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The Watergate scandal ushered in a new mini-genre of conspiracy films, starting with Alan J. Pakula's 1974's The Parallax View. Political paranoia had surfaced before in 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1962's The Manchurian Candidate, but thanks to the hyped excesses of Superspy films like Billion Dollar Brain (1967) genre had mostly limited itself to escapist fantasies. As late as 1973, the wild conjectures of the Kennedy conspiracy thriller Executive Action were roundly rejected by the ticket-buying public.
Political paranoia goes Hollywood in 1975's Three Days of the Condor. James Grady's thriller about a low-level C.I.A. analyst is a strange mix of conspiracy thriller and hot romance starring two top stars, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. The script by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Parallax and David Rayfiel (a multitude of Robert Redford films and Deathwatch) suggests that a "secret policy making" cabal within the C.I.A. runs its own foreign policy. It will commit mass murder to prevent its existence from being detected, even by its own intelligence-gatherers. The movie names the actual C.I.A., unlike the delightful 1967 farce The President's Analyst) which was forced to redub its soundtrack to rename its agency as the fictional "C.E.A."
If this were a 1939 picture starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner the romance would be emphasized, pushing the political intrigues (War in Asia? Perfidy in Panama?) into the background. With its two expensive stars on the payroll, Three Days of the Condor keeps both eyes set on the box office: it's an "important" thriller but -- surprise! -- also a popcorn star vehicle.
Having survived a co-starring stint with Barbra Streisand, Redford re-teams with director Sydney Pollack to play C.I.A. junior analyst Joe Turner, code name Condor. Turner reads books all day in a Manhattan office fronting as a literary foundation. The idea is that the C.I.A. parses "everything published in the world" and collates keywords into a computer that looks for patterns indicating possible coded secret communication. Just as Joe is sending off a memo about an interesting phenomenon he's discovered that links several disparate languages and parts of the world, professional killers invade the foundation's offices and murder everyone they can find. Joe escapes only because he's out getting lunch. 1
Condor becomes suspicious when he "phones home" to his spymasters, and decides not to do what they say. Sure enough, after a murderous exchange in an alley, Joe realizes that someone "inside" his own agency killed his co-workers. With no place to go, he kidnaps a beautiful New Yorker at random and hides out in her apartment. Meanwhile, Joe's boss J. Higgins (Cliff Robertson) tells his superiors that Condor is the renegade killer. Intelligence chief Mr. Wabash (John Houseman) orders that Condor be secretly killed as a threat to security. But the real assassins, led by freelance hit man Joubert (Max von Sydow), are already on the case.
Forty years before, Alfred Hitchcock learned that spy intrigue is a surefire ignition point for torrid romance. Three Days of the Condor plays straight to form. Terrorized kidnappee Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) soon defects to Joe's side, morally and amorously. There must be a movie rule written somewhere: any two attractive people thrust together by danger and desperation will become passionate lovers in less that 8.3 hours. Just when things look hopeless, Redford and Dunaway give Paramount's paying audience a break by engaging in a soft-focus, multi-dissolve sex scene. This is clearly the secret to picking up women -- claim to be a spy on the run, one who's emotionally hurt and in need of comforting!
Before we can say "Baby You Can Drive My Car", Kathy Hale is chaffeuring Joe around the city. Condor began in the Signal Corps and did telephone work, so is able to make untraceable phone calls to Higgins and access numbers inside Langley headquarters. Von Sydow's philosophical killer apologizes to his clients and offers to do another killing for free to compensate for his failure to perforate Condor on schedule. When a machine gun wielding ex-Green Beret assassin corners Joe in Kathy's apartment, Joe adds "ace close-quarters warrior" to his already impressive skills -- a phone technician who also specializes in foreign language and sophisticated intelligence analysis. Barring a few loose ends -- what the heck is Kathy going to do with that dead body in her bullet-ridden apartment? -- Three Days of the Condor stays reasonably credible.
The actual conspiracy premise seemed thin in 1975 but now reads as quite prophetic. It's a big spoiler, so stop reading here if you haven't seen the movie...
Condor turns out to be the man of the hour. He single-handedly detects a secret conspiracy within the C.I.A., survives a murder attempt and then confirms his theory while evading more professional assassins. The aim of the conspiracy is to covertly seize control of a number of oil-producing countries, thereby securing the vital resource for America. The key scene shows Condor and Higgins standing outside the New York Times: like Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Joe has given his story to the press, so the truth will come out no matter what Higgins does: "An informed America Will Know What To Do." -- "The Truth Will Make Us Free." The problem is that this finale is hopelessly naïve -- even when secret government crimes in Asia, Latin America and Iran have been exposed and publicized, it doesn't make much of a difference. Higgins is right when he claims that America won't care what the spies do, as long as cheap gasoline remains available. This perception is changing ... hopefully. 2
But still, the notion of a secret government within a government agency manipulating other countries and starting wars behind the public's back to control a vital resource is dead-on correct, historical prognostication worthy of H. G. Wells. Three Days of the Condor's only mistake is placing the bad guys in the C.I.A. instead of the White House.
Paramount's Blu-ray of Three Days of the Condor gives Sydney Pollack's conspiracy thriller hit a beautiful transfer. Owen Roizman's fine camerawork on the streets of Manhattan has a slightly gritty appearance. The disc is plain-wrap, with an original trailer the only extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The idea of researching "everything published" in 1975 sounds absurd. If intelligence agencies still do this, it must really be an impossible task -- is it paranoid to wonder if Big Brother is scanning every word in 80 gazillion websites and Email messages?
2. Robert Redford improved on the ending of Three Days of the Condor when he made Quiz Show a number of years later. America didn't learn its ethics lesson about corruption and cheating in the Quiz Show scandals, and Redford ends his movie with a shot of a studio audience laughing at the camera -- at us in the theater audience. The joke's on us, literally.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.