Three Days of the Condor bears all the trademark features of the seventies 'paranoid' movie: smart, terse dialogue and sparse, haunting music; taut suspense combined with scenes of entrapment and claustrophobia in telephone booths and elevators; omniscient technology that erodes privacy and either dehumanises or kills; and an intricate plot capped by an ambiguous closure. As a fast-paced man-on-the-run espionage thriller, it put a modern twist on Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1939). As a comment on the bleak and cynical world of Cold War espionage, it closely resembled two British-made films from the mid-1960s, Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File.71
On an overcast morning Joe Turner (Redford), a bespectacled would-be writer, arrives for work at the American Literary Historical Society, a staid if innocuous building on Manhattan's Upper East Side. However, appearances are deceiving. The ALHS is a CIA front. Turner and his co-workers are employed to read, analyse and computerise general popular fiction and periodicals as part of the agency's overall intelligence operation. Turner enters the building, having first been identified by closed-circuit television.
State-licensed hit men: Joubert (Max Von Sydow, centre) and his nameless henchmen (Jay Devlin and Hank Garrett) slaughter Joe Turner's associates in the CIA research office at the outset of Three Days of the Condor (1975). Paramount /The Kobal Collection.
Turner is disappointed as he rushes in to learn that an inquiry he made into what appeared to be an intriguing irregularity has checked out as being of no importance at CIA headquarters. Momentarily dashed, he forgets about it and is sent out to get lunch for everyone in the office. It has started to rain. He slips out the back door as a short cut to the café, and returns twenty minutes later to find everyone at the ALHS has been savagely and expediently murdered during his absence.
Horrified, Turner manages to phone the CIA from a phone booth. Reflections on the booth's glass make Joe, already tightly confined, look completely surrounded. Turner identifies himself by his codename (Condor) and tells his story. The agency moves at once to verify the report and as soon as the murders are confirmed, Deputy Director Higgins (Cliff Robertson) takes over the operation. He dispatches a 'cleaning truck' to the ALHS building and instructs Turner to meet another agent in an alleyway behind the Ansonia hotel. CIA agent Wicks (Michael Kane) will meet him there with Turner's friend Sam Barber (Walter McGinn), who will be brought along so that Turner will recognise them as his contacts. But when Turner shows up, Wicks fires at him and kills Barber. Turner shoots Wicks in the leg and flees. Running along the street, Turner abducts a young woman, Kathy Hale
(Faye Dunaway), at gun point and takes refuge at her apartment. Kathy is a Diane Arbus-type photographer and a loner. Her sad but beautiful pictures of empty fields and park benches are an expression of her loneliness and will act as a metaphor for Turner's solitary stance against an entire governmental organisation.
In Washington, a top-level meeting is convened where Mr Wabash (John Houseman), Atwood (Addison Powell), Higgins and representatives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff try to figure out what has happened. Why was such an insignificant section hit? Why didn't Turner come in gently from the cold? However, when the meeting is adjourned, one of the central figures, Atwood, meets secretly with Joubert (Max Von Sydow), the emotionless assassin who spearheaded the executions, and instructs him to get Turner now and to silence Wicks.
Safe for the time being at Kathy's apartment, Turner binds and gags her so that he can visit his murdered friend Sam's widow, but Joubert has anticipated this move and is waiting for him in the lobby of her apartment building. He inadvertently arouses Turner's suspicion, who gets away, but not before Joubert gets the number of Kathy's car, which Turner is driving. Turner returns to his hideout where he and Kathy make love. When she falls asleep afterwards, he tries to unravel the puzzling events. In the morning he makes some progress: with Kathy's help he dispatches an assassin (Hank Garrett), disguised as a mailman, who has been sent by Joubert to finish Turner off. A piece of paper from the dead man's pocket links him to Wicks.
Turner decides to contact Higgins directly. Kathy lures the Deputy Director into her car where Turner holds a gun on him. Joe asks why his simple question ('Why was a certain mystery novel only translated into Dutch and Arabic?') should have provoked such violence. Higgins does not know. He says he will try to find out, but rejects Turner's suggestion of asking Wicks because, as Higgins tells him, Wicks is now dead, an inside job. Higgins then returns to CIA headquarters where he finds a link in the records of Joubert and Wicks. Turner, meanwhile, traces Joubert's whereabouts in Manhattan with a hotel room key he found on the dead 'mailman'. He manages to tap Joubert's phone while Joubert is calling Atwood in Washington, and then decides to go there to find out exactly who Atwood is.
Turner arrives at Atwood's expensive suburban home, breaks in and surprises the man, who finally admits that he has set up an unauthorised intelligence system within the CIA that will help the US gain influence in the oil-producing countries 'when the time is right'. Turner's inquiry threatened to reveal the covert network and for that reason the ALHA had to be wiped out. Turner is stunned and then further shocked when Joubert appears and fires a bullet into Atwood's head. Turner soon comprehends the move.
Out in the cold: neither Turner (Robert Redford) nor his boss at the CIA, Higgins (Cliff Robertson), knows which side to trust any more in the Cold War 'suspicion business'. Three Days of the Condor (1975). Paramount /The Kobal Collection.
Joubert is now working for the CIA and was ordered to get rid of Atwood. Joubert then suggests that Turner join him in his line of work; he senses Turner has a knack for playing both sides. But Turner repudiates him and the CIA.
In the final scene, Turner confronts Higgins on the New York streets. A Salvation Army choir performs 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' in the background. Higgins is determined to save 'the Company' any further embarrassment, and tries to coax Turner back into the fold as an obedient and secretive agent. However, Turner won't play the game despite Higgins' veiled threats. He tells Higgins that he has already given the whole story to the New York Times, whose offices they are standing outside. 'How do you know they'll print it?' asks the Deputy Director. 'They'll print it', Turner says, as he walks away into the crowd. The film ends on a freeze frame of Turner's face starkly reminiscent of one of Kathy's photographs. The soundtrack has abruptly stopped. We are not to hear any mention of 'Christ the Saviour'. Joe remains vulnerable. Neither we nor Turner have been saved from the future possibility of a similar conspiracy occurring.
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