The impeachment and resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974 were dark days in American history. Watergate, secret audio tapes, and other nefarious activities by Nixon's Administration all fed into the public's psyche that our government could and would lie to the American people. But the United States government's misfortunes became a small cottage industry for Hollywood who began to produce political conspiracy thrillers involving the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies. The king of the paranoia film was director Alan J. Pakula who started it all with his paranoia mystery KLUTE (1971). He followed that up with THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976) based on Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's uncovering the real story of the Watergate break-in that torpedoed Nixon's presidency. But before Robert Redford starred in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, he did a fictional CIA conspiracy film called THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) directed by Sydney Pollack.
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR is based on the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. Apparently, screenwriters Lorenzo Semple, Jr and David Rayfiel were able to lop off three days for budgetary purposes (joke). I was talking to a friend recently who said he had applied for a job at the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) out of college but had backed out before the interview. Perhaps he had seen CONDOR where it's hard to trust anyone and assassins might be waiting just around the corner. THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR is one of seven films that Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack worked on together. Except for a bad music score choice and a very unromantic love scene, CONDOR is one of Pollack's best films, one of the few thrillers he made besides THE FIRM (1993). The film fits perfectly into the conspiracy thriller genre that rose from the fall of Nixon.
Robert Redford stars as Joseph Turner, a low level CIA researcher at a phony CIA non-profit called the American Literary Historical Society located in a quiet brownstone building in New York City. Turner and his colleagues are bookworms. They read books, analyzing them for codes, trends, new ideas, and leaks. It's boring stuff and 99% of what they find and report back to Langley (the CIA's headquarters) is rejected. Turner sneaks out to grab lunch for his co-workers including his girlfriend Janice Chong (Tina Chen). While he's gone, three assassins led by the mysterious Joubert (Max von Sydow) enter the building and slaughter everyone.
Turner returns to find his friends dead. Afraid and confused, Turner grabs a gun and flees the building. Everyone on the street looks suspicious. He finds a phone booth and calls in to the nearest Panic Office (CIA station), identifying himself by his code name Condor. He's transferred to Deputy Director for New York J. Higgins (Cliff Robertson) who orders Turner's Section Chief Wicks (Michael Kane) to set up a rendezvous point and bring Turner in. Wicks brings a friend of Turner's, a statistician Sam Barber (Walter McGinn), to join him so Turner can be at ease. But at the alley meeting, Wicks tries to kill Turner. Turner wounds Wicks who manages to shoot Sam dead. Now paranoid that the CIA might be in on the hit, Turner kidnaps an unsuspecting photographer Katherine Hale (Faye Dunaway) as she leaves an outdoor clothing store. He wants to get off the grid and has her take him back to her apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Higgins reports to his superiors including Mr. Wabash, an Ivy League Director type. Wabash and the other directors wonder if Turner has turned or gone rogue. They want Turner found at all costs.
Turner attempts to convince Katherine that he's not a nut. Unable to convince her initially, he ties Kathy to the toilet and borrows her van. Turner visits Sam's apartment looking for clues. He runs into Joubert who's hunting for Turner. The two men play a game of cat and mouse in the elevator and apartment building. Joubert tries to shoot Turner when he leaves the apartment building but Turner surrounds himself with a group of young people. Turner takes off in Kathy's van but not before Joubert writes down the license plate number. The next morning, a hit man disguised as a mailman (Hank Garrett) shows up at Kathy's apartment. Turner and the mailman battle and Turner shoots the killer. Kathy now believes his story.
Turner has Kathy help him kidnap Higgins at gunpoint and bring him to a site where Turner and Higgins can converse. Higgins reveals that Turner accidentally uncovered a separate intelligence group within the CIA. There's another CIA within the CIA, a clandestine network. When Turner sent notes about a mystery that didn't sell and was only translated into certain languages, a sanction (kill order) was put on the entire research house. Still not totally trusting Higgins, Turner does a little more digging which leads him to a high level CIA Deputy Director of Operations Leonard Atwood (Addison Powell). Atwood is the mastermind behind this rogue group. Turner confronts Atwood inside his house but Joubert shows up as well. The climax is surprising and fits entirely with the paranoia/conspiracy plot.
Robert Redford's Joseph Turner character in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR is very much a Hitchcock like protagonist. He's not necessarily the wrong or innocent man in the wrong place like Robert Donat in THE 39 STEPS (1935) or Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). After all, it's Turner's analysis of a book that catches the attention of the wrong people in the CIA that leads to his co-worker's deaths. But Turner is an unlikely hero in the Hitchcock hero manner. He's not a spy trained in weaponry or fighting skills. He's a researcher, a low level analyst who reads and interprets books. Yes, he has a code name Condor but that's about as spyish as he gets. Yet Turner's smart enough to use his wits to stay alive. He takes a gun from the murder scene which saves him when his Section Chief Wicks tries to kill him. He finds a vulnerable, innocent woman Kathy to hide from the agency's killers. And Turner avoids a second time getting knocked off by Joubert at Sam's apartment by sticking with a crowd of people. Maybe Turner has read a couple of Ian Fleming or Robert Ludlum novels in between his research to learn enough to survive.
CONDOR may be the first spy film that indoctrinated audiences into the jargon and world of the CIA that seems commonplace in later films like LA FEMME NAKITA , THE BOURNE IDENTITY (and its sequels), or the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE series. The James Bond films had CIA agent Felix Leiter but he was on the periphery, mostly Bond's chauffeur. Terminology like the Company (referring to the CIA) or cleaners/contractors (hit men) are used for the first time that I can recall. After the hit on Turner's coworkers, the CIA sends in janitors (agents) to clean up the mess. Turner scoffs when Higgins calls the Intelligence Agency a Community. Nothing Turner has seen from the killers or his bosses make him feel part of a community. No one or U.S. Agency can be trusted not even the U.S. Postal Service. One of the assassins is dressed as a U.S. Postal carrier.
Director Sydney Pollack is not known for directing thrillers but THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR is one of his best films. I was lucky enough to work on a film with Pollack, CONDOR supervising editor Frederic (Fritz) Steinkamp, and Director of Photography Owen Roizman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) called HAVANA in 1990. All three were consummate professionals and good at their craft. But in a couple of instances with CONDOR, Pollack makes some bad choices. The jazzy funk score by longtime music collaborator Dave Grusin doesn't work for this spy thriller. Grusin's score would be better suited for a heist film. Luckily, Pollack doesn't use much of Grusin's music. And for a director like Pollack who made two of the greatest love stories in cinema in THE WAY WE WERE (1973) and OUT OF AFRICA (1985), the love scene between Redford and Dunaway is just terrible. What could have been an erotic and kinky scene between kidnapper Turner and hostage Kathy is awkward with Pollack cutting between the couple rolling around in bed and Kathy's bleak black and white photographs. Redford and Dunaway, two of the 70's hottest actors look uncomfortable, unsure what to do and how to look sexy.
But Pollack captures the paranoia and distrust by Turner as he digs into the secret he accidentally uncovered that led to his friends deaths. As Turner begins to uncover the truth, he becomes bolder and more confident. Like a Hitchcock film, the MacGuffin or secret is about oil and perhaps an attempted invasion or coup to secure oil fields in the Middle East. But that's really not the point of the story, just a hook to move forward the story. Not known as an action director either, Pollack stages an incredibly believable fight in Kathy's apartment between Turner and the mailman assassin. Turner is way out of his league but he manages to use rugs and couches and the smallness of the room to even out the disadvantage between him and a paid killer. It's a terrific fight scene that would make James Bond or Jason Bourne proud, expertly edited by Fritz Steinkamp.
Robert Redford is perfectly cast as the unlikely hero Joseph Turner in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Redford makes us like Turner immediately as he's goofy and nerdy (yes, a very good looking nerd), gently poking fun at his stuffy boss Dr. Lappe (Don McHenry) or the curmudgeon security guard before all hell breaks loose. He's a regular guy who becomes a kidnapper and killer when his spy bosses try to terminate him. Ironically, later in his career, Redford would play the spy masters and bureaucrats that he fought against in CONDOR in Tony Scott's SPY GAME (2001) and the Russo Brothers CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014). WINTER SOLDIER owes a lot in tone and plot to CONDOR with the good organization SHIELD infiltrated by its nemesis organization HYDRA just like CONDOR'S secret CIA within the CIA.
Faye Dunaway's role as Kathy Hale is a bit more tricky and perplexing. I wanted to see sparks fly between Redford and Dunaway in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. After all, Dunaway had played opposite most of the great actors of the late 60s and 70s -- Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Paul Newman. Redford would be the final feather in her cap. But Dunaway's performance is a bit muted and enigmatic. Kathy seems like a damaged woman already when Turner kidnaps her. Her photographs in her apartment depict lonely and empty images, hinting at something dark from her past. Director Pollack struggles with their love scene. Since Turner's holding her hostage, is it consensual or is it rape when they sleep together? The actors lack of chemistry in their sex scene hints that they're unsure themselves.
The CONDOR supporting cast is uniformly good. Max von Sydow plays the hired contract killer Joubert. I don't think it is a coincidence that the name Joubert is similar to the dogged Police Inspector Javert pursuing Valjean from LES MISERABLES (1935). When Joubert learns that he and his hit team only killed six of the seven targets, it's a personal failure for him. It's professional pride that sends Joubert or one of his minions to hunt and find Turner and finish the job. Joubert is as meticulous as the miniature toy soldiers he paints as a hobby. Joubert is the real life toy soldier in this game of spies. He's also the most loyal person in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, loyal to each contract that he's given, following its instructions to the letter. Von Sydow plays Joubert with a reserved calm. He's the intellectual equivalent of the researchers, only he's a killer.
I always liked actor Cliff Robertson who plays Bureau Chief J. Higgins. Something about his voice, his demeanor I've always found soothing. He usually played good guys in films like the title character in CHARLY (1968) or a young John F. Kennedy in PT 109 (1963). Robertson even testified against a corrupt studio executive in the 1970's that nearly got him blacklisted from the industry. But in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, you're never quite sure which side Higgins is on which makes his character unsettling and compelling. Pollack plays off Robertson's good guy image.
And once again, John Houseman parlays his popularity in the 1970's. Whether he was guest starring as a mad scientist in the TV show THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN or appearing in those Smith Barney commercials, the elder Houseman had a resurgence as an actor after a long stint as a producer and writer earlier in his career (JANE EYRE). Like his role in ROLLERBALL (1975), Houseman's Mr. Wabash is an executive type only this time he's at the top of the CIA, trying to manage a potential crisis. Like Higgins, the audience is never quite sure whose strings Wabash is pulling, adding to CONDOR'S suspense and paranoia. Houseman brings instant class to the role.
For those people nostalgic for the 1970's, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR is a time capsule to the wardrobe and hair of the 70's. Big lapels and glasses, sweater vests, ascots and scarves, thick sideburns and hair. All the bad guys even wear fedoras. But THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR ultimately reminds us of the beginning of the political conspiracy film, a paranoia of black helicopters and black sedans, men in suits with black sunglasses, seemingly on the U.S.'s side, all born from a real life National embarrassment known as Watergate. Luckily, our government has learned from these mistakes, right? Well, since Watergate, we've had Iran-Contra, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and leaks from the NSA (National Security Agency). All lies and deception and misdirection from the truth. Fact will continue to support fiction as long as these misdeeds continue.