Pollack and Redford Liberals sound the conspiracy alarm

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Just how far Hollywood's treatment of Cold War subversion and espionage had changed by the mid-1970s can best be illustrated by reference to Sydney Pollack's $5 million Three Days of the Condor (1975). This was the first major political thriller to be released in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and the first to rail against the CIA's lack of accountability. Variously described by critics at the time as 'idiotic drivel' and 'the most provocative film about the corruption of American institutions to reach the commercial screen', the movie would prove to be an enduring favourite among fans of the espionage genre.56

Pollack's film was based on James Grady's novel Six Days of the Condor, published by W W. Norton in April 1974. Grady was a precocious freelance writer in his early twenties, whose imagination was fuelled by a recent stint as a Congressional journalist intern. His book told the story of CIA bookworm Ronald Malcolm, who uncovers a renegade cell operating within the CIA that is killing agency colleagues to cover up a Vietnam-related heroin-smuggling racket. In late 1973, even before Six Days of the Condor had appeared on the shelves, independent producers Dino De Laurentiis and Stanley Schneider bought the movie rights, and then secured a distribution deal with Paramount. De Laurentiis and Schneider were motivated by money, not politics. The former was an experienced Italian filmmaker who had relocated to Hollywood in the early 1970s, and had since scored hits with the crime dramas Serpico (1973) and Death Wish (1974).57 Stanley Schneider was Bert's elder brother, though an entirely different character, cautious and conservative; according to one source when he smoked the occasional joint an assistant would put his palm under the tip to catch the ash. Stanley would die of a heart attack in January 1975, as Three Days of the Condor neared completion.58

To guide the novel's conversion to screen, De Laurentiis and Schneider looked for a young-ish director with a safe track record. The British-born Peter Yates, whose flair for choreographing action and breathless chases had been put to its best use in the influential cop thriller Bullitt (1968), was originally approached, but the job eventually fell to Sydney Pollack.59 Born in 1934 in Lafayette, Indiana, Pollack had begun acting in television plays in the late 1950s. In the early sixties, he directed several teleplays and scores of episodes for such TV series as Dr Kildare, The Fugitive and Naked City. Pollack arrived as a major Hollywood director in 1969 with They Shoot Horses Don't They?, a powerful, downbeat drama that used a Depression-era dance marathon as a microcosm of society's ills.60 Four years later, in 1973, The Way We Were, a touching love story set partly in Hollywood during the blacklist era, enhanced his reputation as an effective if conventional filmmaker.61 Pollack was a liberal but not a political activist. To him, Three Days of the Condor was not meant to be a profound critique of Cold War America. 'I don't think we should abolish the CIA', he told one reporter. Instead, he wanted the film to explore 'the ideas of trust, suspicion, [and] morality' in the post-Watergate era. '[E]very institution I grew up believing was sacrosanct is now beginning to crumble', Pollack said.62

The producers' choice of the blue-eyed, blond Robert Redford to play the lead role in Condor was astute. As the top box office star in America in the mid-1970s, Redford virtually guaranteed a movie's commercial success. Furthermore, his off-screen image — a dedicated conservationist and daring athlete who eschewed Hollywood's bright lights — fitted the bill perfectly for the role of Grady's loner hero, a CIA whistle-blower. Redford had also collaborated with Pollack three times already, including on The Way We Were, and had recently established his own production company, Wildwood Enterprises, which co-produced Three Days of the Condor6 Like Pollack, Redford, too, denied Condor had any real political intent. To him, the film was not meant to criticise the CIA, but rather was 'about trust and paranoia . . . about bureaucracy run amok'.64 In fact, Redford had a strong commercial and political interest in the whole issue of government subterfuge during this period. Like other liberals inside and outside Hollywood in the seventies, he took the view that the Cold War obsession with secrecy and surveillance had spawned a monster in America: a state security apparatus that acted like a law unto itself. His belief that the Watergate disclosures proved that America had been heading for 'an Orwellian nightmare' led to him investing $450,000 in the movie rights to Woodward and Bernstein's account of the scandal, All the President's Men, in 1974. The resulting film, in which Redford portrayed Woodward, was much admired as a celebration of American journalistic integrity.65

Two writers adapted James Grady's book for the screen: Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who had co-scripted The Parallax View, and David Rayfiel, who had scripted The Way We Were. Their work took several twists and turns. Semple's first draft, submitted in early October 1974, followed the main contours of the novel. This depicted the CIA having secretly set up an anti-communist army in Laos at the behest of the Kennedy administration, paid for by the shipping of locally grown opium to the United States. A greedy unit within the agency then tries to cash in personally, by smuggling in refined heroin hidden in book shipments ordered by the CIA's literary research section. When this section stumbles across the scam, all of its members (bar Ronald Malcolm, who is out of the office) are assassinated. Malcolm is no saint — he hires a prostitute, for instance — but he bravely succeeds in uncovering the truth. The last scene has the Washington Post printing a front-page exposé of the whole plot.66 Midway through October, Rayfiel submitted an alternative script. This changed Malcolm's name to Joe Turner, shortened the critical time frame from six to three days, and switched the focus from Southeast Asian drugs to Middle Eastern oil.67

Then, just before Christmas 1974, the New York Times published further, shattering revelations about CIA malfeasance. Reporter Seymour Hersh outlined the CIA's role in overthrowing mildly leftist foreign governments and in plotting to assassinate foreign leaders, as well as conducting massive intelligence operations against the anti-Vietnam War movement and other dissident groups in the United States during the Nixon administration. The US Congress soon launched its own investigation of the entire intelligence community and its possible abuses. In January, the Senate established the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, with Idaho Senator Frank Church as chairman. In February, the House of Representatives voted to create a House Select Intelligence Committee (the Nedzi Committee, which was replaced five months later by a Committee chaired by New York Representative Otis Pike). As the subsequent rows between committee members and CIA officials would show, in Congress there was no longer a consensus to support intelligence activities blindly. In Congress as in Hollywood, the old seniority system and its leadership were giving way.68

These latest charges stunned Pollack and prompted further script alterations. The CIA's Middle East connections were beefed up, and a more ambiguous ending was proposed. It is unclear how the latter came about. Pollack had wanted the film to conclude on an optimistic note, one that affirmed the basic strengths of the American political system. Redford, whose influence on the script seems to have grown as the project progressed, discussed the movie's dénouement with Seymour Hersh over lunch, and seems to have come away from their meeting determined that the film should express confidence in the American press's independence from government. The final cut did this, but, as we shall see, only to a degree.69

While the movie's political message was being finessed, filming had got under way. Location shooting in New York and Washington, DC, began in November 1974 and was completed by early 1975. Celebrity onlookers included the former CIA director, Richard Helms, reportedly 'grinning from ear to ear'.70 In order to strengthen the movie's main sub-plot, the producers commissioned a computer expert to build a machine that looked as though it translated texts. After a slick editing job by Don Guidice, which reduced the final version to just under two hours in length (and earned an Oscar nomination), the movie was released in September 1975.

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