Condor is an amateur. He's lost, unpredictable, perhaps even sentimental. He could fool a professional. Not deliberately, but precisely because he is lost, doesn't know what to do.
Three Days of the Condor
Sandwiched between two grittier, but equally star-powered, conspiracy thrillers (The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, both from Alan J Pakula), Three Days of the Condor essays a shift from the bleak resignation of the machine (be it corporate or state) consuming all resistance that was found in the 1974 Warren Beatty picture. There, a dogged journalist finds himself completely ill-equipped for the truths he uncovers. In contrast, Condor finds its protagonist already part of the system. And, only being a lowly “bookworm” (reading manuscripts from across the Globe to sniff out hints of spy code and communication within them), he proves surprisingly resourceful when the agency that gave him an easy-going job, requiring little self-reflection, turns against him.
I’m not sure that any of this could be argued to represent a more benign (or, perhaps, less malign) government/corporate structure than had been depicted in the first half of the decade, following late ‘60s comedown. But there is certainly a sense of acceptance and resignation that this is how things are, no matter how many times Redford’s Condor expresses outrage at this superiors (“Son of a bitch” being a frequent go-to expression).
It could, in part, just be a natural consequence of the mainstream tendencies of its director and lead actor. Redford’s was proficient by this point at turning the least likely (liberal and politically-aware) properties into box office thanks to his easy-going blonde-haired, blue-eyed charisma. Condor represented a hat trick of collaborations for the star-director team, following Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were. You only have to look at the romantic fluff masquerading as insightful commentary of the latter film to realise that Redford’s choices did not necessarily stand-up to the same painstaking analysis that Beatty brought to his projects (which isn’t to say that the results could not be as valid; they rarely felt obsessed over, however).
Pollack, who started out as an actor and thus found himself a frequent repeat-collaborator with stars, possessed a reliable eye and an adaptable style which saw him helming fare that varied from thrillers to romantic comedies (most famously, Tootsie). Out of Africa, another Redford starrer, was showered with Oscars although it’s probably fair to say that post-‘70s his acting roles (and producer ones) tended to be much more interesting than his director vehicles. Condor remains one of his most satisfying films. It was a big hit too (although there are discrepancies between the grosses recorded by Box Office Mojo and The Numbers it appeared to be in the region of the Top 10 films of 1975 in the US).
It’s a shame, in some ways, that Pollack didn’t dabble in thriller territory more often as his instincts for drawing out tension tended to be spot-on. He’d later give Tom Cruise a big hit in that genre (The Firm) but there was more uncertainty with what might happened to a lead actor at the end of a film during the ‘70s. Redford didn’t expire often in his pictures, but it wasn’t unknown.
The opening sequence is allowed to play and play by Pollack, because he knows he has something shocking in store; every choice he makes in teasing it out for all its worth is the right one. Of course, this also means an introduction to a very Redford-tailored persona; brilliant (his high IQ is mentioned), idiosyncratic (he rides a flimsy motorised bicycle amidst heavy traffic) and outfitted in scruffy professor-chic (glasses, jeans and sports jacket). Despite his lazy brilliance, he gets on great-guns with the blue-collar types in the diner where he buys lunch. But this indulgence works to the benefit of the set-up; it tells us he’s a nice guy (fortunate, as later he won’t be in very nice situations) and it allows us a brief spell getting to know his co-workers.
We see that his office is under surveillance almost immediately. It just so happens that Redford’s Joseph Turner (his codename is Condor, but he has difficulty even remembering this when he calls in the incident) has left by the back door to pick up lunch when the three hit men (led by a menacing-but-later-to-prove-erudite Max von Sydow as Joubert) converge on the entrance and proceed to gun down all those within. Pollack only appears to have reservations about showing the impact of this when it comes to Turner’s girlfriend , Janice (Tina Chen).
Joubert: Would you move from the window, please?
Janice: I won’t scream.
Joubert: I know.
Pollack cuts before the bullets spray her. Redford sells the panic of discovery and flight from the scene effectively. The paranoia that anyone on the street might be your assassin is palpable (Turner zeros in on a mother in sunglasses pushing a pram).
You’d think that, in an era of limited computer technology and no mobile phones, the tracking down and surveillance of a subject was much more difficult. But, for all his craftiness at times (Turner scrambles the lines at a telephone exchange so the CIA can’t trace his call), rudimentary mistakes are inevitable (a number plate here, an obviously predictable pattern of movement there). Condor is something of a progenitor in the genre, as this is a world where we see the technology in development that will later make the spy business more omniscient. Compare this to the tech on display in Enemy of the State (another on-the-run from a government agency thriller, also set at Christmas; it bears more resemblance to Condor than The Conversation which it overtly refers to in the casting of Gene Hackman). There is much emphasis on the CIA’s use of computers, both by the bookworms and in the analysis of Condor’s possible agenda.
Condor’s contact with his CIA masters (headed up by Cliff Robertson as Higgins) leads to an agreed meeting place where he will “come in”. That this turns out to be a trap further blurs the boundaries of who is doing what to whom and why. As mentioned, fear of government’s proclivities is a standard response by this point in the ‘70s. Most contemporary movies include some level of suspicion (even if it is of the localised variety; keeping the beaches open for the worshipful dollar, in the face of shark attacks, in Jaws), and one might argue that there is a degree of appeasement in Condor. It is not, after all, the CIA itself that is the villain. Rather it is a splinter cell within the organisation. This would later be the formula adopted by Enemy of the State. It’s left to the viewer whether this controllable and solvable presentation of corruption and lies is a comforting indication that it will all be all right in the end or leaves the unmistakable message that the state is never to be trusted.
Indeed, in Condor it is quite clear that Turner’s problems have not gone away now that the CIA splinter faction has been put to rest. Turner is a loose-end.
Turner: I’d like to get back to New York.
Joubert: You have not much future there. It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.
Condor provides a “heroic” solution in that Turner disappears off the grid; it is enough that he survives. He doesn’t get the girl, doesn’t really see justice served. He even makes sort-of friends with the man responsible for killing his colleagues and girlfriend. But he has the moral high ground, which has to be worth something.
Higgins: It's simple economics. Today it's oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
Turner: Ask them?
Higgins: Not now - then! Ask 'em when they're running out. Ask 'em when there's no heat in their homes and they're cold. Ask 'em when their engines stop. Ask 'em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won't want us to ask 'em. They'll just want us to get it for 'em!
One might claim prescience in respect of the splinter faction’s plan (to take over Middle East oil fields), but given the out-of-control oil prices around the time the film was made it doesn’t seem all that abstract. If one were cynical one might suggest that the plan has not-so-covertly been put into effect since the turn of the millennium.
Where Condor arguably isn’t an outright success is the romantic subplot with Faye Dunaway’s character. You can see why an interlude was necessary, both in terms of raising the stakes (for a subsequent assassination attempt) and fleshing out the plans and objectives of Turner, but Kathy just doesn’t really work. Initially, the attempts at making her respond realistically to abduction and bondage are commendable. But you’d believe them more if Turner were a really ugly kidnapper. And because Dunaway’s a star there’s a sop to her in fleshing out her character that only ever feels artificial. When Kathy and Turner sleep together it isn’t clear if this is some weirdly accelerated case of Stockholm Syndrome, whether Kathy is just a bit weird anyway or if she’s been overcome by her proximity to Golden Boy’s tousled locks. Ultimately, Kathy is more of a plot convenience than a character in her own right. It is at least something that Pollack and Redford don’t reduce themselves by having Turner and Kathy reunite in the final scene.
Condor was adapted from James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor. In the book, the rogue CIA group was importing drugs from Laos; a decidedly small-fry enterprise next to the film’s machinations. It was adapted by Lorenzo Semple Jr and David Rayfiel. I don’t know who came on board first, but I’d hazard that it was Semple Jr, whose script for The Parallax View was resolutely uncompromising the previous year. Semple Jr shifted from working in television (notably the ‘60s Batman TV series) to film scripts in the late ‘60s. Condor was part of a brief period of more serious-minded scripts (including Papillon). Subsequently he would pen the 1976 King Kong remake and the likes of Flash Gordon and Never Say Never Again. David Rayfiel was co-credited, who worked both credited and uncredited, on Pollack films from his debut The Slender Thread. They collaborated right up until the 1995 remake of Sabrina and it’s likely that he was asked by Pollack to smooth out what were seen as rough edges on the Semple Jr draft.
One trick Pollack gets right with Condor is that if you set up the this kind of thriller correctly much of it will sustain itself. You don’t need constant encounters with danger by the protagonist because the audience is expecting it at every turn anyway. So the visit by the “Postman” to Kathy’s flat is the second of only two physical engagements by Turner in the movie. It’s a pleasingly messy, awkward encounter. Turner emerges on top by luck rather than skill. We’ve been informed that he was enlisted (the Signals Corp) but any proficiency in fighting a trained assassin would have beggared belief. Once again too, Pollack allows the encounter to unspin slowly before the first blows are rained. We saw the Postman in the opening extermination, so the scene is all about how quickly Turner realises what the audience knows.
Another aspect of the film that deserves particular credit is the presentation of the agency hierarchy. Usually the power structures are virtually faceless or unblinkingly nefarious in conspiracy thrillers. Robertson’s Higgins is transparently just a cog in the wheel, though (it is even noted that he has not risen in the organization as fast as might be expected). We see whom he answers to (who treats him dismissively) and what he doesn’t know. It doesn’t make him more sympathetic, since he has no qualms about ordering any necessary business, but it makes Joubert’s warning to Turner one that we know could apply to Higgins as well, at some point.
Joubert’s philosophising in the penultimate scene should perhaps come as a surprise. Until you reconcile that Max von Sydow had to be employed for some reason other than as relatively taciturn gunman. It’s an interesting character moment, both cynical and revealing. In part it is required to spell out the schemes that have brought us to this point. Possibly it does this with unnecessary flourish; I’m willing to forgive this indulgence as it’s wonderful to hear von Sydow add depth and resonance to his dialogue. Joubert, formerly a freelance, has been retained by the agency to take out the guy who initially employed him to take out Turner’s division.
Joubert: Well, the fact is, what I do is not a bad occupation. Someone is always willing to pay.
Turner: I would find it... tiring.
Joubert: Oh, no - it's quite restful. It's almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There's only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.
This is as close as you get to an espousal of the post-‘60s collapse in idealism. Working for a better world has dissolved into resignation of working for the dollar. In Joubert’s case there is as at least a pride in one’s skill, so he hasn’t fallen victim to morass of ‘80s “greed is good”. But there is no conscience involved, and in that sense blindly following a skillset is not so different to pursuing unchecked capitalism.
Joubert: I don't interest myself in "why". I think more often in terms of "when", sometimes "where"; always "how much".
The final scene sees Turner confront Higgins and inform him that he has taken the story to The New York Times. Higgins is initially shocked (“Oh, you… you poor dumb son of a bitch. You’ve done more damage than you know”), but then mocks Turner’s faith in it being published.
Higgins: Hey, Turner! How do you know they'll print it? You can take a walk. But how far if they don't print it?
Turner: They'll print it.
Higgins: How do you know?
It’s curious that this uncertainty (and, let’s face it, the audience is in little doubt that publication will be halted) will receive a fact-based reproof in Redford’s next film (All the President’s Men). Truth can out in certain circumstances.
Condor isn’t the unqualified success of the two Pakula films surrounding it, but as a thriller its qualities are undiminished in the 37 years since it was released. Dunaway’s character doesn’t really work, and Turner is occasionally given to surmisals that aren’t quite germane to character or situation (“Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?”). Additionally, Pollack’s choice of Dave Grusin to provide the score is varyingly effective. Grusin’s quite capable of complementing a dramatic scene, but elsewhere his jazzy doodlings seem out of place with the tone. I’ll readily admit to finding his soundtrack work tends to date a film more than any other aspect (Tootsie’s a prime offender). But these are relatively minor issues within the whole, an intelligent and literate thriller that remains relevant.