Spy 100, #14: Three Days of the Condor

One of the reasons Robert Redford struck me as such good casting in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was that I remembered him in Three Days of the Condor (1975), surely one of the movies that influenced that recent Marvel work. This is a terrific film, perhaps the classic paranoid 1970s spy thriller.

Redford plays Joe Turner, the proverbial “smartest guy in the room,” who works for a clandestine CIA research office in Manhattan called the “American Literary Historical Society.” Turner’s job is to read everything — novels, magazines, newspapers, journals, anything in print — and analyze it for patterns, clues, and ideas for his agency superiors in Washington. It’s just another day at the office for Turner until he goes out to pick up the crew’s lunch. When he returns, he walks into a nightmare: someone has murdered his entire team, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s next. But when he calls the agency for help, things just get worse. In desperation he coerces a reluctant civilian, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), to hide him out while he uses his encyclopedic knowledge to puzzle together just who is trying to kill him, and why.

Once you get past the dated credit sequence, the rest of the film is pretty spectacular. Redford makes for an accessible brainiac, whose lack of field experience makes him an unpredictable and convincingly panicked protagonist. In support, Dunaway is terrific, and while there are problematic aspects to their romance-under-fire subplot, the script at least acknowledges them with barbed dialogue. The early stretches of the film are easily the strongest, as Turner stumbles into a horrifying situation and struggles to process it. But the plot unfolds smartly thereafter, with intelligent turns, tense action, and well executed suspense sequences. In a fairly standard supporting group, Max von Sydow stands out as a cool, machine-like assassin. While the final reveal is less shocking now than it would have been then, it still holds up as a cynical MacGuffin, nicely accented by terrific monologues from von Sydow and Cliff Robertson’s CIA officer Higgins. These late revelations, combined with its New York setting and several shots of the World Trade Center, make the film feel positively prescient, and it’s easy to see how it went on to inspire future spy fare over the decades — most directly, perhaps, the sadly short-lived AMC series Rubicon. Highly recommended.

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