How To Come In From The Cold (Film Review: “3 Days of the Condor”)

A classic film that captured the imagination of an entire generation in the mid 70s, showcasing Redford and Dunaway at the height of their physical beauty, 3 Days of the Condor is still a piercingly relevant and seminal spy thriller, even more enjoyable the second time around.

SnapShot Plot

The 1975 film, 3 Days of the Condor is considered by most to be a career defining moment for Robert Redford, as well as one of the finest Cold War spy thrillers of its day, and one that set the standard for countless others to follow in the genre.

One rainy day in New York City, Joe Turner (Robert Redford) ducks out the back door of his office to get lunch for the staff. They are analysts, of a sort, reading every imaginable type of publication in existence. Drab work, seemingly. But on this day, when Joe returns, lunches in tow, he discovers to his horror that every one of his colleagues has been brutally shot to death. Panicked, he runs to a pay phone to call an emergency number and it’s only then that we realize that the entire office was a counter intelligence monitoring operation run by the CIA, charged with finding covert patterns and clues in texts from all around the world.

All Joe wants is to be ‘brought in’ to safety, but – clever person that he is – he quickly realizes he doesn’t really know anyone with whom he’s making contact. Distrust turns to suspicion, which in turns leads to the kind of paranoia that can only be felt by a person who’s just barely escaped a brutal massacre in which he knows he was supposed to be included. Who can he trust, when the industry in which he operates mainly exists on layers upon layers of distrust and enmity? Maybe not surprisingly, the one person Joe can trust with his life is a complete stranger he literally kidnaps off the street, Kathy Hale (played by Faye Dunaway), a photographer living in Brooklyn Heights who (perhaps too quickly) goes from abductee to accomplice in one day. Apart from that gratuitous effort to create a love story pulsing (needlessly) behind the narrative, it’s a captivating game of cat & mouse over the course of three days as Joe figures out the puzzle of why this has happened, who is responsible, and how might he survive to (possibly) reveal the truth of what has occurred.

Parting Shot

Directed by Sydney Pollack, 3 Days of the Condor was very much a collaborative project with Redford, both men being at the heights of their impressive film careers. In fact, as Pollack had described, he and Redford were looking for something fun to do, and when they seized upon the mostly frivolous book in the Condor series of spy novels (“Six Days of the Condor” by James Grady) they thought it’d be a mostly lighthearted lark of a movie. But once writer David Rayfiel became attached to the project, it took on much more substance and gravity, and before they knew it, it had transformed into a film that has held its own over the past several decades.

Part of the mise en scène allure of the film is captured in the smallest details of the production, from the office decor to Kathy’s apartment, made more realistic still with on location shooting in New York City (including scenes in and around the Twin Towers) and Washington, D.C. One can also wax nostalgic about the technology of the day, making the film arguably a period piece, given how many years have passed since it’s debut. It’s absolutely seared into the memory of those of us old enough to remember what a telex machine was, or how we all used rotary dial telephones and, brace yourselves, public phone booths. But somehow, despite its relative sluggishness compared with the slick, over-produced and manic-paced thrillers of today, 3 Days of the Condor still feels fresh. Still feels relevant and important. Or perhaps the nostalgia is for a time in films (and in life) when one could look at a character or a cause with more moral certitude than the mind-numbing reversals and betrayals of today’s narratives. Or as one of the CIA brass (played by the venerable John Houseman), when asked if he missed the kind of action he saw in the Great War, replied, “No. I miss that kind of clarity.” I think we all do.

3 Days of the Condor is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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