Three Days of the Condor (1975) is a conspiracy thriller by Sydney Pollack about a renegade CIA section. There were a lot of movies then about that sort of thing: Watergate; JFK’s assassination; Vietnam – any nutty theory seemed to have some traction. Unlike The Parallax View of 1974 by Pakula, which is darker and takes itself much, much more seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, while I found the Pakula number predictable and pretentious. I guess I like Redford more than Beatty too. (I still want to know how they filmed that scene on the Seattle Space Needle at the start of Parallax though!)
Redford plays Joe Turner, a CIA researcher who returns from a lunchtime errand with the office’s sandwiches to find everyone murdered. Why would anyone rub out a bunch of nerdy intelligence analysts? He may be an egghead bookworm, but he’s also Redford, so he can fight and think on his feet like James Bond: not quite believable.
He forces Cathy (Faye Dunaway) to shelter him, she falls for him, of course, and they sleep together. The next day, she’s feeling a bit skittish. He tells her, “You don’t have to help me.“ She replies, “Oh no, you can count on me, the old spy fucker…“ He’s annoyed. A funny bit; part of what makes this thriller a little quirky.
The film is shot in New York City, and it’s a real treat to see the locations. It’s NYC in the 70s, the NYC I remember, even when I’m walking around the spic-and-span streets of today near Central Park – The NYC of humungus cars lumbering down potholed streets, garbage on the sidewalk, and grime. Several of the shots of CIA headquarters in NYC are in the World Trade Center, a deliciously sick irony, given the fate of those structures and the CIA ineptitude that helped bring it on. Here, the Hoboken train station take on a noir/Casablanca atmosphere as Turner walks away from Cathy, maybe to his death.
Cliff Robertson (sporting a massive, windblown rug) plays Higgins, the CIA guy trying to get Turner: is he on Joe’s side, or does he put The Company first? Here he stares at a primitive version of Google Maps trying to locate Joe from a phone call, but Joe was too clever to be tracked.
Joe finds the CIA guy who rubbed out his friends so that a secret rogue CIA plan to invade the Middle East wouldn’t be uncovered. Turner realizes it was all about oil. Sounds familiar. The 1973 oil crisis was a recent memory.
John Houseman is the old CIA hand who craves “the clarity” of yesteryear. Max von Sydow is Joubert the hired murderer who has found clarity in “the precision” of his work. He doesn’t have to worry about which side pays. He has found peace. He and Joe have a little man to man outside of the renegade’s house. Joe seems cool with the fact that Mr. Death (yep, Max has a lot of experience with The Grim Reaper) knocked off his colleagues: he’s a bit overwhelmed by it all, and asks for a lift to the train station. This was another of the enjoyable, unpredictable elements in this film.
Joe is not quite through with The Company. He meets Higgins again, who tries to justify the whole dirty business, although, of course, that renegade went too far. They have a little debate about democratic accountability with Turner taking the high road, “ask the people what they want,” and Higgins telling him that when they are out of gas, hungry and cold, they will just want the ‘authorities’ to get it done, and not ask why. He has a point, doesn’t he?
The moral ambiguity of the ending, the unresolved romance, the unknown future of Joe Turner is what makes this movie really fun. Joe tells Higgins that the New York Times now has the whole story. He thinks that will protect him: he doesn’t quite trust Higgins to be gentle with him, despite Higgins’ show of concern for his welfare. After all, Joubert told him not to trust anyone. Higgins is aghast – another Pentagon Papers debacle – but as Joe walks away, he calls to him. How far can you walk? “How do you know they’ll print it?“ “They’ll print it,” shouts Joe, but he doesn’t seem totally convinced.
Sydney Pollack turns up at the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final work, and a terrible disappointment to me. He gives the low down to Tom Cruise who cannot fathom the corrupt orgy he’s witnessed. Pollack tells him that the high and mighty, the secret governing class, they do things you wouldn’t believe, if you only knew. Yeah, yeah, I read the papers, we know. It’s a pretty silly denouement.
Oops…what if they don’t print it?