When people say it’s just like a ’70s spy thriller! or if you like ’70s spy thrillers, you’ll love this!, the movie they’re all referring to whether they know it or not is Three Days of the Condor. This is how we measure the influence that the Pollack-Redford political drama has had on our current film industry: in remakes, spinoffs, tributes, allusions, shoutouts and straight-up copies of the original.
Written as the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, the book translated to the screen so well thanks to the the meticulous aplomb of Sydney Pollack and the solid performances of the entire cast. Three Days of the Condor wasn’t written to be an overtly political film, all appearances to the contrary, and according to Pollack and Redford the “thriller” aspect of “political thriller” was the part they tried to emphasize. It worked. Still, the political associations were all but unavoidable in 1975; Watergate was certainly still fresh, but more immediate was the leaking of highly sensitive CIA documents known as the Family Jewels scandal. This occurrence ended up being one of those Hollywood coincidences where a movie gets made about a particular subject and then that particular subject, one day out of the seeming blue, becomes the particular subject of the day’s news. Three Days of the Condor came out too close to the Family Jewels scandal to be able to say anything explicitly about it, but it managed to wrestle with the issue all the same.
The story follows meek and bookish Joe Turner as he works for a clandestine CIA office, looking for hidden codes in books published in different languages all over the world. One day Joe (codenamed Condor) goes to lunch, and when he comes back he finds all of his coworkers brutally murdered. Another associate is found dead in his home later that day. Unsure of who to trust, Condor forces himself into the home of Faye Dunaway’s Kathy for a short-term hideout. The next 72 hours test Condor’s mettle as he tries to stay alive and uncovers a government conspiracy in the process.
Redford and Dunaway are fully committed to their roles, as is Max von Sydow in the villainous role of a precise government assassin. They make Condor believable on the surface, but it’s the tone and overall feeling of paranoia that make Condor such a milestone in the genre. Pollack’s framing of his characters is spot on, Redford constantly seen peeking out from behind a pane of glass or a tree branch or a grouping of telephone cables. Von Sydow and his fellow conspirators are usually filmed in shadow, but they appear in full daylight to be regular people going about their daily boring jobs. This in turn forces everyone to be a suspect, every Average Joe that saunters across the screen, and Redford’s Condor becomes increasingly aware that the people he can truly trust are few and far between.
One of the differences between Three Days of the Condor and nearly every copycat inspired by the original is the introduction and handling of that sense of paranoia. Most government conspiracy films start with a tiny piece out of place, noticed by some other meek and bookish Condor-type who feels the need to follow the breadcrumbs until the conspiracy is in full light. Three Days of the Condor, alternatively, thrusts fear upon Joe Turner in the form of the mass murder of his colleagues and several subsequent attempts on his life. Condor’s mission to uncover the truth is secondary for the majority of the film – his mission to simply stay alive is paramount. The case these days – even with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for chrissake – is that the moral compass of the central character is so right and pure that the regard for his own life takes a backseat to the course-correction of the corrupt. It’s ostensibly noble, but it’s also extremely unrealistic. Granted, there are a few other unrealistic things in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The ending of Three Days of the Condor actually expresses this beautifully through an explanatory monologue by Max von Sydow’s character. The explanation itself is unsatisfying, incomplete, and overall unfit to be the film-capping expository dialogue that sends audiences home feeling good. It’s hollow, to borrow a phrase from Roger Ebert to describe the same scene, and it’s exactly the way it should be. The atmosphere of uncertainty characteristic of the political climate of the 1970s is still very much a part of our political climate today, and this open and blank analysis of “what happened” preserves the paranoia even after Condor solves the case. So we still have this feeling floating around America today – we just don’t have anything but reruns of Three Days of the Condor to help articulate it.