Lessons I Learned From Three Days Of The Condor

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of classic American paranoid thrillers. You know, those movies set in New York City about one man made to fight for his life against shadowy, possibly omnipotent enemies and tasked with uncovering a vast conspiracy that may or may not lead right to the highest levels of government office.

The hero doesn’t need to be a CIA agent (The Conversation) or a journalist (The Parallax View) – they might just be graduate student studying Nazi history (Marathon Man) – but they do need to get pretty quickly out of their depth and become romantically entangled with a gorgeous woman who may not be everything she seems…

It seems only natural that these movies would all crop up around the same time: the Cold War was on, there were plenty of John le Carré novels to adapt and – most importantly – the New Hollywood filmmaking philosophy of the late ’60s and ’70s allowed movies to be bolder with their statements and yet even more personal with their characters, a recipe that allowed for a truly astonishing run of movies even without the spy genre (and all at the cost of a few hard drug habits, dozens of failed marriages and exploded egos – just go read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls already if you haven’t).

Which all leads me to a deceptively simple statement:

Three Day of the Condor is a great film.

That’s it. If we lived in a perfect world I would say that and you’d simply spool up Netflix or pick up the DVD remote and watch the film, perhaps once it’s finished two hours later remarking, “Well, I’ll be darned if Mark wasn’t right about this flick,” and then perhaps, “I wonder where I can get a pair of sideburns like Redford’s?”

Alas, we live in a high-speed age and you’ve probably got a lot going on – maybe a hair appointment, or a protest against genetically-modified flying terrapins or somesuch – so it’s a bit much to ask you to watch a movie you might not even enjoy all that much.

You will, but that’s beyond the point.

Actually, the real reason I wanted to talk about it was because there were two scenes in the movie that stood out for me. Everything in Three Days of the Condor is wonderfully executed and perfectly gripping, but these two scenes are of special import to the screenwriter in me. Who know? You might find them interesting too.

First, a brief plot synopsis:

Robert Redford is a low-level CIA employee working in NYC (natch) named Turner. He’s not an intelligence operative or anyone particularly exciting, really, he just reads books and magazines, anything that’s published on the lookout for recurring motifs, hidden codes or changes in the zeitgeist.

[As an aside, let’s just think about that job for a minute: Turner and the other people doing his job are paid to read everything that is published in the entire world. As in, while actually keeping more or less up to date. That’s mind-boggling in the face of how much written content is generated on the internet alone daily. It seems a little quaint now and kind of insane, but at least Redford acknowledges it: “Who’d invent a job like that?”]

He goes out for lunch one minute and comes back the next only to discover that all of his colleagues have been shot to death while he was getting their pastrami-on-rye. He calls the men upstairs to bring him in but after a botched rescue attempt it seems that the CIA want Turner dead just as much as the assassins led by the enigmatic Max von Sydow’s Joubert do. He decides to make a stand and get to the bottom of what’s happened, but not before accosting a woman, Kathy (Faye Dunaway), on the street and holing up in her apartment.

[As you can see it’s a little tense at first, but Kathy breaks through Redford’s distrustful shield and…well, it was 1975, and it was still Hollywood.]

The first scene I want to talk about is a moment between Redford and Dunaway in her apartment. They’ve more or less just entered the place after Turner  having the single worst day of his life, so he needs a kip. He’s not about to let Kathy out of his sight so he drapes her arm around him with a gun in one hand so as to feel her moving should she try and escape while he gets 40 winks and waits for the 6 o’clock news report. When he does wake he trots over to the TV and switches it on to find…

…adverts. Because that’s what happens when you turn a television on at random. It’s rarely ever the exact report or programme you need, and having it appear so easily insults the audience’s intelligence by assuming they won’t notice your laziness as a screenwriter.

This device – a little thing I like to call ‘realism’ – helps us ground us in Condor‘s world a bit more. We’ve been chased and shot at up and down the streets of Manhattan all day, so it’s somewhat comforting to have a safe space where something dull can happen and hitmen aren’t waiting in alleys. I do love a good awkward silence between two gorgeous movie stars, don’t you?

And then it starts getting really good, because the screenwriters (insert names) know an opportunity for good characterisation when they see one. Instead of letting the joke run its course and just be that, they create a moment of depth by having Turner point out the black-and-white photographs on the wall, prompting a brief but illuminating and oddly sweet discussion of Kathy’s tendencies as a photographer. She takes “lonely pictures” of empty benches and leafless trees with no-one in the frame. Kathy tries to write them off as impersonal, stating that “it’s winter,” but Redforf sees through her. “No…it’s more like November. I like them,” he says, and there’s a brief spark of connection between the hostage and hostage-taker just before the news report finally comes on (it doesn’t feel like we’ve been waiting at all) that never would have existed had we been in story more concerned with cutting to the chase.

I honestly don’t know why I haven’t seen this more in the 38 years since Three Days of the Condor‘s release (probably because I wasn’t alive for 15 of ’em), but I reckon it’s no coincidence that this film’s endured as long as it has.

The second comes in the penultimate scene of the film, after secret organisations have been unveiled, covered up and brushed under the rug. It’s the dawn of the fourth day, and Turner and his enigmatic would-be hunter stroll along a path together, discussing plans for the future. Von Sydow suggests that he could make a fine living in his line of work, perhaps in Europe. After all, there’s little for him here but the gnawing knowledge that, one day, a car will pull up by the side of the road, someone he trusts in the back seat…

But no – Redford says he’s going to stay here. “I was born in America.” Someone’s got to at least try to set things right, he figures, and he just doesn’t have the same nihilism that Joubert pulls off so effortlessly. He makes hired killers seem like the most peaceful creatures on Earth, and it’s somewhat terrifying just how convincing he is:

I don’t interest myself in ‘why?’. I think more often in terms of ‘when?’, sometimes ‘where?’. And always ‘how much?’.

The fact is: What I do is not a bad occupation. There is never a Depression. Someone is always willing to pay.

It is…quite restful. Almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There is only yourself. And the belief is in your precision.

– Joubert, Three Days of the Condor

Despite them being on opposite sides of an ideological spectrum, they’re no longer enemies. They have no reason to be at this point in time, so why should they give themselves more grief by trying to kill one another?

It’s pretty clear to see what’s so appealing about that scene – it’s shades of gray. Everybody’s someone else’s villain, everyone’s the hero of their own story and your reason’s just as good as anyone’s. I’m glad when characters actually seem autonomous and become capable of deciding for themselves who’s a villain rather than having The Movie dictate it to you.

“But he’s got a shotgun shaped like a swastika! He must be the bad guy!”

No, thanks. It’s just not real. And I’m not for a minute suggesting that I think films should be realistic to within an inch of their entertainment, just that they should be able to trick me into thinking that they are real despite all evidence to the contrary.

A New Hope is real because the droids are junkheaps and Luke has a shitty job. Die Hard is real because John McClane has jetlag and no shoes.

Three Days of the Condor is real because there are TV commercials.

[You can download a copy of the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel here. Some credit should be given to the author of the source novel Six Days of the Condor James Grady, but how much I couldn’t say. Clearly the timeframe was ramped up among presumably other things.]

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