Friday, June 06, 2008

Requiem for a Pro: Sydney Pollack and Three Days of the Condor

It's been a few weeks since the sad passing of director/actor Sydney Pollack, but appreciation for his life and work will never get old as far as I'm concerned.

The man helmed some truly great films throughout an era much ballyhooed as the last Golden Age of American Cinema--the Seventies. In contrast to Altman's loose-knit improvisation, Coppola's sense of bruised epic romanticism, and Scorsese's mean-street virtuosity, Pollack--like his aesthetic and generational peer Sidney Lumet--kept it direct.

That unerring knack for setting aside visual or thematic showiness to tell the damn story imprinted itself all over Pollack's best directorial efforts, and nowhere is it more prominent than in 1975's Three Days of the Condor. It's out in bare-bones form on DVD, and (all high-fallutin' verbal foppery aside) it completely and utterly rules.

Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, a low-level CIA researcher who comes back from lunch one afternoon to find his entire covert office shot up, and his coworkers massacred. Soon he's on the run with no one to trust, save one reluctant stranger, Kathy (Faye Dunaway). The requisite conspiracy-thriller ingredients--labyrinthian twists and turns, betrayals, and yep, broad-based conspiracy--ensue.

It's all masterfully engineered by Pollack, who ratchets up maximum tension by playing on Turner's initial sense of disorientation. Unlike the nigh-indestructible Jason Bourne, Redford's hero bruises and blunders as he finds his own espionage sea-legs by trial and error (speaking of the Bourne series, those first-rate thrillers owe an enormous debt to Condor's blend of skullduggery, technojargon, and corrupt government forces attempting to devour their own). And the cast--Redford credibly playing up the intelligence behind those matinee-idol looks, Dunaway at her most vulnerable and charming, Max Von Sydow as a taciturn hitman, and Cliff Robertson as the possibly duplicitous 'company man'--all shine.

In the end, Three Days of the Condor lays bare the thing that made Sydney Pollack one of the most consistent directors of his generation: The ability to tell straightforward stories that combine contemporary topicality with good old-fashioned Hollywood star power and entertainment value. And nobody nowadays (excepting George Clooney on a good night) is even daring to cobble together those elements so artfully. No wonder everybody misses seventies cinema...And one of its most talented, recently-fallen practitioners.

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