday, April 14, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Three Days of the Condor (1975) 1h 57m

On Saturday, 16 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh takes on one of the great and iconic espionage capers in cinematic history, *Three Days of the Condor*, starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Max Von Sydow and John Houseman.

Thought experiment: Take one of the sexiest movie stars in history and hire him at the very zenith of his acting career. Hand him a razor-sharp script, pair him with a genuine titan of 70's-era directing prowess, and shoot a movie about complex international espionage in which the star must evade numerous allegiance-shifting bad guys at every turn. You’d have a pretty good movie, if you did that. Actually, you’d have Alan Pakula’s *The Parallax View*, starring Warren Beatty and featuring a shadowy non-governmental entity trying to force the United States to change directions on an issue of mortal peril and universal significance. 

And let's be clear: Parallax View is a pretty doggone terrific movie. But it’s not a classic, and it never will be -- for the sneaky-simple reason that the inciting incident which impels Beatty onto his theme-park ride of harrowing intrigue isn’t the tiniest bit relatable. (Someone in an I’m-really-shady business suit approaches him and asks if he’ll submit to a personality evaluation that centers around being forced to watch a movie. You know, the sort of thing that could happen to any of us – right?) What you wouldn't have, if you did that much and stopped, is *Three Days of the Condor*. Not yet. 

No, what makes our present feature such a totem of Hollywood excellence isn’t the sexy star (Robert Redford), performing at the very top of his game (1975), with a relentless espionage-thriller script (adapted from the smash-hit novel by James Grady), and directed by a giant of the business (Sydney Pollack). What makes Three Days of the Condor is the deeply, deeply unsettling realization that comes over us about twenty minutes in: that for all the trappings of sordid CIA cat-and-mouse, the basic crisis that has befallen the main character really could happen. To any of us. 

Redford plays Joseph Turner, the improbably bookish and un-macho CIA analyst who returns to his nondescript Manhattan station office to find that something has occurred which will tear from under him everything he has known, or counted on, or done, or trusted. 

It’s a moment so brilliant in its every aspect of execution that we can easily miss the meta-brilliance that it represents: for its instant connection with our darkest insecurities about our anonymity and our routines. We watch as Turner struggles to process what he sees. We take in the shock, the non-comprehension and, ultimately, the mortal terror of the thing, for all it represents. And we feel every, last, *bit* of it ourselves -- sitting there with our popcorn hovering halfway to our mouths. None of us will ever have to dispatch a dead girl crawling out of our TV. None of us will ever have to fend off a creepy grandma who compelled us to murder our sister so she could hijack our soul in a candle-lit treehouse. But the simple horror of what happens to Joe Turner’s life in the first reel of Condor is like nothing I have ever seen in a film purported to be scary. None of us expect to have to handle the things that Turner will thenceforth have to handle, and all of us know—way down deep—that we really, really, really could.   

Naturally there follows a cat-and-mouse between Turner and any number of different would-be freelance and Intelligence-inside neutralizers, some of whom begin as friends and others of whom don't seem to work for the same set of people who are supposed to be trying to kill him. As with so many great 1970s conspiracy flicks, nothing is quite what it seems and nothing is clear or predictable until the very end. Along his breakneck path to sorting out the players while he tries to learn the game, Turner will cross swords with an overtly relativistic crisis-contact inside the agency (Robinson), a grim uber-boss (Houseman), a cheerfully sociopathic liquidator (Von Sydow), and crucially an unsuspecting middle-class photographer who just wanted to go skiing for the weekend with her boyfriend in Vermont (Dunaway).    

This picture would have deserved a place on our calendar for no other reason than its status as claimant to one of the truly great scenes in cinema--the oft-copied confrontation between Turner and his arch-nemesis, Station Director Atwood (Addison Powell), in which Turner surreptitiously enters Powell’s house in the middle of the night and summons him from his upstairs bedroom by playing the stereo as loud as it will go. It’s not quite as iconic as Slim Pickens riding that nuke all the way to its date with ground-burst destiny, but it’s all the more significant for how incredibly it works. 

I hope everyone will make a special point of planning to join us, Saturday 16 April at 6:30pm, for this thrilling tour de force from the one great golden age of American moviemaking. In the end the relatability of the thing serves as a sort of marching order in its own right: We owe it, not just to Joe Turner but to ourselves, to see just whether—and if so, how (!) — he can marshal his paltry resources and his even thinner understanding, to extricate us all. 

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