Case Number 16411: Small Claims Court


Paramount // 1975 // 117 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 19th, 2009

The Charge

His CIA code name is Condor. In the next seventy-two hours almost everyone he trusts will try to kill him.

The Case

Director Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor is an old school espionage thriller, heavy on nail-biting intrigue and light on stunts and combat. Based on James Grady's novel Six Days of the Condor, the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Papillon) and Daniel Rayfiel ('Round Midnight) drips with post-Watergate paranoia, a taut (but not frenetic) sense of pacing, satisfying turns of plot, and the sort of bleak, cynical ending that was de rigueur in the '70s but is forbidden by major studios these days.

The movie traces 72 harrowing hours in the life of Joe Turner (Robert Redford, All the President's Men), a desk jockey in a CIA office in New York. His job is to read books and feed their plots into a computer that looks for patterns between fictional and real-life crimes. When his investigation of a pulp spy novel leads to the murder of his office mates, Turner finds himself playing the role of a field agent. Caught in a conspiracy that reaches up to CIA Deputy Director Higgins (Cliff Robertson, Spider-Man) and pursued by a mysterious assassin named Joubert (Max von Sydow, The Exorcist), Turner finds an unlikely ally in Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway, Chinatown), a beautiful photographer whom he kidnaps during his desperate flight from the men who pursue him. Turner must unearth the significance of the novel if he wants to determine why the Company is out to kill him.

Three Days of the Condor is an intelligent thriller that isn't as well remembered as it probably should be. With a plot about the deadly intersection between politics and the oil business, it is perhaps too thematically reminiscent of the water and politics at the center of Robert Towne's groundbreaking screenplay for Chinatown, released the previous year. Pollack manages the Condor's dramatic tension well, but approaches the movie more as a character piece than a genre exercise. This has both benefits and drawbacks. Because Joe Turner feels like a real human being, the threats to his life have palpable menace. Unfortunately, the screenplay's fairly conventional genre structure means that we don't get the sort of character payoffs demanded by Pollack's approach. At the same time, the director's emphasis on character slows the pacing ever so slightly so that, while taut, the movie doesn't quite have the same forward thrust as Chinatown.

Because of Pollack's focus on character, the film's greatest strength is its cast. This was the third collaboration between Pollack and Redford after Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The Way We Were (1973). Pollack builds Three Days of the Condor's drama around Redford's distinctive rhythms. There's scarcely a scene in the movie without Redford in the center of the action. Professionally driven, cynical, anti-authoritarian, and wily but always a step behind his enemies, Turner is just the sort of character that plays to Redford's dramatic strengths. The thoughtful intensity he brings to the character is similar to (though not as memorable as) his turn as Bob Woodward in All the President's Men. Faye Dunaway brings texture, nuance, and sensitivity to a relatively small role. Her performance is so good that one wishes the screenplay were more conventionally designed to maximize screen time between Redford and Dunaway by throwing the two into a slow-burning romance. Instead, the sexual tension is developed and paid off so quickly that it feels cursory. Max von Sydow is impressive and frightening as a wry and all-business assassin. A scene he shares with Redford in an elevator crackles with understated tension. Cliff Robertson is perfectly cast as a heavy whose villainy is motivated less by malice than a toxic mix of idealism and a desire for bureaucratic efficiency. With a lesser group of actors, Three Days of the Condor would be a smart but empty thriller. Pollack's astute casting decisions ensured that its intrigue is tempered with believable emotion. The movie is perhaps is too straight-forward a genre piece to be classic cinema, but it's still an awfully entertaining drama.

The quality of the 1080p AVC transfer runs the cramped gamut from acceptable to "Wait, this is Blu-ray?" Colors are accurate and fully saturated; black levels are impressive in their richness. The film has exactly the sort of rugged look one would expect of an urban drama made in the mid-'70s. Film grain is always discernible but mostly fine and attractive. Detail is the problem. The best shots are slightly more impressive than a 480p DVD transfer; the worst are downright hazy. In fairness to the folks at Paramount, some of the focus problems appear to be rooted in Owen Roizman's (The French Connection) cinematography -- the problem areas tend to be located at the edges of the scope frame. Regardless of whether the flaws are in the original source or the digital transfer, there's not a single shot in the film that will wow you with its high definition glory.

The Dolby TrueHD track is a solid expansion of the original monaural optical analog track, but is predictably thin. Dynamic range is cramped. All dialogue and most of the effects favor the front soundstage. On the plus side, the track itself is clean and as detailed as the source allows.

The only extra is a theatrical trailer for the film.

Three Days of the Condor isn't a classic, but it is a good thriller/character study -- tense, compelling, and peopled with fascinating players. Given the middling quality of this Blu-ray transfer, as well as the dearth of supplements, those who wish to add the movie to their collections are probably wise to save a few bucks and pick up the DVD instead.

The Verdict

As a film, Three Days of the Condor is not guilty. As a Blu-ray, it's guilty of looking like a DVD.

Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 79

Perp Profile
Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)

Audio Formats:
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)

* English
* English (SDH)
* French
* Spanish

Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Trailer

* IMDb