Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Directed by Sydney Pollack


In Three Days of the Condor, we follow a bookish CIA agent named Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) run and fight for his life against unknown assailants who have murdered his entire team of CIA analysts.  As the title says, this films is very condensed, particularly the first act of the film.  Joseph shows up to work late, but we get the sense that this is normal behavior.  He briefly interacts with his coworkers, long enough to establish their rapports, his romance with one of the women and a clue that will later come up as he investigates why men are trying to kill him.  Then he is sent out to pick up lunch, and while he is gone, a team of three men pour bullets into everyone in the small office.

When Joseph returns, he fears for his life, and he knows (before the audience does) that the killer(s) could be anyone.  When he runs back out on the street, he is nervous when he sees an old lady pushing a stroller that he suspects might be hiding a gun.  Joseph’s paranoia tells us a lot about his line of work before we even get into the details of what he does.

Joseph works for the CIA, but he doesn’t know the men to whom he reports.  He goes by code name Condor, and everything is kept highly secret.  Joseph is told where to go to be picked up and taken to Washington.  As a viewer I placed full trust in the men trying to get him to safety, but Joseph doubts them.  Joseph agrees to meet them in an alley behind a hotel, but they turn on him, trying to kill him.  In the process the CIA agent kills Joseph’s friend, who was used to help lure Joseph to them.

Now fully on the run, Joseph forces a woman, Cathy (Faye Dunaway) at gunpoint to hide him.  His only way to safety is to stay off the map.  Since this is a film with two Hollywood stars, you might not be surprised to learn that Joseph and Cathy sleep together.  They develop a brief romance that feels more about Joseph’s desire to try and feel anything other than deathly fear and paranoia.

As the story progresses, Joseph tries to figure out who killed his coworkers and is after him and why.  He encounters one of the assassins, Joubert (Max von Sydow), in a crowded elevator and though he has never seen this man, he suspects he might be one of the killers.  Joseph is right, of course, and his fear is in line with ours since we’re in Joseph’s head space.  Joseph gets away by keeping close to a group of bystanders, knowing that Joubert must keep the killing quiet, meaning he won’t risk shooting Joseph in public.

Later, Joseph is visited by another assassin posing as a mailman.  Unlike the previous assassin encounter, Joseph doesn’t realize he is in danger while we do.  This puts distance between us and the hero, making us feel more dread than terror.  In a brief fight, Joseph kills the man.

The biggest obstacle in this film, other than literally fighting for his life, is Joseph not knowing who is after him, who is good and bad, or even who he can trust.  He has talked multiple times with Higgins (Cliff Robertson), a higher up at the CIA, but he doesn’t know what the man looks like.  In a slightly unbelievable yet oddly charming sequence, Cathy helps out Joseph by pretending to apply for a job with the CIA, then sneaking up to Higgins’ floor and getting a look at him.

Later Joseph will abduct Higgins.  What I thought might be more interesting would be if Higgins had never before been shown on camera, instead only heard through the phone.  Because then we would experience a level of doubt that Joseph must have felt.  Even if you’re 75% confident this is your guy, you’ve never seen him before.  The feeling of paranoia created in this film would have been even stronger if Joseph had to figure out for himself if this was the guy, particularly if Higgins played dumb.  This approach was taken, to an extent, in Die Hard when Bruce Willis’ character encounters the villain who pretends to be just another office person, a victim.  I forget right now if we knew he was the bad guy, I think we did, but Bruce Willis had never seen him.  Anyways, that’s beside the point, just another way of showing you how you can play with the way you reveal information to the characters and to the audience.

So Joseph learns that there is another secret organization, potentially within the CIA, and to be honest, some of the information in this part of the film went over my head, but I don’t think it matters.  Political thrillers like this (I suppose this might not be too political but it kind of is) tend to get very convoluted late in the game.  Noirs in general are the same as everything is wrapped up and/or revealed in what feels like the span of 5 minutes. The point is, Joseph learns, that everything was done for oil, or money and power, in other words.

This isn’t all that shocking if you’ve seen this kind of movie before, but the point is that ‘this isn’t personal.’  It’s hard to know how to feel about the end of a movie like this, kind of like Network, because it feels like it’s telling the truth, but it’s unsettling, mostly because the audience becomes a character in the film.

Late in the film, Joseph approaches the man who is responsible (I think) for the killings.  Joubert shows up, and Joseph thinks he will kill him.  Instead, Joubert kills the other man and makes it look like a suicide.  He tells Joseph that he isn’t going to kill him, because that’s not currently his mission.  Joubert has no side because he thinks they’re all the same, and they’re all wrong.  He’s a hired assassin, so he works for the money, and that proves to be the ultimate motivation to everything that’s gone on in this film.

It seems like Joubert will convince Joseph to look at the world his way, but Joseph proudly states that he’s still an American.  Joubert tells Joseph to leave home na move somewhere safe, but Joseph refuses.  Joubert then tells him that one day someone will kill him.  It might not be right away, and it might be when he least suspects it, but if he goes home, he’s not safe.

The next thing we know, it’s no longer winter, and Joseph is still in New York City.  He runs into Higgins who, it seems, had organized a hit on Joseph, but Joseph puts it off because he’s aware of it, demonstrating the upper hand over Higgins.

This is when Joseph realizes that everything was done for oil.  What’s so horrifying about this is that the murders weren’t personal.  Joseph’s friends were obliterated in a barrage of bullets by people who couldn’t care less for them.  To me this feels worse because it suggest a degree of violent indifference in the world.  It’s easy to feel indifferent towards someone, and if you can attach violence to this mindset, well then everything will go to shit.

The end of this film frames everything as one giant, violent game.  Joseph is simply a pawn in the same way Joubert is a pawn.  They’re equals, essentially, but one does the killing, and the other is probably going to get killed.  This is a game in which there are no winners and losers.  What’s most striking, though, is the way Higgins effortlessly points holes in Joseph’s logic.

Joseph appears to have firmly gained the upper hand when he tells Higgins that he has gone to the New York Times with his story, but as Higgins says, ‘how do you know they’ll publish the story?’  It’s clearly a though that hadn’t occurred to Joseph, but suddenly it weighs him down.  The point Higgins is making is that the American people don’t want to hear the truth.  This is essentially the same message presented at the end of Network, when it became clear that Americans don’t want to hear the truth if it makes them powerless, which it does and does again here.

The problem of this film won’t go away, and we are part of that problem, as this film says. The story ends with Joseph walking away, a freeze frame of him looking over his shoulder, suggesting that he will never be free.  Joseph, when the film ends, is unharmed and free to roam, but he’s not free because he knows the truth, the truth of what’s going on underneath our country, and the truth that he will be hunted.  I think the same would be for you average American citizen.  We’re only free because we’re ignorant to what really goes on with our country, to protect it and to finance it.  If we knew what really goes on, it would weigh us down, and that sense of freedom would disappear.

Freedom, then, is just as much a mindset as it is anything else.

A few extra notes… my favorite part of the film was the first act, before all the thriller elements began to convolute the story.  I don’t think those elements were bad at all, but it felt like it took precedence over the character moments.  In act 2, there were moments of information dumping, and then moments of Joseph and Cathy learning about each other.  Those latter moments, though, felt a little too programmed.  It was transparent, really, because we knew they had to get along on some level, and it felt a little too forced to have Joseph figure out everything about Cathy based on a few photographs and then have her fall into his unintended seductions.  Yes, Joseph is meant to be incredibly smart, but this film makes him out to be the most perceptive, intelligent person you’ve ever met.  I get that he reads a lot and knows a lot of things, but apparently he can ready people incredibly well.  One thing I might’ve liked to see would be to have Joseph’s paranoia spread to Cathy.  He only mistrusts her in the beginning because he knows how this looks to her: a stranger with a gun is never the start of something good.  But Joseph’s paranoia of almost everyone on the street (like he’s John Wick at the end of Chapter 2), has got to be eating him up on the inside.  What if he just became more unstable, mentally falling apart?  I mean, he just saw all his friends (and the woman he loved) get torn to pieces within a few minutes.  You might expect him to be in shock for the rest of the film.  His relationship with Cathy didn’t feel very authentic, but who knows, I’ve never been in a situation in which the woman I kidnapped fell in love with me.  Maybe it’s more common than I think.

That romance simply felt like something the studio wanted to help sell the movie. At least the didn’t end up together in the end, because that would’ve been even more far-fetched.

So, back to act 1.  I like it because it felt authentic.  Joseph felt like a real guy.  Pollack made every character feel real and lived in.  It always amazes me the way movies can just throw you into someone’s life and give you a strong impression of how this character has been living for years and the way they interact with the world.  This act didn’t feel bogged down by exposition, and it didn’t feel pointless.  It was engaging, first because Joseph seems like a fun guy to follow (he’s smart and cocky, which always seems to hold my attention), and it wasn’t immediately clear what his job was.  His place of work was mysterious, but the nonchalance with which he approached his job only added intrigue to the story.  Then, to cap it off, the multiple murders were tense and somehow surprising in their execution.  It was tough to watch, as it should be.

So act 1 had the biggest turn of the film (from casual fridays to black friday at Lehman Brothers in 2008), and it gave the story and the characters room to breathe.  It allowed us to want to learn more rather than throwing information and character tricks at us, trying to make us like Robert Redford.  It’s like a guy who holds his hand out halfway to meet yours for a nice firm handshake.  Some films are in such a hurry to move into the meat of the plot that they just grab you by the arm and start shaking your elbow without realizing you never shook their hand in return.



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