These days, actual global politics are so far off the fucking chain that any movie that delves into the shifty workings of international espionage that comes along feels vaguely realistic regardless of how far fetched it may seem. However, even though we seemingly now live in a time of world leaders who carry themselves like actual Bond villains, there was a time when a massive scandal involving the American presidency was absolutely mind blowing and in the wake of Watergate a well made political thriller could seem utterly terrifying. One of the more famous titles that emerged from this tumultuous time is Sydney Pollack’s Three Days Of The Condor, a paranoia thriller that’s as taunt as drum, beats just as hard and that sees a honest man dropped feet first into a maelstrom of lies and intrigue that would choke a whale.
Joseph Turner is an honest, decent everyman who works in a clandestine CIA office where he and his fellow employees read books, news articles and magazines from all over the world looking for latent codes and various scenarios that may aid their bosses and after he files a report on a novel that’s been translated into weirdly random languages, he pops out the back way to pick up lunch for the whole office.
However, upon returning, Joseph, is understandably horrified to find everyone machine gunned to death, assassinated by mystery assailants and so he bolts and desperately tries to get brought back in by his handlers as he understandably freaks the fuck out. But whatever the hell he’s stumbled across, it goes higher up the CIA than Joseph could have imagined and his attempt to meet up with his superiors ends up collapsing in bullets and blood.
Insanely paranoid and on the run, in an act of desperation he abducts random passer-by Kathy Hale and holds her hostage in her apartment as he tries to unravel this murderous, gumbo he finds himself in. However, matters are somehow made worse by the fact that the head of the team that killed all his workmates, a frosty European by the name of Joubert has managed to track Joseph down and launches another attempt to eradicate him which makes his already-shakey trust in CIA flimsier than a crate paper rain hat and so with Kathy in tow, our hero attempts to turn tbe tables on his two-faced bosses and play a risky game of cat and mouse to get to the bottom of everything and get his life back.
Can a decent man possibly get one over on men who treat the lives of others like expendable chess pieces?
Pretty much the gold standard of 70’s political paranoia thrillers, Three Days Of The Condor is one of those movies that seem stunningly dated on the surface (behold computers the size of a freaking Volkswagen and more clunky, push button, spy phones than is strictly necessary), when you push through the surface, the movie is as terrifyingly prescient as creepy fortune teller on a roll. Never mind the fact that our hero (His official CIA codename is Condor – What? Would you have called it 72 Hours Of The Joseph?) gets a crash course in amoral government shit, but it turns out that the thing that Joseph has stumbled onto is (spoiler warning) a rogue CIA operation to swipe middle eastern oil fields – something that feels bewilderingly familiar for something that was crafted in 1975.
Based on the novel Six Days Of The Condor (movies get through things in half the time, apparently), Sydney Pollack weaves a tense ride by keeping everything ground level and only cutting away from Robert Redford’s panic stricken face to focus on the shifty, government wonks who are stubbonly trying to plug this leak by ironically plugging it full of holes. He also swirls the already muddy waters by making aid come from disturbingly unexpected sources with Max Von Sydow’s glacially banal assassin hopping sides purely depending on whatever his mission dictates and the casual switch from a man willing to drill our hero with a sniper rifle to one you gives him important advice is legitimately chilling.
Front and centre is the glowing cinematic decency of Robert Redford who anchors the whole enterprise with a measured mixture of breezy charm and butt clenching tension and although he’s a little too much of a blonde jock to fully convince as a bookish, CIA nerd, his Captain America-sized sence of what’s right (not to mention a beguiling performance) carries him confidently through matters. Not faring quite as well is Faye Dunaway’s Kathy who, despite a similarly noteworthy performance, is saddled with an almost entirely passive, kidnapped woman role. While Kathy has a pretty defined arc, it’s hardly moldbreaking and the fact that by the end of her “relationship” with Joseph – her kidnapper – she’s kind of yearning for the excitement that only stepping into the crosshairs of government spooks can apparently give you, it’s a little questionable.
Rounding out the cast is the unsettling sight of original Uncle Ben Cliff Robertson pulling strings and being all casually sinister (it’s his damn job, remember) while John Houseman makes his creepy speech that opens John Carpenter’s The Fog seem like a heartwarming episode of Jackanory as he coldly assesses people’s lives with worrying detachment.
While the forces of good kind of prevail with Joseph managing to unravel matters and getting details to the New York Post, Pollack ends the movie on a chilling note with Redford and Robertson standing on a street corner as they verbally duel with their ideologies about what is going to happen next. If the story is published, Joseph is safe, if it isn’t, he’s most likely going to catch a bullet sooner or later and the fact that Joseph is willing to bet his life that he truly believes the world is just and honest is countered with a simple and repeated response (“How do you know?”) leaves us less than certain. In the wake of Watergate this ending must have been horribly open-ended – these days it’s outright fucking terrifying.
Still effective after all these years (where would Captain America: The Winter Soldier be without it), Three Days Of The Condor soars when it does what it does best – making us utterly fucking terrified of the people hired to protect our interests…