Sydney Pollack’s “3 Days of the Condor” is 35 years old this year, and I thought I would take a look at it for this week’s review.

I feel like the 1970s produced the best American filmmaking and filmmakers. I read a book a few months ago titled “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” which tracked the progress of American filmmaking between the phenomenon that was “Easy Rider” (1969) and the brilliance of “Raging Bull” (1980). It was a great read, full of interesting anecdotes, but more than anything it made me realize how much talent there was on display in the ’70s and how exciting a time it must have been for an avid moviegoer.

Looking back on the films of the ’70s, zeitgeist-shifting masterpieces like “The Godfather,” “Rocky” and “Apocalypse Now” do glare out at you, but there was also a specific type of thriller made throughout the decade that I don’t think could be made today. This type of thriller usually takes place in a seedy world filled with secret information, navigated by a protagonist who is unaware of the forces weighing down on him. The direction is usually slow and methodical, allowing the protagonist time to figure out the narrative’s mysteries in a realistic way. A female character often becomes involved, but she isn’t the standard tough-talking dame of ’40s film noir; she’s damaged, neurotic and, in many ways, just as confused as the hero.

You see this story played out in ’70s classics like “The Parallax View,” “The Conversation,” “Chinatown” and our film for today, “Three Days of the Condor.” The intoxicating thing about this type of story is the slowness with which it unfolds. In today’s film marketplace, there is always a tendency to figure things out for the characters instead of moving at a real life pace. With movies like “Three Days of the Condor,” you are never sure how ugly the film’s secrets will be or how they will affect the hero. Watching it, you slowly become aware of the subtle ways Pollack is ramping up the tension, using it to immerse you in the story.

The film’s hero is fairly standard-issue: Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is a CIA researcher working in an obscure building in Manhattan. His outfit specializes in reading foreign books and magazines and feeding their prose into machines, looking for coded language and patterns.

The film’s early scenes play Turner as a faithful Boy Scout — bookish, unassuming, completely unaware of the danger he may be in. He steps out one day to buy lunch for his colleagues. When he returns, he finds all of them murdered. He makes a call to his handlers asking them to bring him in. They set up a rendezvous in a back alley where Turner is nearly murdered. He begins to wander Manhattan, uncertain who he can trust.

Ducking inside a clothing store, he spies a young woman at the counter (Faye Dunaway) who he decides to kidnap. He wants to use her place as a hideout while he tries to figure out his next move. He remembers a study he was running just before the massacre about a low-quality thriller novel written in several different languages. It turns out the study uncovered a secret plot to control the oil supply in the Middle East, a plot Turner’s superiors are involved in. He finds out they ordered the hit at his office.

A strange relationship starts to emerge between Turner and his hostage. She starts out obviously frightened, but slowly starts to understand and trust him. The character could so easily become a cliché, but Dunaway finds interesting ways to make her seem real. Her fright seems to spring from a deeper place of neuroses, and Redford’s character starts to sense a deep loneliness in her.

That the two eventually become lovers is almost beside the point, as Pollack seems more interested in simply observing their interaction. I’ve never felt kidnapper-hostage relationships were very interesting in movies, but here, Pollack gives the film its emotional heart. He isn’t weighed down by genre cliches, and instead lets a trusting relationship emerge between two fascinating characters.

That being said, the film is a thriller at its core, and Pollack is skillful in the way he creates tense sequences. There are a couple shootouts, yes, but there are also scenes that he lets unfold slowly, watching the characters squirm under extreme pressure. In one, Turner finds himself in an elevator with one of his pursuers (Max Von Sydow). Von Sydow is unable to make a move because of the people shuffling in an out of the elevator. Playing the scene without score, Pollack hangs back with the camera, watching the expressions of two men who could so easily kill each other at any moment. The scene could supply a cheap shootout, but Pollack is more patient and subtle, allowing his hero the chance to escape  with his wits rather than his guns.

The film places Turner at the center of a plot more complicated than he knows. The state is embodied by a bureaucrat (Cliff Robertson) who defends the Middle East plan, reminding Turner that there will be a day when the oil will run out, and wonders how Americans will feel then.

Social and political issues are so often used as mechanisms in thrillers, and it was nice to see one that actually considers the implications of its plot. At the end, as Turner walks away from his final confrontation, we are still left to wonder if his actions have made any difference. Pollack doesn’t leave us with easy sentiment, but with an ending that makes the viewer think.

Dennis O’Neil can be reached at 270-887-3237  or

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