There’s a moment about a third of the way through this well-made spy thriller where the seams of adaptation begin to show. Joe Turner (Robert Redford), on the run from shadowy government agents, puts a gun into the side of innocent bystander Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) and makes her drive him to her house. Turner sure seems to be acting meaner than he has to. When we meet Turner, he’s riding a moped to his work at a CIA sub-agency called “The American Literary Historical Society.” His job, as more than one opposing government agent tells us: “he reads,” copiously, spy thrillers and detective novels and puts them into a computer database to check against actual intelligence agency plans. It’s a little ridiculous, but believable enough, and dressed as a bookish, professorial type, wearing a disarrayed mop of blonde hair, stylish eyeglasses, an elbow-patched blazer, and a faint roguish air, Redford comes across as convincingly…cute; cute being, perhaps, what you get when you combine a dashing idiom with not much of a sense of humor.
Director: Sydney Pollack
Producer: Stanley Schneider
Writers: Lorenzo Semple Jr., David Rayfiel, James Grady (novel)
Cinematographer: Owen Roizman
Editor: Don Guidice
Music: Dave Grusin
Cast: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Max von Sydow, John Houseman
US Theatrical Release: September 24, 1975
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
If we don’t believe this movie star as a bookworm, we believe that he’s a movie star playing a bookworm enough to roll with it. Crucially, however, we think he’ll still be capable of doing some of the movie star things we suspect he’ll be asked to do down the line. When Redford returns to his office after lunch to find that everybody in it has been gunned down, apparently by another faction of US intelligence, he has to act like a different kind of CIA agent altogether—one who’s far more comfortable with a gun than we sense Turner actually is. The tension between Turner as brave nerd-out-of-water and Redford as leading man is there if you look hard enough, but there’s such a tradition of movie stars playing average joes that for the most part it’s easy enough to accept. Where we run into trouble is with his relationship with Faye Dunaway’s character, who you sense was also not written, exactly, as someone who looks like Dunaway in the novel upon which this movie was based.
What’s inescapable about Redford here is that he’s charming, even when he’s trying not to be. Turner, however, seems to be written as a character without that natural asset. When he holds Hale at gunpoint, it is actually hard to believe that he couldn’t just explain things calmly. Instead, he’s rough with her, as if he expects her to sell him out at any second: he ties her up when he has to leave her apartment for a moment, he puts an arm around her and keeps his gun in his other hand when he needs to nap, and seems, generally, to be using a firmer hand than he needs to. Dunaway, for her part, is written as more suspicious and more hurt than the typical lead actress: her speech is full of awkward guilt and self-recrimination, as when her character says to Redford’s the morning after sleeping with him: “you can always count on me, the old spy-fucker,” and then apologizes once Redford looks bummed about the comment. My sense is that the novel—titled Six Days of the Condor, by James Grady—was written about awkward, bookish types, and probably allowed (going off the difference between the two titles) more time for the spy-hostage relationship to develop; and then, that the screen adaptation was relatively faithful to the novel, but that the film compressed the time scale and happened to cast movie stars in all the roles. The disparity in days between the film and the book—three versus six—helps explain Dunaway’s unbelievably quick transformation into Redford’s Girl Friday during some rather crucial third-act hijinks. What can’t be explained, however, is how bad the movie sex is. Starman, a 1984 sci-fi comedy which has almost nothing in common with this film other, it seems, than a similar sense of propriety—blows this movie out of the water with the same toolbox of from-the-neck-up shots. Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges are way better at chaste movie sex than Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway—take note, ladies and gentlemen: character actors seem to have a lot more fun.
Aside from the love scenes, though, the cognitive dissonance between the acting and the characters is indicative of a more-interesting-than-average script. Many of the nicer touches that could have been in Sydney Pollack’s direction, I’m inclined to credit to the screenplay: in the aftermath of the initial “hit” on the American Literary Historical Society, we see the smoke from a character’s cigarette making its way to the ceiling, and a disturbed toupee we didn’t know was there. Later on, there’s a nifty and well-choreographed fight sequence that makes imaginative use of its living room environment—this kind of speculation is perhaps just a parlor game (pun intended), but the specificity of the props used in these scenes and how they’re employed makes it feel like a lot of the ideas for the fight come from the script. Likewise, I’m inclined to blame the script for the aforementioned bad movie sex; that segment feels like a part of the movie where Pollack and the actors were left to their own devices.
The film moves fast through its 2-hour running time and is better crafted and more engaging than the usual spy flick. It’s definitely in the tradition of the so-called “paranoid thrillers” of the 1970’s—films made in the cultural moment following Watergate where it was often the US government, or some element of it, that formed the main antagonist. Condor has this in common with Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels, which were written around this time; there’s a moment towards the end of the film where Redford’s character displays remarkable awareness of where the bad guys around him might be, and it feels as if he’s come full-circle on his growth as a kind of super-spy; it also feels like the very moment upon which the Bourne films pick up. 3 Days of the Condor isn’t appointment viewing, but it’s a well-made movie of its moment (and, in a lot of ways, our moment too) that is just barely smarter than average, and seems to have its heart in the right place.