Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Sidney Pollack. This film had everything going for it. International intrigue, attractive co-stars, rising director, jazzy score, great supporting cast.
Following Watergate, there was distrust of government and spy agencies. Adapted from a novel by James Grady, originally called Six Days of the Condor, some of the plots points are the same but it was heavily changed and Condor’s time of the run was condensed.
Within the CIA is a secret organization, and Condor, Joe Turner (Robert Redford) stumbles onto it. He works for a section of the CIA in New York City that reads published materials from around the world, on the look-out for codes and secret information. This section is called a literary society, so that are a benign presence, as the go about their work, reading and analyzing.
Turner raises questions about book, which alerts the secret organization, who send a hit team to eliminate Turner and his associates. That day, it is Turner’s turn to go for lunch, which he does by leaving through an unknown exit from the building to avoid the rain. While he is getting the sandwiches, the hit team moves in and kills everyone at his office, with the exception of Turner, and a co-worker who is home sick.
One of the assassins is the stylish Joubert (Max Von Sydow), a contract hit man for the CIA and anyone else who pays. In the film, contracted hits are business arrangements, life reduced to a monetary transaction. Joubert is not a fire-breathing sociopath, he is dignified and cultured businessman. Death is his currency, trained and contracted by multiple agencies and governments that need his services.
Turner returns with lunch to discover the murders. On the run, not sure of what to do, he calls the help line at the CIA. Like calling your IT help desk when you forget your network password. Turner is advised to leave the scene and call back later.
Instead, he goes to his co-worker’s apartment and finds him murdered. He then goes to his own apartment to discover someone waiting for him. In the meantime, the CIA Deputy Director Higgins (Cliff Robertson) in NYC gets a hold of Turner’s file.
Turner calls back in and is told that the CIA will bring him in, he needs to meet the team at a location, but Turner isn’t having any of it. Turner’s section chief has arrived in NYC and it is decided he, along with someone Turner knows, will meet him in an alley.
Turner is waiting as his friend arrives with the section head. At the last moment, the section head pulls out a gun and starts shooting at Turner, who fires back with a handgun he had taken from a co-worker killed at his office. Turner wounds his section head, who then kills Turner’s friend, as Turner escapes. Turner is now on the run and he doesn’t know who to trust. The plot thickens.
Now, the management team of the CIA assembles, waiting for Turner to call in again. They debate who Turner might be, since he was he shot the section head, who told his people that it was Turner who ambushed them.
Turner, with nowhere safe to go, kidnaps a woman shopping in a store, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), and they go to her apartment. Turner was supposed to have dinner with the friend who was killed, and his wife. He goes to their apartment, where the wife has not heard about the shooting. On his way from the apartment, Joubert spots him and is able to get the license number of Kathy’s vehicle, which is driven by Turner. In the meantime, Joubert has made a deal with the CIA to eliminate Turner.
Turner’s ability to stay hidden until his figures out his next move, is dependent on getting Kathy’s help, even though he has kidnapped her. Kathy falls under his charms, either feeling bad for him or figures out that he resembled Robert Redford, but they spend the night together. Okay, so they make a few wide-turns in plot believably. Dunaway is merely window-dressing in this role, a marquee name and someone to stand equal to Redford in their few scenes together.
Redford plays a very smart but ordinary guy. Hard to believe Redford is ordinary, but he’s very resourceful, a trait that saves Turner’s life. This was Redford’s decade, his movie star shone brighter than any, except for Nicholson or Reynolds. His previous three films were The Sting, The Great Gatsby and The Way We Were, roles that gave had great marquee value and allowed him to play disaffected, flawed but charming characters. Redford liked to play against type (see The Candidate or Downhill Racer for more examples).
Joubert figures out where Kathy lives and sends another hit man, disguised as a mailman, who was part of the hit on his office colleagues. Turner is able to defeat the hit man. Turner is man of lucky talents.
Kathy is shaken by the situation but eventually believes Turner’s story, to help him kidnap the CIA Deputy Director, so he can find out what’s really going on. The CIA runs “what if” scenarios about events that could happen, to prepare to defend against them. Turner has stumbled onto a “what if” about seizing foreign oil fields. Turner was part of it and it disgusts him.
Turner has a background in Army communications and puts it to work and is able to get the number of the CIA official who may be behind this operation. This leads him a suburb of Washington DC, where the official lives. Turner shows up there to confront him. Joubert arrives too, disarms Turner and kills the CIA official. He tells Turner that he has no arrangement now to kill him and offers him a ride. He warns Turner to be careful.
Turner arrives back in NYC and confronts the Deputy Director, telling him that instead of coming in, he has given the entire story to the New York Times, assuming they will print it. As the film ends, the Deputy Director forewarns Turner that the Times might not print the story. Then what will he do?
In the post-Watergate era, when Americans learned a lot about backdoor schemes, assassination plots and dirty laundry, trust in the government went down. Filmmakers seized on this negative, distrustful view of government to develop a number of films about off the rails, secret government activities. There was now a built-in audience for these stories, but Watergate proved that often fact is stranger than fiction.
One of the great parts of the film is the score by Dave Gruisin, a jazz and film composer. This is not a traditional spy film and Gruisin gives is a very contemporary feel. Pollack, keeps the action moving and the audience trying to figure out the plot. Pollack and Redford had already worked together many times (This Property is Condemned, The Way We Were, Jeremiah Johnson) so they had a groove already established. The adaption was by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel, both veteran screenwriters and frequent collaborators with Pollack. Besides Robertson and Von Sydow, the cast includes John Houseman, Addison Powell, Hank Garrett and Walter McGinn, all veteran actors that add texture to the film.
Pollack, who began directing big projects in the 1960s, was very skilled at finding the dramatic core of a film and building strong branches from it. In a Pollack film there is rarely a false beat or a miscast character, although in the 1990s, he suffered some under-performing films like Random Hearts, Havana, Sabrina and The Interpreter. Pollack dabbled in acting and his production company continued making interesting films. Pollack’s films always had style, the studios spent money on his films, and that gave them a very glossy, Hollywood feel about them. That’s not a criticism, but you weren’t going to a filmmaker taking many chances or stepping out of the mainstream. Actors like Redford, Paul Newman or Harrison Ford felt comfortable with him at the helm.
Forty-five years later, does Three Days of the Condor feel dated? The method of burying information in books and other methodology is likely passe, but the theme of distrust in government and shadow organizations, plotting to seize oil supplies is still very realistic. The core of the plot is government preparing for the inevitable, which the Deputy Director says Americans are going to expect. Don’t ask them when they are cold, they will expect fuel to heat their homes. Morality will go out the window when people are cold and hungry, which goes with the uncertainty of whether the Times will run Turner’s story.
“Three Days of the Condor” is a well-made thriller, tense and involving, and the scary thing, in these months after Watergate, is that it’s all too believable. Conspiracies involving murder by federal agencies used to be found in obscure publications of the far left. Now they’re glossy entertainments starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. How soon we grow used to the most depressing possibilities about our government — and how soon, too, we commercialize on them. Hollywood stars used to play cowboys and generals. Now they’re wiretappers and assassins, or targets. – Roger Ebert, January 1, 1975