Among the films expressing
cynicism post Watergate, 1975's Three Days of the Condor illustrates the theme of loneliness—that we should never trust the government and must be very cautious about individuals. The film holds up surprisingly well, specifically dated as a 1970s period piece by fashion style and through numerous shots of the World Trade Center.
Robert Redford plays Joe Turner (code name Condor), a bookish researcher for the C.I.A. who reads spy novels and feeds creative scenarios into the computer database at a New York City sub office. One rainy day, Turner heads for lunch, returning to find that his six officemates have all been coldly gunned down by hit men, led by Joubert (Max von Sydow, in a casting coup). Without a back-story, Turner must be from another city because the only people he knows in NYC are associated with the C.I.A. and the ones with actual faces are mostly dead now. So who can he trust?
What if the scenario he proposed about an internal rogue C.I.A. element actually turns out to be true, and he's now being pursued from real professionals within the organization. And all he's ever done is read books. That's the basic setup, based on James Grady's Six Days of the Condor, so the film must chop off half the content to give it a proper 2-hour pace.
The film certainly has plot holes, but remains suspenseful enough to retain interest. Director Sydney Pollack sets the story in motion with a quiet, routine day at the office. But he allows glimpses from mysterious men from the shadows, who are recording the comings and goings into the Literary Society. Who are these guys anyway? Coolly efficient, it's not long before it's revealed that the whole affair is C.I.A. related. From the post-Nixon and Vietnam protest period, many of us no longer trusted the government and many felt that they had to be on the enemies list. If the government was involved, many felt that evil plots were involved as well. Three Days of the Condor confirms the paranoia. For a more believable story of political intrigue during this period, see Costa-Gavras' Z or All the President's Men.
Redford's fictional quandary works for the most part, given the paranoia of the times although his chance selection and kidnapping of Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) stretches believability. Most women would be freaked out of their gourds if a stranger took them at gunpoint to their apartment. Dunaway attempts to act like she's frightened and talks haltingly, but she warms up to Redford far too quickly and beds him the first night of her capture. Even if it is the Redford of the 70s, no way does this happen outside of Hollywood.
Although the plot is implausible, the screenwriters provide some nice touches to the characters. Kathy is on screen for a relatively short time and doesn't want to talk about her life, her black and white photographs of lonely November park benches and leafless trees reveal a great deal about her character, and this is fully exploited with her exchanges with Redford's character. Redford is much less revealing beyond being another Robert Redford type character—smart, playful, and clever, and he's got those "good eyes that don't lie, don't look away much, and don't miss anything." But he is cast as the star vehicle and delivers all the role calls for. He also gets to shout out great lines like, "Fuck the Wall Street Journal!" and later foreshadow the Iraq fiasco.
Max von Sydow provides the acting joys without having much to say, although he clearly reveals the cynicism of the period when explaining how he could move from being a regular C.I.A. agent to hit man: "I don't interest myself in why, I think more in terms of when. Sometimes where? Always how much?" The wise old man, who has previously faced Mr. Death in chess in Bergman's classic The Seventh Seal, understands others far more deeply than they do themselves—when Turner's Asian love interest calmly tells the hit man that she won't scream, he smiles wryly, replying simply, "I know." The most suspenseful scenes all involve the veteran von Sydow, most notably a largely wordless scene in the same elevator as Redford.
Pollack's flawed film remains entertaining and continues to hold up over the years, representing the days when the enemy lay within—the days when flag waving patriotism was looked upon as naive because many knew that the government really was out to get you. A more complex time, perhaps, unlike the first half of the twentieth century nostalgically longed for by John Houseman in a nice cameo: "I miss that kind of clarity." Now that many Americans have returned to simpler days with clear-cut enemy terrorists and clamor for simple minded politicians (Sarah Palin anyone?), it's worth returning to a film like Three Days of the Condor for murkier times where everyone is suspect.