Published on October 28th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Three Days of the Condor 
Summary: A smooth spy thriller about government secrets and paranoia. Max von Sydow steals the show from his very attractive co-stars as a pragmatic hitman, although the always-dependable Robert Redford carries the picture. Plays like a Le Carré novel set in America, but with an unnecessary romantic plot.
R | 118 min.
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: Lorenzo Semple Jr., David Rayfiel (Based on Six Days of the Condor by James Grady)
Starring: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
U.S. Box Office: $27,476,252
Released in 1975, a time when Americans’ trust in the federal government was at an all-time low, Three Days of the Condor has all the makings of a spy classic. Its got a masterful director, a tight screenplay, loads of style and three world-class actors leading the way. Unfortunately, this Dodge Challenger of a flick also has a load of tacked-on Hollywood romance to gunk up the engine.
As the opening credits of this picture roll, we know we’re in the presence of ‘70s cinema royalty. Directed by Sydney Pollack — who was as comfortable as anyone in putting together a slippery thriller — starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, two of the smoothest stars of the era, plus Max von Sydow. Put simply, there’s nothing not to love about the team behind Three Days of the Condor, even if the opening theme music does sound a bit porny.
The film gets its clunky title from the 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. Obviously the studio was keen to tighten up the novel’s timeline a bit but not to make it any less puzzling. The book, Grady’s debut, may well have been a hit but in my research I couldn’t find a record of it showing up in the New York Times bestseller list at any point in 1974, leading me to believe name recognition was not a driving force behind the adaptation of the novel.
Pollack’s film follows Joseph Turner (Redford), Codename: “Condor,” a mild-mannered low-level CIA employee whose job entails reading newspapers, magazines and books from around the world to find hidden codes (does such a job really exist?). One afternoon, Joe runs out to grab lunch for everyone in his unassuming New York City office only to find them massacred by gunfire upon his return. Suddenly, this man with no field training finds himself on the run from the agency he’s employed by — paranoid that his superiors orchestrated the bloody hit.
The first 15 minutes of Three Days of the Condor are lighthearted and even playful. We essentially see Joe at work with his colleagues — the nerdiest group of CIA employees you’ll likely find — discussing comic books and novels in a building that looks like a dentist’s office from the outside and a library in the interior. Pollack’s direction demonstrates total control over the picture as the tone drastically changes the instant the attack happens.
When the movie had ended, I was still stunned by this early scene because it does a fine job showing how suddenly a violent incident can happen — and how quickly it can be over. No music plays as a group of unknown gunmen enter the building and calmly execute every person in their paths, beginning with the little old lady manning the front desk. Pollack maximizes the shock value by putting the audience right in the action, as all we hear are muffled gunshots, whirring printers and surprised people screaming for their lives. This is the most intense scene of Three Days of the Condor and is likely what earned editors Fredric Steinkamp and Don Guidice the picture’s lone Oscar nomination.
From here, the action is lightning fast. The film’s Edgar Award-winning screenplay, co-written by frequent Pollack collaborator David Rayfiel (The Firm, Absence of Malice) and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (1966’s Batman, Flash Gordon), demands you keep up with it. Many of the movie’s scenes are short, choppy and don’t last much longer than 60 seconds. I have to imagine a copy of the shooting script was roughly the size of the Chicago Yellow Pages.
Condor is a tricky figure for an audience to rally behind. What endears us to him are his differences from a typical spy thriller hero. As I mentioned above, he’s basically a nerd that finds himself in a game of cat and mouse. This is a guy that learned his distrust of the government from reading comics and picked up his clever deduction skills thumbing through issues of Dick Tracy. While his enemies don a suit and tie, Condor rocks a white Oxford shirt with a yellow tie and wool blazer — essentially the same costume Redford would don a year later portraying journalist Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men.
While these features are refreshing in a typically über-macho genre, it’s when Condor’s female counterpart is introduced that we start to disengage ourselves from his character. Kathy (Dunaway) is a citizen that gets roped into Condor’s dangerous situation when he desperately presses a gun to her back and demands she take him to her apartment or he “will hurt” her. At this point, our allegiances to Condor are pushed to the limit because as he kidnaps this innocent woman, tying Kathy up and leaving her inside her home as he takes her car. Desperate times, I guess…
This abduction eventually leads Kathy to sleep with Condor, because, why not? I’m still trying to decide whether she’s just extremely lonely — not likely because she has a serious boyfriend — or a victim of Stockholm syndrome. Dunaway plays Kathy with considerable range for what’s essentially a sidekick role. Her performance is docile until they have sex, when she becomes self-aware and full of sass. “You can always depend on the old spyfucker,” Kathy tells Condor in one sarcastic exchange. This is far from Dunaway’s most memorable performance but she should be applauded for making this subservient character very likable.
This romantic relationship between the two leads is what kept Three Days of the Condor from greatness, because it simply feels forced. The pairing of these great actors would have been just as satisfying in a plutonic setting but I guess when you have two performers that emanate as much sex appeal as Redford and Dunaway, it’s impossible to keep them out of bed. The love story isn’t terrible by any means but I felt it slowed the story down and distracted from an already solid plot.
My few complaints with Three Days of the Condor lie with its plot, rather than filmmaking or acting. Cinematographer Owen Roizman (The Exorcist, Network) keeps many scenes interesting, shooting through wires in one memorable sequence as Condor taps into a phone line and takes control of his situation. By this point in the second act, Joe has morphed into a stone-cold operator, showing zero inner turmoil even after killing several men himself. By the time he reaches CIA higher-up Leonard Atwood (Addison Powell), Joe gets inches from the man’s face with an unblinking demeanor and a gun firmly pointed at Atwood’s body. A scene like this makes you wonder about Condor’s history and if he was lying about his lack of field experience.
Once the movie wraps up, with one of the greatest freeze-frame endings I’ve ever seen, it’s von Sydow that stands out above everything else. His performance as a calculating hitman named Joubert is without question the best part of Three Days of the Condor. As usual with von Sydow — perhaps more overdue for an Oscar that any actor since Peter O’Toole — he is spot-on from the first scene and ends up a terrifying presence until the end, when we get to know more about his character’s nihilistic motives. “There is not cause. Only yourself,” Joubert advises Condor.
Later American espionage thrillers, especially Brian De Palma’s 1996 hit Mission: Impossible, owe a debt to Three Days of the Condor. I’d be surprised if Tom Cruise didn’t consult Redford’s performance when preparing to play betrayed CIA operative Ethan Hunt, as one scene feels like a direct nod. After seeing the aftermath of his colleagues’ massacre, Condor makes a frantic phone call to the panic office, pleading, “Will you guys bring me in now, please?” It’s hard to not see the similarities to Mission: Impossible’s memorable scene where, upon his entire team being wiped out, Hunt calls his superior, shouting, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!”
Robert Redford makes a frantic call for help in this early scene, which was later echoed in 1996’s Mission: Impossible.
Three Days of the Condor is full of anti-government paranoia, a popular theme of ‘70s cinema in the days after Watergate. Condor would be wise to leave the country after discovering the secrets he’s privy to in the picture but out of principle he decides he’d rather live in America with his head on a swivel than in comfort on foreign soil — which gives the film’s message an air of defiant patriotism.
A song played at several points in the movie is “Good King Wenceslas,” the Christmas carol about a powerful man that risks the lives of himself and a loyal page during a winter night to make sure a poor man is fed. The choice had me thinking well after Three Days of the Condor had ended, wondering if Joe was the commoner or the King, but I realized he’s most like the page, learning the truths of the world while being left in the harsh cold.
Check out Three Days of the Condor on Amazon.