If you are lucky enough to be approaching your sixtieth birthday, you will remember how exciting it was, in the 1970s, to go to the cinema. Every week, it seemed, there was another masterpiece to watch, although in those days we just called them films. The Godfather, Jaws, The French Connection, What’s Up Doc, The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, Annie Hall. I could go on. And that’s just the American ones. Imagine! I mostly began Things I Love… just to write about Cabaret, from 1972, the best film ever made. I have written thousands of words about it so far, and only need to find a free year or two to arrange them into something readable.
Many of the films that aren’t masterpieces are still great. Take, for example, Three Days of the Condor. Even with no actual birds of prey, even with Faye Dunaway in it, it is terrific. I still watch it once or twice a year, always with great pleasure.
In 1975, Robert Redford, it is fair to say, was huge, in one megahit after another: Butch Cassidy, The Sting, The Way We Were. All The President’s Men followed the next year. He was also beautiful, which didn’t hurt. Those six, not warts, bumps on his face, were almost as famous as he was. His smile is dazzling.
Robert Redford’s thighs aren’t the worst thing about him, either. I once read a book about the Sundance festival and there are aspects to him more challenging than his thighs. They’re thinner than they would be on today’s equivalent megastar, and they aren’t really in proportion to his beach-ready upper half, but, clad in faded denim, there are many worse sights in the world. Incidentally, did Robert Redford invent that look? The formal jacket with a wool tie, Viyella shirt and jeans look? It’s pretty much how he dressed in All The President’s Men, another film of the time I love, and for much of The Way We Were, too, when he wasn’t in his navy whites. Now, there was a style that could influence the life of a teenage boy receptive to such things.
The film starts with him cycling through Manhattan, a cool guy on his cool bike going to his cool job, where he’s cool. He’s beautiful and has beautiful, tousled, sun-bleached hair. He is late and is resistant to authority. His work is to find plots by America’s enemies left as clues and suggestions in thrillers. He knows when it will start and stop raining and has a Chinese-American girlfriend.
Leaving by the back door to get lunch for everyone, he avoids being killed in a hit on the office. Everyone but him is shot by Max von Sydow. What fate could be more chilling than being iced by the man who played chess with Death? (See The Seventh Seal to know what I’m on about).
Max kills everyone but Robert Redford, and, of course, Robert Redford is framed for the hit by the people who turn out to be, simultaneously, his bosses, the CIA, and possibly the baddies. This film is very 1970s. One of the CIA bosses is played by Cliff Robertson, whose hair isn’t tousled; it’s black and plastered tight against his head. He is the man, the one you have to fight. He doesn’t wear jeans with a jacket.
One thing leads to another and Robert Redford has the poor taste to abduct Faye Dunaway and ties her to a radiator at gunpoint. He then admires her photographs. I don’t care for black and white photography at a time when colour film was freely available, but, of course, Faye hangs her bleak, underexposed photographs on her wall so Robert Redford can see how lonely she is and do sex with her. Well, wouldn’t you sleep with your abductor if he was Robert Redford at his most beautiful? If the answer to that is no, then we may have trouble understanding each other. It’s like saying you wouldn’t have sex with Chris Hemsworth or Jennifer Lawrence, or Ingrid Bergman or Farley Granger. Unimaginable.
I’ve aired my thoughts on Faye Dunaway before, here. I’m not a fan and you can’t make me. I don’t believe in her nose in the way I believe in Robert Redford’s, for one thing. Still, for better or worse, and as much as a mystery as it has always been to me, she was considered one of the great beauties and great actresses of the 1970s. My view is that she was no Jane Fonda. Look, she wasn’t even Brenda Vaccaro, and if you know who she was we should meet for a drink sometime soon.
There are twists, there are turns and a brilliant, tense scene when Max and Robert Redford share a lift that stops at every floor. It’s all as taught as a watch spring. I don’t want to spoil it, I want you to enjoy it. It’s a forgotten film, I think, and easier to view than, say, The Conversation. They don’t make them like this anymore, and they’ve probably forgotten how.
Cinema is, really, a dead medium. Deader than disco and deader than that stupid parrot. I don’t mean good films aren’t being made, although fewer are, but cinema is no longer crucial to the national conversation. These days they seem to be mostly effect and sensation, closer to animation than living, breathing people. There’s no point in bellyaching. The world moves on. We no longer rue the passing of, say, opera as something vital. You may enjoy opera, you may even go to watch one, but you can’t, seriously, tell me it has any pull on the world outside itself, the way it once did. Something will replace cinema as a serious medium. Something always does.
In the 1980s, by which time cinema was already past its best, there was an attempt to make opera and museums part of the mainstream. It may turn out to be the last time people were taken seriously as consumers of culture. I am nostalgic for Ace caff with quite a nice museum attatched and arguments about surtitles at Covent Garden, even, who would have predicted, for Malcom Maclaren’s experiments mixing opera with pop.
This, even if it isn’t as well remembered as Taxi Driver, say, or Apocalypse Now, is still better, smarter and more reflective of the world around it than most films made today. It is exciting and tense, you will rub your chin in thought and go hmm. It will give you something to talk about after. It is worth two hours of anyone’s time. And that’s why I love Three Days of the Condor.