Entry from July 19, 2012

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of five films on the general theme of The Enemy Within. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson websites for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Wednesday, July 18th with a screening of Three Days of the Condor (1975) by Sydney Pollack, starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Max von Sydow and John Houseman. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about this movie as follows.

Last week’s movie, The Manchurian Candidate, reached its climax with the suicide of the fake war hero Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, and this was followed by a coda in which that act is described by his friend, Frank Sinatra’s Bennett Marco, in terms borrowed from citations for the Congressional Medal of Honor. The enemy that Raymond’s bravery was in the face of was, literally, the enemy within — within himself — which meant that he could only destroy it by destroying himself. Among the by-products of this way of looking at the hidden threat so many people feared in the early post-war years was a modification of the traditional conception of honor and heroism as a property not of activity but of passivity. Of victimhood. This way of looking at it has now become second nature to us, so that we no longer expect to read in the newspapers of war’s heroics, that media staple of yesteryear, but only of its sufferings. Indeed, if anyone does turn his attention for a moment to acts of heroism in war, he is likely to be accused of being blind to war’s sufferings.

No one could accuse post-Vietnam Hollywood of that. Between Manchurian Candidate and tonight’s film, Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor of 1975, popular entertainment largely abandoned the earnest moralism of the former, along with its black-and-white film stock, for a love-affair with a lurid technicolor rendering of the effects of violence justified — insofar as it ever was justified — by an appeal to reality. That’s how lethal violence, in war or anywhere else, really is. People needed to face up to it. Instead of clutching their chest and falling over as they had done in the old days, the victims of violence in the new cinema — like Bonnie and Clyde, which we saw in the “Crime and Punishment” series of three years ago — were more likely to do an elaborate dance of death, with every bullet hole and blood spurt visually portrayed. There was a bit of that already in Manchurian Candidate, when the blood and brains of Bobby Lembeck splattered the portrait of Joseph Stalin (though we don’t see Bobby’s wound up close) or when Senator Jordan and his daughter Jocie are killed by Raymond and the camera lingers, albeit briefly, on their dead bodies as Raymond steps over them.

We can tell we’re in a different league as we watch the massacre that happens near the beginning of Three Days of the Condor. It’s not so graphic as the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde, or of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, but it is pretty revolting nonetheless. The function of the dead here, like that of poor Jocie in The Manchurian Candidate, is to be pure victims — collateral damage, to use a military euphemism supposedly originating during the Vietnam War. The horror of what we see is used to underline the meaninglessness of their deaths. We might have thought last week that it was not possible to go further than Manchurian Candidate in conceptualizing the terror of inward and disguised enmity. Even the pod people in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers had to dispose of their victims (somehow) and replace them, rather than sharing their bodies with them. But at least Raymond Shaw died a hero. The victims of the killings in Three Days of the Condor, murdered by members of their own “community” — to use a word that the film bitterly mocks — died for nothing.

With the benefit of hindsight, one of the most phantasmagorical elements of The Manchurian Candidate was the absence from the movie’s otherwise ubiquitous phantasmagorical mode of its portrayal of the army and the security forces. They are treated with respect if not reverence, even if there is a hint of criticism in the anachronistic portrait of General Douglas MacArthur in the Korean brothel at the beginning, supposedly in 1952, although MacArthur was fired by Harry Truman in 1951. Otherwise, in 1962 there was never any doubt that the men in uniform, apart from the brainwashees, were our guys, the good guys. Thirteen years later, Condor, based on a novel by James Grady, shows us the enemy within the security services themselves, in particular the CIA. Assuming a constant value for Hollywood’s desire, like that of the Fat Boy in Dickens, to make our flesh creep, the idea of a rogue element within the CIA was by 1975 presumably more terrifying to movie-goers than the prospect of having your body stolen by aliens or your brain washed by the Chinese.

For all that, there are some similarities between Manchurian Candidate and Three Days of the Condor. Both are set, at least partly at Christmas time and make use of Christmas music to point an ironic contrast between the season of love and peace and the reality of fear and death. In both movies the love interest — Janet Leigh in Candidate, Faye Dunaway in Condor — doesn’t appear until about 40 minutes in but then sets a new land-speed record for getting herself into an intimate relationship with the hero. Both movies are set mainly in New York City and both use a considerable degree of visual artistry to produce memorable images of the city, which also put it very firmly into its time. Here, as in the following year’s Taxi Driver but perhaps more visibly, is New York in the 1970s. And that includes the newly built twin towers of the World Trade Center, where the CIA headquarters are supposed to be. Since the towers came down a quarter of a century later as a result of a plot, like the movie’s, vaguely related to Middle Eastern oil, some may be tempted, too, to see both films as prophetic.

But the main thing they have in common is the haunting presence — though neither his name nor any surrogate appears in Condor — of Senator Joseph McCarthy. And that presence in both pictures recalls both the Senator’s incarnations: as the man who did so much to introduce America to the concept of subversives and traitors in our midst and as the man supposed by Hollywood and many outside it to be, as a result, the real subversive and traitor, the real enemy within. Between 1962 and 1975 there intervened not only Vietnam but Watergate, both of them involving that other liberal hate-figure from the 1950s, Richard Nixon, who thus proved a natural for the McCarthy role as the man who supposedly betrayed his country by being overzealous in the pursuit of traitors. The year after Condor, its star, Robert Redford, was also to star in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, which promoted the media’s version of Nixon’s downfall as a result of the efforts of the hero-reporters Woodward and Bernstein. So, too, in tonight’s movie the only good guys are the media — here The New York Times rather than The Washington Post — plus Mr Redford’s winsome whistle-blower, Joe Turner, who gives them their story.

That unquestioning adulation of the media also entails a wholesale adoption of the media’s characteristically simple-minded and self-interested belief that the only vice is secrecy, the only virtue, publicity, along with the media’s consequent loss of perspective and susceptibility to paranoid delusion. Among contemporary reviews of Three Days of the Condor, for example, is this one from Vincent Canby — in The New York Times, as it happens:

As a serious exposé of misdeeds within the C.I.A. (he wrote) the film is no match for stories that have appeared in your local newspaper. Indeed, one has to pay careful attention to figure out just what it is that who is doing to whom in Three Days of the Condor and, if I understood it correctly, it’s never as horrifying as the real thing.

As the movie involves the brutal murder of decent, patriotic CIA agents by hired assassins working for other CIA agents, you’ve got to wonder what “real thing” Canby had in mind which was more horrifying than that. Yet readers of the Times seem not to have wondered. In 1975, a lot of people were prepared to take for granted the fact that their democratically elected government was guilty of the most appalling sorts of behavior, even if they didn’t exactly know what it was. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote of Joe Turner, “Here’s a man if ever there was one, who has paranoia thrust upon him.” It sounds to me as if Roger Ebert thinks that we are all in the same boat with Joe — having had paranoia thrust upon us. If so, it was movies like this one and the media they celebrated that were doing most of the thrusting.

In addition to the romance of the media as the bringer to light of discreditable secrets, I think we can see in the movie something of what has proved even longer-lasting, the romance of cognitive ability. Nowadays, Hollywood loves people who, whatever else they are, are brainiacs. Joe Turner advertises from his first appearance on his mo-ped as a geek and a rebel, someone who stands outside and way above those around him by virtue of his brains and original thinking, which thus fulfil the promise of Mr Redford’s fabled good looks. The whole first ten minutes of the film are devoted to establishing this about him as he comes in late — again — and gently mocks “Sarge,” the security officer, and the boss, Dr Lappe (Don McHenry) for being too rule-bound. “I wish you people would go through channels,” grumbles Dr Lappe. Later, in reporting the massacre, Joe forgets his own code name (duh, “Condor”) and has to translate the military time, 1430 hours, when he is scheduled to meet the head of his section, back into the demotic as 2:30 PM.

Clearly, this is not some regimented, by-the-book kind of guy but a creative and perspicacious thinker. In those first few minutes of our acquaintance with him he correctly predicts rain and the time it will begin and end, identifies the blight on the boss’s plant, solves the mystery which is puzzling everybody else in the office simply by overhearing the others talking about it, and repairs a computer, which was more exotic machinery in 1975 than it is today. “These things are pretty simple,” he tells the boss. “They just look complicated.” Boy, do they ever! Later he talks about Mozart and van Gogh and is referred to by someone else as “Shakespeare” for his writing ambition. Later still he offers a sensitive and perceptive critique of the photographs taken by Miss Dunaway’s Kathy. We are told more than once that he is a voracious reader. That’s his job. Here, obviously, is the guy who puts the “Intelligence” into the Central Intelligence Agency. And, of course, he continually outwits those who are trying to kill him.

For that, however, he has to be as lucky as he is smart if he is to survive the three days into which the movie compresses the novel’s six. By the time he walks undetected and unmolested into the New York Telephone Company’s headquarters with a repair man’s tool-kit and completely baffles the sophisticated communications gear of the CIA which is trying to track him down — this, by the way, is also a man who doesn’t know what the area code for Washington is — we may begin to suspect an anticipation of the cartoon hero who, like Batman or Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible movies, carries with him on his utility belt, literal or metaphorical, all that he needs to extract himself from any life-threatening situation. Beginning with Indiana Jones six years after Condor, the cartoon hero has dominated in Hollywood to its very great detriment ever since, and we are likely to be reminded of him again when we find that Joe’s most dangerous adversary, the only person in the movie who is anywhere near his equal and who is a lone wolf like himself, is similarly omnicompetent, like the Joker or Lex Luthor.

This, of course, is the mysterious Joubert, played by Max von Sydow, who shares Joe’s disdain for the predictable plodders and time-servers of the CIA. Naturally, the two men gravitate toward each other and form an instant bond when they finally meet, in spite of Joubert’s having killed Joe’s girlfriend, his best friend, all his colleagues and, very nearly, himself. In the intervening 37 years we have become so accustomed to sympathetic hit men and assassins in the movies that they have become a cliché, so we may forget how striking the character of Joubert must have seemed at the time. Like everything else about Three Days of the Condor, he was completely up to date and an illustration of the sort of cheap wisdom — some might call it cynicism — which was the legacy of the Watergate era to our popular culture: namely, the assumption that the powerful must be utterly without conscience or moral sense or even the ordinary decency we expect of those we meet in real life, but that they stand as a breed apart, people who, like Joubert, don’t interest themselves in “why” but, as he says, only “in terms of ‘when’, sometimes ‘where’; always ‘how much’.”

That, along with his subsequent paean to the personal fulfilment to be derived from the assassin’s profession is the key speech of the movie, just as Senator Jordan’s about how John Iselin couldn’t be doing more damage to his country if he were a paid Soviet agent is the key speech of Manchurian Candidate. From this insight, if you can call it that, everything else in the picture flows. There are no more good guys in our government or security services, only people like Joubert who have no loyalty to anyone or anything but themselves and what they take to be their job. Like Mr Wabash, played by John Houseman, we may believe that there once was a time when there were good guys and bad guys and feel nostalgic for what he calls “that kind of clarity.” But, for some reason we can’t quite put our finger on, that is assumed no longer to be the case. The doctrine of a moral equivalence between “us” and “them,” which has underlain most of the best spy fiction since the Second World War, had penetrated even Hollywood, famed up until then for its moralizing and patriotism. In fact, the them to which the us is counterpointed is no longer the commies or foreigners from Russia or China but the powerful and secretive who are supposed to run things here just as they do everywhere else. Just as anti-communism and communism prove to be one and the same in Manchurian Candidate, so the enemy in Three Days of the Condor are the top guys, whether domestic or foreign.

As in the earlier film, too, this creates something of a conceptual difficulty. Joe tells Dr Lappe near the beginning that the one thing he doesn’t like about his job is that he can’t tell people what he does. “I actually trust a few people,” he says. “That’s a problem.” Later, of course, he trusts Kathy, whom he has only just met in the course of kidnaping her — and she him enough to sleep with him the same day. Later still, he apologizes to her for his momentary lapse of trust at their parting. Though there is just a glimpse of the crime for which New York was then famous when Joe catches two kids trying to steal his motorbike, everyone else he meets, outside the Agency, is trustworthy and trusting — which is why there is no security preventing from walking into the central telephone exchange. Clearly, trust is better. Yet the movie is all about how utterly untrustworthy the CIA and the government are. The only people we couldn’t trust were the only people who earlier generations had supposed were entitled to demand our trust. We need to glide over the preposterousness of this central premiss with the help of a general suspicion of bureaucracy as a corrupter of normal human decency.

Once again, we approach the cartoonish here. What I think saves the movie from that fate is partly the relative modesty of the evil plot at its center. It’s not some diabolical genius scheming to obtain absolute power over the whole world but just a few regular CIA guys playing a “game” — which is what the CIA is said to do — that they allow to get out of hand until the grown-ups upstairs come down to rein them in. Boys will be boys, as Cliff Robertson’s Higgins seems to want to reassure a reluctant Joe Turner as if sophisticates like themselves could simply ignore the multiple murders the “game” has already produced. More importantly, the movie even allows Higgins to put his case for the CIA’s skullduggery on behalf of the American people. “It’s simple economics,” Higgins explains. “Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?”

“Ask them?” replies Joe.

“Not now — then! Ask ‘em when they’re running out. Ask ‘em when there”s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ‘em when their engines stop. Ask ‘em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ‘em. They’ll just want us to get it for ‘em!”

We need to remember that the ‘70s was not only the era of Vietnam and Watergate but the beginning of the era, which has lasted until the present day, of apocalyptic imaginings from environmentalists and neo-Malthusian economists like Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown who exploited the already-strong paranoid tendencies in the popular culture to reinforce their message that the only enemy worth worrying about was the enemy within. Even the CIA, on this showing, is not out irrelevantly countering the Soviet threat, which is in fact what it was doing in the 1970s and which was its ostensible purpose, but already branching out into the new era of international rivalry for scarce resources that the doom-sayers were predicting. Being hip and cool in 1975 meant not only being smart and sexy and good-looking and creative but in the know about the fact that the Soviet threat — certainly the Soviet threat within our own country — was illusory to start with. That was the year when James Jesus Angleton was fired from the CIA for being overly suspicious about the infiltration of the agency by Soviet “moles.” Within a couple of years, Admiral Stansfield Turner, CIA director under Jimmy Carter, began the process of cutting back the CIA’s personnel and capacity for clandestine activity by 40 per cent.

Yet the legacy of the communist threat as it had been perceived in the 1950s remained. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” wrote Walt Kelly in his comic strip “Pogo” for Earth Day, 1971, though he first wrote it eighteen years earlier about his satire against Senator McCarthy. Kelly died in 1973 and “Pogo” soon after, but even if you don’t remember him or his strip, you will doubtless have heard that witticism, the most famous words he ever wrote. How many of you can remember where the once-famous line of which it was a parody comes from? It was Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s message to General William Henry Harrison about his victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812: “We have met the enemy and he is ours.”

I mentioned in last week’s discussion the comedy recording “Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America,” which came out at about the same time as The Manchurian Candidate and used the same narrator, Paul Frees. It was a very funny send-up of what were once known to every school child as the pieties around America’s settlement and Founding — Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Pilgrims and Indians at the First Thanksgiving, the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, Betsy Ross designing the flag, Washington Crossing the Delaware and so forth. Nowadays young people probably wouldn’t get the jokes any more than they do Pogo’s. If these pieties are our pieties no longer, it is partly because in the 1970s the popular culture and movies like Three Days of the Condor found fruitful new material in our government and institutions for catering to a popular paranoia left over from the 1950s.

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