By Chris Neilan.
They may never have matched the creative successes of Scorsese & De Niro, the genre-defining feats of John Wayne & John Ford, or earned the cinephile kudos of Allen & Keaton, but as director-star partnerships go it’s hard to beat Sidney Pollack and Robert Redford for longevity or box office solidity. Both Steady Eddie liberals less interested in pushing formal limits than entertaining a large audience share, their working relationship stretched over 24 years, from the mid-60s Tennessee Williams adaptation This House is Condemned (1966) to early 90s romantic drama Havanna (1990), winning Academy awards in two separate decades for The Way We Were (1973) and Out of Africa (1985).
In 1975 they contributed to one of the best known cycles of post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers that also included The Parallax View (1974), The Conversation (1974) and All The President’s Men (1976). Adapted from a James Grady novel, Three Days of the Condor (1975) was very nearly a Warren Beatty picture. Executive producer Dino De Laurentiis had originally set the project up with Bullitt (1968) director Peter Yates and Papillon (1973) screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., but Beatty spent so long dithering over whether or not to do it that De Laurentiis gave up and offered the project to Redford instead, who insisted on replacing Yates with Pollack. Pollack and Redford weren’t happy with the novel’s rather passe plotline about drugs hidden in books, so Pollack brought on David Rayfiel, his regular (often uncredited) screenwriter, who implemented a labyrinthine cross-and-double-cross story of ‘a CIA within the CIA’, a rogue agency branch operating on murky pretexts and unafraid of gunning down those who threaten to uncover it, and in doing so made the story much more of its paranoiac time.
Redford plays Joseph Turner, a Hollywood version of an academic geek, whose bookish pursuits and tweed jackets don’t stop him bantering with the common man or sacheting down Manhattan side streets with the body of a baseball pro and the looks of a Californian wife-stealer. His job is to scan printed publications for hidden codes and messages, but after he finds a suspicious publication and files a report to his CIA superiors, an assassination squad led by a typically imperious Max von Sydow arrives to machine-gun all his colleagues – Turner, of course, escapes the slaughter by virtue of his effortless everyman charm: he’s busy exchanging quips with a local sandwich vendor when it happens. But on discovering his dead colleagues he’s forced to flee, setting up a cat-and-mouse pursuit plot throughout which he must avoid the murder squad’s attentions whilst uncovering a shady plot involving oil money and the true intentions behind this intra-departmental rogue agency.
In 1965 another Sidney, Sidney J. Furie, had rejigged the character tropes of the spy thriller with Michael Caine’s bedsit dwelling, bi-focal sporting, omelette cooking Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965), making an espionage hero more neurotic, more down-to-earth than your average Bond – still able to charm the knickers off a secretary at fifty yards of course, but noticeably more bureaucratic. With Condor, Pollack and team also shifted the genre away certain generic conventions, creating a matrix of villains whose detachment and objective attitudes seem much more plausible than the genre’s average schemers. And in the post-Watergate environment, when conspiracy had been revealed as reality, plausible villainy was vogue.
But plausibility doesn’t extend into every element of the film (see: Redford as academic), and here’s where Condor runs into trouble. Also added at Pollack’s request was a romantic plotline. As Redford flees the attentions of the murder squad, desperate for respite, he runs into a clothing store and stumbles across Faye Dunaway. Apparently drawn to her by her looks, he sees an opportunity for escape, holds her at gunpoint and forces her to take him back to her apartment, where he ought to be untraceable. Once in her apartment, he explains some of his story to her, and finding himself fatigued he orders her to lie down on her bed with him. He puts one arm around her neck, keeps his gun in the other hand, and assures her that if she tries to leave the bed, he’ll hurt her. One can only assume that in 1975 cinema audiences associated gorgeous alpha-male heartthrobs with the kind of assertive, I’m-the-boss charm that underpins the kidnapping, forced entry and gunpoint cuddling of the Dunaway character, but twenty-first century viewers will struggle to see it for anything other than what it is: sexual violence codified positive.
Warren Beatty missed out on Condor, but his own paranoid political thriller, The Parallax View (1974), also scripted by Semple Jr., would eventually hit cinemas before Condor, and the socio-politics accompanying Parallax’s textual politics stand up to re-examination far better than Condor‘s. But do viewers really care about gender politics, when they’ve got Robert Redford to gaze at, golden haired and bescarved, wise-cracking and decoding books to a swinging soul score? Are cinema-goers really bothered by the positive codification of sexual aggression when it’s wrapped up so gorgeously? Roger Ebert didn’t. His Sun Times review, from January 1st 1975, is full of praise for a ‘tense and involving’ thriller’ that’s ‘all too believable’. What percentage of a Pollack-Redford audience share can we expect to be bothered by Redford’s ‘if you try and move, or climb off the bed… I promise you I’ll hurt you’ line if Ebert wasn’t?
Perhaps surprisingly, the Bourne franchise shows us how far the genre has moved on. Jason Bourne’s romance with Franka Potente’s Marie in Doug Liman’s pacey franchise-starter The Bourne Identity (2002) is noticeably similar to the Redford-Dunaway romance in Condor, but instead of forcing his way into Marie’s life at gunpoint, Matt Damon’s Bourne offers her a deal: $20,000 for a ride away from a danger zone, giving her the opportunity to accept his offer of her own volition and get something out of the deal to boot. Perhaps the most apposite redefinition of the espionage genre hasn’t been the move toward hyperrealistic hand-to-hand combat, nor Paul Greengrass’s documentary-esque visual style, nor even Daniel Craig’s biceps, but the introduction of consent.
Chris Neilan is a filmmaker, screenwriter, author and critic. His work is available at www.chrisneilan.com.
Flight of the Condor was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Eureka! as part of their Masters of Cinema series. Features include a new high-definition presentation, optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired, stereo and 5.1 soundtrack options, exclusive new video interview with film historian Sheldon Hall, The Directors: Sydney Pollack, a career-spanning appreciation of the director’s works, original theatrical trailer, 32-PAGE BOOKLET featuring a new essay on the film by critic Michael Brooke, an extensive interview with Pollack, and archival images.