Blurred vision

Three Days of the Condor is an exciting, gripping espionage drama. It challenges its audience to connect fiction with fact. But how accurate an account of the CIA's role in the Cold War, and of the US intelligence network's covert operations in particular, does the film present? The filmmakers certainly went out of their way to make the movie seem as real as possible. The notion that a rogue presence inside the CIA was seeking to maintain Middle Eastern oil supplies by non-standard methods appeared plausible. Rumours that the CIA had helped reinstall the Shah of Iran in 1953 in order to protect American access to Iranian oil fields had been rife for years. More importantly, the embargo on oil exports to the United States and other supporters of Israel instigated by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries in the wake of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War had rocked the world economy. That a clique within 'the Company' would exterminate its fellow agents to keep this a secret also made sense in the light of the revelations of CIA murders overseas.

Even the plot's chief gimmick, the idea that the CIA would employ a unit like the ALHS to decode novels, was not entirely far-fetched. One of the former CIA operatives involved in the Watergate affair, E. Howard Hunt, had been accused of leaking agency plots to book companies as the basis for mystery novels. Furthermore, the ending could be read in two ways. Either it offered hope by suggesting the press was American democracy's salvation, as the exposure of Watergate had indicated; or it implied the press would suppress Turner's story due to fear of, or collusion with, the nation's intelligence network, tying in with rumours of the government's infiltration of America's fourth estate. When Three Days of the Condor opened at cinemas in September 1975, Paramount exploited the film's topicality further by linking it with the start of public hearings into CIA wrongdoings by the Church Committee. Significantly, the movie's gala West Coast premiere was touted as a benefit evening for the local branch of the ACLU.72

Looking at the critical reaction to Three Days of the Condor, the degree to which journalists and politicians treated the film as if it were a documentary, or at least a serious commentary on contemporary politics, is striking. In this respect, the movie resembles those dramas of the 1940s and 1950s which, like Walk East on Beacon, many viewers probably saw as slices of real-life Cold War subversion. The big difference, of course, was that Three Days of the Condor suggested that virtuous vigilance had given way to 'the prospect of a festering, Big Brotherish take over', as one magazine put it.73 Some within Paramount were not entirely comfortable with such negative interpretations. The distributor cancelled one screening in Washington, DC, because, according to

Sydney Pollack, 'They didn't think it would be good policy to rub the morality of government in the legislators' noses [sic].'74

Working on the basis that 'serious' films ought not to resort to cliched melodrama, and forgetting presumably that sex often helped pull in the punters, some reviewers felt Three Days of the Condor's romantic element was an unnecessary distraction. Others argued the film would alienate viewers by having overcooked its conspiracy theory: '[C]an we believe that CIA agents can be murdered in the streets of New York with only a lying item in the press, planted by presumably compliant police?', asked the Saturday Review. 'Too many people would be implicated in such a cover-up . . . ; we are not yet a totalitarian country.' Even some left-wing journalists who felt the film's criticism of the CIA had not gone far enough applauded its 'warnings' about CIA machinations in the Middle East, as if Three Days of the Condor was extending the argument about US imperialism in Southeast Asia set out in Hearts and Minds.75 Others critics in more mainstream (and hence more influential) quarters thought the film brave, thought-provoking and entertaining. Writing in the New York Daily News, for instance, Kathleen Carroll felt the movie was 'convincing enough to support our worst fears about CIA activity'. The HollywoodReportefs Arthur Knight ironically, if unwittingly, employed the very language critics had often used to compliment Hollywood movies about life behind the Iron Curtain back in the 1950s. Three Days of the Condor 'shocks us into a vivid awareness of the inherent dangers of a secret police unchecked by any representatives of the democratic process', opined Knight. Comments like these suggest the movie might have added to the public's cynicism towards the Cold War and America's intelligence services in particular.76

Such praise notwithstanding, Three Days of the Condofs political vision had its limits. The movie rather played down the extent to which covert CIA activities were a natural by-product of America's Cold War aggression. It also fell far short of the more extreme indictments of the corporate political power system found in The Parallax View. In Pakula's movie, reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) dies at the end, thus taking the truth about a sinister organisation that recruits 'patsies' for assassinations to the grave. In Three Days of the Condor, by contrast, an individual defeats a bunch of rogue conspirators. Moreover, the sympathetic portrayal of a 'good' CIA man suggested the redeemability of the institution. This aspect of the film attracted severe opprobrium from some critics. Both 'the novel and the film falsify the issue by postulating a black CIA within a white CIA', wrote Jack Kroll in Newsweek, 'when the real issue is the actual, or dangerously gray, CIA'. Patrick McGilligan, writing in the left-wing magazine Jump Cut, objected to Three Days of the Condor's focus on internecine warfare, 'thus denying or diminishing the thought of international consequences from CIA actions'. 'Heaven forbid that [Salvatore] Allende should be mentioned', swiped McGilligan, a barbed reference to the socialist Chilean president brought down by a US-sponsored military coup in 1973.77

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