Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Art of the Film

I make no claims to be an expert on the art of cinematography, but I love a good movie and I’m always wonderfully impressed when art and craft are evident in the film. Recently I happened to catch Three Days of the Condor (directed by Sydney Pollack) on television. I remembered that I had been impressed with the movie years ago when I was in college. I remembered that it had something to do with a secret organization within the CIA, but I didn’t remember the details, so I decided to sit back and watch it again.

[Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen this one yet, I’m about to talk about the end of the movie] Three Days of the Condor a great suspense/thriller that keeps you on the edge as Robert Redford is on the run, trying to find out who is trying to kill him and why. He figures out that his small job of reading novels and books from all over the world and feeding plot themes into a CIA computer had uncovered a covert operation.

The problem is that it was a covert ring within the CIA, and those guys had to kill everyone who might be on to it. It is thrilling to see Redford narrowly escaping on several occasions and outwitting the CIA operatives. He just doesn’t know what their beef with him is until toward the end when he is able to put the pieces together. He realizes the whole operation was about oil and how to control and manipulate oil producing states. When he manages to put CIA deputy director Cliff Robertson on the trail of the covert ring, Redford is able to finally escape danger. (CIA chief John Houseman had reluctantly agreed to let Robertson hire their cool and genial hit man, Max von Sydow to eliminate the covert ring leader). Redford then asks Cliff Robertson, “Is there a plan to invade the Middle East?” Robertson tells him there is no plan, just games. They are constantly coming up with games to present, ideas about the cheapest way to destabilize a government for the United States’ advantage. The troublesome secret ring just took the game too seriously.

Early on in his run from the unknown assailants out to kill him, Redford forces himself into the company of a lovely young Faye Dunaway and goes to her apartment for his own protection. All she knows is that this guy has held her at gun point and demanded that she drive him to her place. He tries to explain things, but at this point, he doesn’t know much himself about what is happening. He needs time to figure it out. Here the film itself introduces the role of art within the drama. Redford sees some photographs on the wall that Dunaway has taken. He observes that they are all pictures of empty places, trees without leaves, etc. “They look lonely... like winter… not quite winter. They look like November.” Later on, there is a love scene which seems to come out of nowhere. It doesn’t seem realistic, perhaps the obligatory gratuitous love scene. But on another level it is making use of the art of the film to convey something about the characters. The love scene is interspersed with shots of those lonely black and white photographs that Redford and Dunaway had been talking about. These were two people who were each alone, perhaps hoping to connect with someone someday.

Getting back to the suspense/murder/intrigue, After Redford manages to outwit the CIA in this cat-and-mouse drama, CIA agent Robertson meets up with him again at an appointed time and place. Robertson tells Redford that because he knows what he knows, they have to keep him inside the Company. Redford wants to be free of the CIA, he tells Robertson he has done something to protect him on the outside – he gave the story to the New York Times. He starts to walk away. Robertson asks him, “How do you know they’ll print it?” casting doubt in Redford’s mind. Redford says, a little shakily, “They’ll print it.”

Here’s where the art and craft really come into play. Redford and Robertson are having this conversation out on the street in New York City, it’s Christmas time, and a Salvation Army group is singing carols. We hear in the background the words from "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen": … to save us all from Satan’s power… At this point, after two hours of suspense and intrigue, the viewer is ready to be free from “Satan’s power” and would like for Robert Redford to walk free. Then the carolers begin the chorus, it would be “O-oh tidings of comfort and joy…” as Redford is walking away – except we don’t hear that because the film ends with a freeze frame. All we hear is the first two notes of the chorus in an ominous, “O-oh…” and we see in the still photo Redford turning back to look over his shoulder. Will he be safe? Will he find comfort and joy? Will he always be on the run, always looking over his shoulder? Will he manage to meet up with Faye Dunaway again? Will it always seem like November – not quite winter? It’s all up for grabs. Who knows what happens after that freeze frame? All we are left with is an ominous “o-ohh…”

When good writing, good acting, good plot line, and expert directing all come together, it makes for a rewarding cinematic experience. When cinematic art and craft are added to convey symbol, innuendo and meaning, the experience is all the more captivating and memorable. Three Days of the Condor is one I’ll have to revisit. I’m sure there were some brilliant details and turns that I missed. Maybe some of you are familiar with the film and can provide some additions or corrections to my observations.

(I hope you don’t mind that I used the actors’ real names instead of the characters – it just seemed to be a more immediate way to try to give you a picture of the action since most are probably familiar with the actors.) For the film purists, here is the impressive cast of characters:

• Robert Redford as Joseph Turner
• Faye Dunaway as Kathy Hale
• Cliff Robertson as J. Higgins
• Max von Sydow as G. Joubert
• John Houseman as Wabash
• Addison Powell as Leonard Atwood
• Walter McGinn as Sam Barber
• Tina Chen as Janice Chon
• Michael Kane as S.W. Wicks
• Don McHenry as Dr. Ferdinand Lappe
• Michael B. Miller as Fowler
• Jess Osuna as The Major
• Dino Narizzano as Harold
• Helen Stenborg as Mrs. Edwina Russell
• Patrick Gorman as Martin
• Russell Johnson as Intelligence Officer at Briefing

Three Days of the Condor, released in 1975, was produced by Stanley Schneider and directed by Sydney Pollack. The screenplay, by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, was adapted from the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady.


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