KAMAD Throwback Thursdays 1975: Three Days of the Condor

 Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don’t see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy. 

Three Days of the Condor

This week’s Throwback Thursday is a real treat, one of the great paranoia films from the 1970s Starring Robert Redford and Fay Dunaway. “Three Days of the Condor” is a spy film about a guy who is not really a spy, he just works with them. As an analyst , Redford as Joe Turner, codename Condor, trips over a secret plot by a covert group operating inside of the CIA. 

“Listen. I work for the CIA. I am not a spy. I just read books! We read everything that’s published in the world. And we… we feed the plots – dirty tricks, codes – into a computer, and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, I look for new ideas… We read adventures and novels and journals. I… I… Who’d invent a job like that?”

I like to think there is a job like that, it is something I might have liked doing. I may not quite have been ambitious enough about espionage to become James Bond, but I could probably do this. The opening few minutes of the film establish the mundane existence of most of the employees of the CIA. They file reports, process data, gather statistics and read a lot of things they may have no interest in. Condor is a bit of an iconoclast in his working group. He mocks the security measures that gatekeep the front door of his office, he rises a bicycle with a motor on it to work (and he is consistently late to the exasperation of his superior), and he by-passes the back door security when it rains. His diffident nature is what allows him to accidentally escape the fate that befalls his co-workers. The event that sets up the rest of the story is shown as a brutal, passionless, exercise by professionals to take out a leak, by murdering seven innocent worker bees. 

While Turner is not a field operative, he is still pretty smart and capable. Condor may be a little panicked about what has happened, but he is also now highly suspicious of everyone. That sense of paranoia infuses the film with the suspenseful atmosphere that director Sydney Pollack was certainly shooting for. It takes a while for we the audience to figure out what is going on, Turner is trying to do so while being hunted, and it is a complex plot. The elements of a procedural are there, as Condor ties to fit pieces of information together to understand what has happened. There is also a 007 trope of involving an outsider, as both a ally and a romantic partner, and that is where Dunaway comes in. She does not show up in the first half hour of the film, and the tense and fearful relationship she has with Condor is believable. That period of antagonism and disbelief makes it easier for us to swallow a romance between the two that might otherwise have seemed an illogical contrivance.

Operating on his own, Turner seeks more information about the command structure that might have taken something he wrote in a report as a threat. Once Dunaway is on board, he has a collaborator who allows him to try various means to identify who in the CIA is after him and why. For my money, the best part of the story is the contract agent Joubert, a tall taciturn European, who leads the hunt to wipe out the leaks, especially Condor. Joubert is played by the great Max Von Sydow, who seems to have done a similar role as an unreliable spy in a half dozen other films. There is a terrific shot right at the stary of the attack on Condor’s work group, where Von Sydow is crossing the street and we see his reflection in the uneven waters on the street and in the gutter, right after it had been raining. Along with the execution sequence, this is one of those moments when a professional like Pollack was the right choice to put the script on the screen. 

Joubert has two other strong moments in the film. In one, he is riding in an elevator with Condor and a group of unaffiliated people. He knows who Condor is, but Turner doesn’t know him, he only suspects the man who is polite in the elevator. It is a scene of tension and a little bit of humor as they play cat and mouse while the elevator descend to the lobby. At the end of the film, in an odd twist, Joubert becomes a different figure and he now does a little bit of talking and mentoring. Von Sydow played Blofeld in the 1983 James Bond offshoot, “Never Say Never Again” and it would have been fun to see him in that role in a series of Bond films. 

Also in the cast is John Houseman, who appeared in “Rollerball” a TBT film I wrote about earlier this year, shows up in another of those roles that would define his later career. After winning the award for Best Supporting Actor in 1973 as the imperious Harvard Law Professor Kingsfield, he was the go to choice for dry, humorless corporate mandarins. The CIA in this film is filled with unreliable types who act ruthlessly in order to achieve their objectives. Houseman is a senior to Cliff Robertson’s character, who at first is trying to help Condor, and then suspects Turner, and finally seems to turn into the same kind of man as the rest of the CIA has become. 

Along with “The Parallax View”, “The Conversation” and Redford’s next film “All the President’s Men”, “Three Days of the Condor” would lead you to believe that there is always a conspiracy, everyone is watching and listening, and the good guys don’t always win. That is definitely 1975 for you.  

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