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3DaysCondorSydney Pollack, the director of Three Days of the Condor, was once described as a “stylist with a message.” [1] That description certainly captures the feel of this mid-’70s thriller starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and Cliff Robertson. Even iTunes provides indirect support, classifying Condor as a “romance” rather than a “thriller,” despite the fact that the relationship between the Redford and Dunaway characters is emphatically random. That marketing oddity accidentally suggests why Pollack’s work is interesting because it shouldn’t be that difficult to recognize the difference between romance and action. Why the confusion?

Pollack, a Hollywood Prince, rose to prominence at just the right moment, with Academy Award winning films, critical attention and financial success to prove his seriousness. Riding the wave of attention given to all directors in the auteurist era, he nonetheless never was a truly “personal” filmmaker in the same way as a Scorsese, say, or an Altman. So when commercial success began to trump individuality, someone like Pollack, undeniably a commercial filmmaker, suddenly was neither commercial enough nor sufficiently idiosyncratic to be a “brand” of his own.

Although saturated with the bleak hopelessness of many ’70s thrillers, this story about CIA agent Joe Turner (Redford) on the run from “the company” is at core as much a slam-bang action thriller as many contemporary films. The difference lies entirely in Pollack’s combination of delicate work with the actors and an understated visual sophistication. Pollack doesn’t stage just for visceral impact. Every scene is carefully composed, with an eye for the qualities of light, shades of emotion, the luminous reflections of objects and materials, the seductive grace of feline camera moves. The style provides a triumph of feeling over substance, or rather, given the routine material, it provides feeling as substance.

Which raises the question of how much stylization an audience will tolerate if it gets in the way of the thrills? Because while there is plenty of action in Condor, it is not a high velocity roller coaster, and even the suspense is fairly subdued. That misclassification at iTunes starts to make sense when you realize that Pollack has made a thriller as if it were a romance. The relationship between Turner and Kathy Hale (Dunaway) is thereby the most distinctive thing, but not the most important. Pollack has allowed his feelings and interests to shape the results in a way that potentially gets in the way of the jolts the genre promises.

Is there a role for directors like Pollack any more? Not brutal enough to create the sleek mayhem thrillers have become, nor stupid enough to produce what passes for comedy today, and yet too corporate in their thinking to work on anything other than expensive productions, it is quite possible that the days when smart directors like Pollack can invest mainstream productions with real feeling are indeed over. There’s just no room for distinction if the results don’t gross nine figures.

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[1] Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, “Sydney Pollack” in American Directors, vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983) p. 284

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