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Three Days Of The Condor - Mining Zeitgeist For Suspense

Three Days Of The Condor


Three Days Of The Condor is a political thriller about a fringe CIA outfit, the American Literal Historical Society, which is tasked with reading novels to uncover any hidden meanings or plots in the books they read.

Joe Turner (Condor), one of the readers/analysts has sent a report to the CIA about a book that despite poor sales has been translated into many languages, and not the usual ones.

One day when Turner slips out for lunch, a group of assassins wipes out everyone at the office. Upon return, Turner discovers this and thus begin the three days of the condor.

Condor calls the CIA number to be brought in but is very suspicious and demands a familiar person be brought to the meet. They send his superior Wicks and his friend Sam Barber, another low-level operative. At the meet Wicks shoots at Turner who shoots back and then Wicks kills Barber to eliminate a witness and later blames Turner for it.

Turner, now completely “out in the cold” and not knowing whom to trust, (or anyone?), kidnaps a woman Kathy and hides at her place. They eventually develop an intimate relationship and she helps him uncover what is going on and expose the rogue operation within the CIA. Throughout all this Turner is pursued by professional assassin Joubert, who was seemingly hired by the CIA.

Upon tracing a phone call, Turner discovers that deputy director Atwood is behind the assassinations. He confronts him at gunpoint and Atwood admits that they were all eliminated because of the report Turner filed. But this was not an official CIA operation but rather a private task ordered by Atwood. In a reversal, Joubert appears and kills Atwood, who has become a bigger threat to the CIA than Turner. He spares Turner but warns him that he still might be eliminated.

Turner contacts Higgins, the only person he somewhat trusts, and tells him that he sent the story to the NYT. As he walks away Higgins asks, “but will they print it?” Turner, walks off, but not as convinced that they will print it, underlying the issue and raising the question…how deep are the tentacles of the government? To what extent do they control the so-called free press?

Three Days Of The Condor is a fascinating story and along with All The President’s Men one of the quintessential political thrillers of the 70s. Unlike the latter, which was based on actual events, this is pure fiction but it feels equally real and plausible. As a matter of fact, it reads just like it.

I want to think of it as mining the zeitgeist to provide gravitas to a genre film. Because Three Days Of The Condor certainly hits the notes of a thriller. But it is so much more than that.

It’s an elegant and somewhat “small” story. A single protagonist is hunted by an assassin hired by a dark organization. Dime a dozen. But set up as a political thriller with a dark government as the antagonist it becomes highly elevated.

The genius in adapting the Grady book (besides shortening the days for suspense) was changing the plot from smuggling drugs from Laos to seizing oil fields in the Middle East. The first is merely a money-making scheme, while the screenplay plot has massive underlying dread. It undermines our trust in government and our freedoms. It creates ambiguity, both for Turner and the reader/viewer about the scope and reach, and intent of the government. Do they exist to serve the public, or is there more to their nefarious activities than meets the eye? Plus as a threat to the protagonist, a nemesis with seemingly limitless funding poses a much greater threat than a few rogue operatives who are in it for cash.

It raises issues of whom can we trust, and what can we trust. Because the government potentially turning on its own, undermines so many previously held beliefs….i.e. the trust in our government. It raises the dread level to a maximum degree. As an observer both Turner and the reader must ask themselves, is everything I believed so far been a construct, a ploy to keep the citizenry in check, while the shadow government operates for its own purposes and with impunity? Whom can you trust?

This issue of trust permeates the entire story and seeps into almost every scene and this is what I believe made this screenplay and film such a success. Because it takes the somewhat abstract issue of “big brother” and brings it to a personal level.

The issue of trust is foreshadowed when Turner chats with a colleague about his job and that he’d like to be able to tell people he trusts about what he does. People he trusts…

Then after the killings, from the first call when Turner tries to be brought in, which sounds just a bit suspect, to his next conversation with Higgins, which also has odd moments, to the meeting in the alley where he gets shot, the suspicion grows and trust disappears.

When he kidnaps Kathy, the trust issue continues. Can she trust what he’s saying and can he trust her not to tell her boyfriend or go to the police?

But on the opposite side, trust is broken as well, as Wicks claims that Turner has gone rogue when he shot him and killed Sam Barber.

It’s a wicked setup because nobody can trust anyone. Except for Turner and Kathy. The breakthrough comes when they connect and make love. Finally, there’s some trust and it comes in the form of a personal relationship.

Empowered by this, he and Kathy kidnap Higgins to get some clarity about what’s going on. But Higgins seems genuine in his lack of understanding of exactly what happened. When Turner asks him to bring him in, Higgins tells him to stay out, for Turner’s safety. That a sign of trust to Turner, if ever so small.

Next, Turner uses his former skills as a communications operator in the army to tap phones and discover that deputy chief Atwood may have been behind the clandestine operation.

He confronts Atwood at his home, and the man confesses that it is all about oil. In a complete reversal, Assassin Joubert shows up and eliminates Atwood, making it feel like suicide.

Upon leaving Turner and Joubert have a fantastic conversation… “someone you know and possibly trust, will get out of a car, and smile and offer you a ride…” He warns him that he still can’t trust anyone…. which possibly saves Turner’s life in the future.

Because even though Atwood is dead, the blind trust has not been restored.

In the final scene, when Turner meets Higgins, the only person on the inside he somewhat trusts, this belief is also undermined when Higgins questions if the New York Times will print Turner’s story. A killer ending to a great script and film.

The issue of trust is the theme, but it is also a device for suspense. It’s fascinating because throughout the entire story, the question about trust not only lingers like a time bomb keeping us engaged, but it also helps us have a heightened sense of empathy for the character. He is a regular guy who “just reads books.” He could be us, we could be him. Set during a time when the trust in the government was shattered (Watergate, Nixon resignation), a thriller that questions the trustworthiness of big brother has a deep level of dread and suspicion built into the story.

Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, based on the book Six Days Of The Condor by James Grady.

Directed by Sydney Pollack


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