Three Days of the Condor (1975)

*. I’ll begin with a confession. Every time I bring this movie up in discussion I have to check somewhere to see just how many Days of the Condor it is. And I don’t think that’s because it’s based on a novel by James Grady called Six Days of the Condor, the plot of which they condensed in going from page to screen. Three Days just doesn’t sound right. I don’t know why. It’s one of those things.
*. A fairly typical entry in the great run of ’70s conspiracy thrillers. And by typical I don’t mean to diminish it. These movies, at least the ones we remember, are all classics and still play well today. The Parallax View (1974) Marathon Man (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Capricorn One (1977), Coma (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
*. Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, who has a sort of clerical job working at a CIA house. Basically he just reads books and provides executive summaries of them or highlights items of interest. Then one day assassins kill everyone in his office while he’s out getting lunch. What’s going on?
*. The answers to that question remains murky. It has something to do with oil. Or rather “this whole damn thing was about oil.” But I’m not sure how. Nor was I clear on how far up the chain of command the shadow agency went. But then, even the icy Joubert (Max von Sydow) doesn’t know, or concern himself much, with these matters. It’s enough that he gets paid. “I don’t interest myself in ‘why.’ I think more often in terms of ‘when.’ sometimes ‘where’; always ‘how much.'”
*. It’s a low-key film, as Pauline Kael recognized, attributing its being a thriller with few thrills mainly to the hand of Sydney Pollack: “The director, Sydney Pollack, doesn’t have a knack for action pulp; he gets some tension going in this expensive spy thriller (and it was a box-office success), but there’s no real fun in it. It may leave you feeling depressed or angry.”
*. It didn’t leave me feeling depressed or angry, and indeed I’m not even sure who or what Kael thought I was supposed to feel depressed or angry at. But it is a movie that focuses on little things, and these are things I think it does well.

*. Here’s just a few items. I like the way the scratching-and-thumping sound of the printer provides a kind of score throughout the scene where Turner discovers the bodies in the station office. I like the way Turner has to hold something he’s reading at a distance in order to make it out. This is a guy who reads “everything” for a living, after all, and he wears glasses. Of course his eyes are shot! I also like the way his stubble grows over the course of the three days. There aren’t a lot of movies that pay attention to things like that, or they’d probably try to excuse it by saying he might have had a shower at Kathy’s place. But that wouldn’t make sense so he just goes unshaved. And perhaps best of all, I like how Turner goes into the kitchen to turn off the stove when he’s hustling Mae out of her apartment to safety. When she said she was cooking dinner I was thinking the same thing!
*. It’s also nice that Turner is a bookworm and only manages to get by most of the time by luck and his wits. He’s a communications expert before the Internet though and he makes good use of that particular set of skills as well.
*. They get one big item wrong. That’s Faye Dunaway as Kathy. This is a clichéd character who has to be kidnapped and then fall in love with her kidnapper all in an evening. Call it accelerated Stockholm Syndrome. “Have I raped you?” he shouts at her, defensively. “The night is still young!” she retorts. But of course no rape is in the cards, only some mellow jazz sax on the soundtrack and artful cutaways to Kate’s photography as she clutches the bedsheets. Then some minor plot functions to perform before Turner can pack her off to the bus station. The ’70s cinema version of smash and dash.

*. Once again with Dunaway’s slightly stuttering delivery. Her acting really only has one gauge. But she was a star. How do you know? When you get separate credits for Ms. Dunaway’s hair, wardrobe, and make-up.
*. The supporting cast are great players. Von Sydow is an uncanny mix of warm and cold, both delivered in his avuncular manner. Cliff Robertson’s hair, if it is his hair, is almost too unbearable to look at. John Houseman is also on board as the old hand Wabash. When did Houseman stop being an actor and become a cameo? After The Paper Chase? Is he still better known for those Smith Barney commercials than anything else?
*. The mysteries of screenwriting. A lot of the time the big speeches we remember the most are only a couple of lines long. There’s more to them than just the words on the page. Because who can forget this: “It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.” Now if you just read those lines in the script they wouldn’t jump out at you as anything special. Context and delivery are everything. A great screenplay sees all of this, something I’ve heard the best screenwriters point out in interviews. I think it was William Goldman who said that a screenwriter’s most essential attribute was their eye.
*. So it’s a lot like its paranoid peers of the time, which is good company to keep. A movie I’ve come back to quite a few times over the years, always seeing something more in it. A little something, but little somethings I enjoy.

18 thoughts on “Three Days of the Condor (1975)

    1. Alex Good

      He was voted the sexiest man in the world at the time, I believe. And he plays well against that here because his character isn’t some superman but just a bookish nerd who gets in over his head. The romance with Ms. Dunaway was very, very silly though.

      Reply
      1. Alex Good Post author

        I agree. And it’s so obvious and cliched here. He kidnaps her basically and she immediately falls in love with him. Whatever. But she’s so unnecessary to the plot he just packs her on a bus before the final act and ships her off to wherever.

  1. Bookstooge

    I remember watching the tv version in the 90’s soon after we got our tv and was enthralled by the non-happy ending. This was probably the first time I could think about the fact that I expected a happy ending to a movie. Or at least the bad guys punished and the good guys prevailing.

    have you read the book? I’ve always been curious about it but the couple of old school thrillers I’ve read from that era are much more political thrillers than action thrillers and so I’m not really attracted towards them.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      A lot of these ’70s thrillers had bleak endings. Have you seen The Parallax View? That was a real downer. I haven’t read the book. I was going to but the library didn’t have it in. I’ve heard it’s pretty good though. I think you’re right that it’s less interested in the action though. It’s more cerebral.

      Reply
      1. Bookstooge

        I have not seen PV, never even heard of it to be honest.

        I have found that I am not a cerebral thriller kind of guy. The Bourne books and movies are the perfect example. The movies are the kind of action thriller I like. The books on the other hand, not nearly so much.

        It’s part of why I’ve never explored the older body of works for thrillers, unlike the mystery genre.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I read all the Ludlum books when I was a kid and enjoyed them. I’ve sometimes thought about going back and giving them a try again but never got around to it. I remember them having a fair bit of action. You may just be an adrenaline junky!

  2. Over-The-Shoulder

    Agree with Dunaway. She is very note. I’ve never really rated her. But I love all the ’70s conspiracy films and haven’t seen However Many Days of the Condor, so I’ll give it a watch.

    It’s funny watching Brazil though and comparing it to something like this: with American paranoia, everything is meticulously and devilishly planned out to a tee; with Terry Gilliam, it’s British incompetency that leads to, just by chance, people being killed, everything breaking and bad deeds occuring.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      That’s an interesting point re: American vs. British paranoia. I think the American wave were mostly the children of Watergate and I don’t know if Britain had any experience that was comparable at the time.

      Reply
      1. Over-The-Shoulder

        Yeah, Watergate: the idea that the President of the United States of America – the most powerful man in the world – could be a criminal. Which then led to the idea of the dangerous conspiracy, bigger than us all, controlling our every move without us even realising. Britain had strikes, class wars, economic downturn, terrible weather and just generally miserable lives. Guess that explains that then.

  3. Brian Wilson

    I love this movie. Like you, I keep coming back to it. I really wish something like it could be made today – and would actually strike a nerve and be a hit – so there could be some sort of renaissance of those kind of 70s films. But I guess that’s not possible for film these days. Sigh….

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think the zeitgeist has shifted. As I was saying to Otsy, I think a lot of these ’70s conspiracy thrillers were the fallout from Watergate, when suspicion/distrust of government was something scary and new. Today it’s just taken for granted. There’s more an active antagonism to government, the shift from Red scare to Fed scare after the end of the Cold War. Big Tech would play the role today as well, but again you have a situation where the reality (surveillance, manipulation) is already worse than we can imagine.

      Reply

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