Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Anti-Bourne: 3 Days of the Condor (1975)

Watching a scene in 3 Days of the Condor where Robert Redford fights an assassin in a cramped apartment is like watching the antithesis of the much-lauded style employed by Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. For one, you can actually tell what’s going on. And guess what? It’s as exciting as hell. It’s not constructed tension via shaky, handheld camera and quick edits. The tension is just there, it’s present in the scene, and all director Sydney Pollack does (wisely) is let his camera watch it. I wish more Hollywood directors would go back and watch sequences like this. They might learn that filmmaking is about pacing and emotion, not how many shots you can fit into a single scene. Look, I could make a horror film and show it in theaters with seats that deliver an electric shock every time something scary happens, and my audience would certainly jump when I wanted them to. But it wouldn’t be because my film would was scary or suspenseful, it would be because I used a gimmick. Simply put, there’s a difference between building tension and manufacturing it.

As for 3 Days of the Condor on the whole, it’s a smart and well made spy film, and I’ll bet it had some influence on Robert Ludlum when he was writing those Bourne novels in the early eighties. It was nice to see that they portray most of the CIA employees as bookish geeks rather than suave secret agents with a license to kill. (That role falls to Max von Sydow in one of the coolest performances of his career as a calculating “freelance contractor”). Very little of the film seems dated, which is a minor miracle in this genre, and the conspiracy at the film’s center seems just at home in today’s political climate as it must have in the 1970s.

My only criticism of the film is the oft-expressed complaint that the relationship between Redford and Faye Dunaway (who is top-notch as always) seems rushed and tacked on. (It’s such an obvious criticism that it’s even mentioned in Out Of Sight when the two main characters discuss 3 Days of the Condor while locked in the trunk of a car). Try as they might, Pollack and company just don’t manage to sell the outrageous notion that a woman could fall in love with her kidnapper in less than a day. Even with a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, you'd think it would at least take a weekend. Still, to the filmmaker’s and Faye Dunaway’s credit, her character is not a caricature, nor do they give her some sort of easy backstory to make her seem vulnerable. But artful as it is, the way Pollack plays out the relationship is subtle to a fault, and we eventually just have to settle for it feeling right at the same time that it’s completely implausible.

This complaint aside, the movie works on just about every level, combining the tried and true excitement of one of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” movies with the plot complexity and political implications of an Alan J. Pakula film. That’s a sophistication that you don’t see often, especially in a popular Hollywood thriller, and it’s certainly a testament to the skill of the late Mr. Pollack.

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