In many ways I agree with the late Dennis Grunes. Three Days of the Condor is a bad movie. The plot is slow and convoluted. The cinematography is dreary and uninspired. Robert Redford is wooden and unconvincing as an intelligence analyst who stumbles upon a rogue agency within the CIA. There’s a gratuitous, cringe worthy sex scene in the middle of the film that brings the action to a grinding halt. Nevertheless, Sydney Pollock’s classic, anti-government, paranoid thriller is such rich dramatization of post-Watergate America that it’s still worth watching, in spite of its many faults.
Robert Redford, the Boomer Brad Pitt, is Joseph Turner, a low-level intelligence analyst who works at the Literary Historical Society, at a CIA front group on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. While the Literary Historical Society is quite obviously a fictional dramatization of the Paris Review, Encounter, or any one of many high-brow literary journals founded by the CIA in the 1950s, it’s also something a lot more interesting. The offices of the Literary Historical Society are not only full of computers, Turner’s job is to read books and enter a summary of their plot into what can only be described as an early, albeit fictional prototype of Google. He had been born a few decades later, Turner, code named “Condor,” is exactly the kind of person who would have wound up in Silicon Valley. After serving in the United States Army Signal Corps as a phone maintenance specialist, he graduated from the City College of New York before going onto Bell Labs and the CIA. He’s a computer geek, a voracious speed reader, and an eccentric hipster who rides a hacked up motorized bicycle instead of taking the subway.
As Three Days of the Condor opens, Turner has already stumbled over a government plot that will eventually get everybody at the Literary Historical Society killed. After reading a poorly written, and poorly selling spy novel, he is intrigued by the way it has been translated into Spanish, Dutch and various languages native to Indonesia. He enters the information into the CIA’s computers and thinks no more about it. The next day, he’s tapped by his coworkers to pick up a lunch order at a local diner. Taking a backdoor and a long, circuitous route through the basement, he slips out of the office unnoticed by the CIA death squad in the van parked out on the street in front of the magazine’s brownstone. When he comes back, everybody’s dead. Quickly realizing that the same people who killed his colleagues at the Literary Historical Review had also meant to kill him, he grabs a 45 automatic pistol the, justifiably, paranoid receptionist kept in her desk, rushes to a pay phone on the next block, and calls his superiors at the CIA field office in New York City.
After a difficult phone call with a clueless low-level CIA bureaucrat, it begins to dawn on Turner that he knows little or nothing about the government agency where he’s worked for the last few years. When an attempted rendezvous with a superior and an old friend from the Army who joined Turner at the CIA turns into a shootout, Turner realizes, to his horror, that it might have been the CIA itself that carried out the hit at the Historical Literary Review. Like a character from a Phillip K. Dick novel who suddenly finds that his credit cards don’t work and that his ID is now invalid, or, to use a more recent example, like Michael Weston from the USA Networks Burn Notice, Turner is in a desperate situation. He can’t go home. The death squad that killed his colleagues will surely be waiting for him. He can’t go to friends or relatives. It will put them in mortal danger. He can’t even sleep. He has no place to sleep, and yet somehow he needs to find a safe house where he can clear his head and figure out who’s trying to kill him. Turner knows that he knows something that makes him dangerous to somebody, but he has no idea what that or who they are.
To say that Three Days of the Condor is “politically incorrect” would be an understatement. In the age of the “me too” movement it simply couldn’t be made.Even I find the movie’s second act, where Turner grabs a random women named Kathy Hale, played by Faye Dunaway, and holds her hostage, forcing her at gunpoint to let him use her apartment as a safe house while he figures out what to do next, baffling. It’s not so much that Turner takes Hale hostage that would make the film impossible to release today. It’s the fact that she falls in love with him. Indeed, the long, cringe worthy sex scene that follows is the most badly dated sequence of Three Days of the Condor. I suppose it has something to do with what Joubert, the leader of the death squad that carried out the massacre at the Historical Literary Review, a very intimidating Max Von Sydow, explains will make it so hard to capture and kill Turner. He’s an amateur, undisciplined, unpredictable. No professional spy would take a random woman hostage, and manage to seduce her with a long analysis of her fine arts photography, but Turner is no professional spy. He’s an every man who discovers that he can also be a man of action, a man who can beat a hired assassin, one of Joubert’s underlings, in a desperate, and well choreographed fight to the death.
But it’s not Turner’s ability to handle himself in a fist fight that eventually saves Turner’s life. It’s his years in the Army Signal Corps and his years working at Bell Labs, the legendary research institute in lower Manhattan and Murray Hill New Jersey where the foundations of modern computer science were laid in the 1950s and 1960s. Three Days of the Condor is one of the first American movies ever made about hacking, the fifth, according to Cybercrime Magazine. After he steals a kit of tools from a New York Bell repair team, and taps into the switchboard of a Holiday Inn, Turner baffles his superiors at the CIA with a series of messages impossible to trace back to their source because he’s set up a relay system that might be described as an early preview of Tor. Eventually, after spoofing his way into the agency’s central computer system, Turner puts all of the pieces together, discovering that the CIA hit squad that murdered his colleagues at the Historical Literary Review was in fact a rogue agency within the CIA trying to trick the United States government into a war in the Middle East. “So it was all about oil,” he says as he holds the leader of the rogue faction at gunpoint in his palatial mansion in suburban Washington. “It was all about oil.”
Part of the reason, I think, the plot of Three Days of the Condor can be so confusing is Sydney Pollock’s ambivalent attitude about the CIA. One one hand, the film was released shortly after Watergate and shortly before the Church Commission uncovered COINTELPRO, a conspiracy by the “intelligence community” against the American people. On the other hand, the idea of a fanatically pro-war, rogue faction inside the military industrial complex was not only plausible, in 1975 it was a historical reality. Team B, which was made up of familiar figures like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, was already trying to undermine detente between the USA and the Soviet Union. They were not a “CIA within the CIA.” They were unelected government officials actively conspiring to provoke a renewed arms race. But I also think that even after the Church Commission, nobody knew the full extent of the CIA’s depravity, and more importantly, their full penetration into almost every nook and cranny of American society.
After Turner exposes Leonard Atwood, the leader of the rogue faction, his superiors at the CIA call off Joubert and his death squad. There’s a bullet for Atwood, not Turner. What strains credibility is the idea that the agency would have left Turner alive after he found where all the bodies had been buried. True, Joubert is a “freelancer” and not a “company man” who’s gained a genuine respect for Turner’s ability to elude capture and make his way to the center of Atwood’s conspiracy, but there’s no reason that the agency wouldn’t have sent another hit team to clean up Joubert’s mess before sending yet another hit team to kill Joubert himself. Then again, they probably knew something the film didn’t know the knew. The final scene of Three Days of the Condor takes place in front of the old New York Times building at Times Square. Turner has arranged a meeting with another one of his superiors, a shady bureaucrat named Higgins, to confront him with what he’s learned about the people they work for. Turner is passionate and moralistic but Higgins remains unmoved, suggesting that even if the American people found out what the CIA was doing to protect the supply of oil, the murders, the wars, the disinformation campaigns, they’d approve anyway. It’s too bad that the actor Cliff Robertson, the actor who plays Higgins, gives the film’s weakest performance because he’s essentially right. He’s not angry because Turner uncovered the agency’s crimes. He’s angry because Turner had leaked the information to the New York Times, angry but not particularly worried.
“How do you know they’ll print it?” he asks Turner.
“They’ll print it,” Turner responds, probably unaware of the number of CIA assets at the New York Times. “They’ll print it.”
My guess is Higgins was right. Back in 1976 there was no Wikileaks and no Intercept, and as every antiwar activist learned in 2003 and everybody at Occupy Wall Street learned in 2011, if you were talking to the corporate media, it was best just to assume you were talking to the police. To take incriminating material about the CIA to the New York Times essentially meant that you were taking incriminating material about the CIA to the CIA.