I confess: I have a soft spot for intelligent spy/action films. (One of my all-time faves is the addictively rewatchable 1968 classic Where Eagles Dare, starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. I dare you to not enjoy that film! ;) )
Another film I highly enjoy is the 1975 film Three Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, both in their primes, as well as the always excellent Max von Sydow. It was directed by Sydney Pollack, whose specialty was directing smart, well-acted movies, including They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), The Way We Were (1973), Absence of Malice (1981), Tootsie (1983), Out of Africa (1985), and The Firm (1993).
This film ages surprisingly well, and it’s almost scary how prevalent and relevant the central mystery still is. I won’t give it away — it’s the MacGuffin! The only aspect that doesn’t age that well is the kidnapping-turned-love-story side plot involving the two main stars. This unnecessary subplot also provided the basis of the entire ad campaign for this film, also referenced in the DVD menu. [Insert eye rolls here.]
Also, this film does NOT include an actual reel librarian. But there are good reasons I’m including it here on this blog, even though it is technically a Class V film (which means no librarian on screen).
The film opens on a close-up of a book scanning machine, with rows of books behind a bank of technology. If you thought you were seeing a library — complete with librarian wearing glasses — you would be forgiven. We also get a peek at book archives a bit later:
As Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) rides up in a bicycle, there’s also a close-up of the building’s sign that reads “American Literary Historical Society.” So one might reasonably assume now that this a story featuring archivists, right?
The whole building is a front. Literally. It’s actually a base for CIA agents who analyze books and other materials for codes and terrorist activities. Robert Redford is one of those agents, a researcher, and “Condor” is his code name. As he later describes his job:
I work for the CIA. I am not a spy. I just read books. We read everything that’s published in the world, and we feed the plots — dirty tricks, codes — into a computer. And the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, I look for new ideas. We read adventures and novels and journals. Who’d invent a job like that?
And he is SO GOOD at this job that he uncovers a terrorist organization that unwittingly hits too close to home. This begins a chain reaction that ends up leaving his co-workers dead; by accident, Joseph is “literally out to lunch” when the assassins hit his workplace. No spoilers — all of this happens in the first 15 minutes of the film! For the remaining 100 minutes, Joseph is on the run to both (a) stay alive and (b) find out why he and his co-workers were targeted. Along the way, he kidnaps Kathy (Faye Dunaway), and they eventually end up in bed together. As you do. (See also 2002’s The Bourne Identity, which is another personal spy/action favorite. But they did the whole female-sidekick-turned-lover angle MUCH better.)
By the way, while Turner/Condor is out at a neighborhood deli getting lunch orders, we get to listen in on his conversation with the cook and another regular customer:
Deli guy: Hey, Shakespeare. How’s it going?
[As they converse, Joseph rattles off a few facts about Van Gogh and Mozart.]
Another guy at the counter interjects: Where am I? The New York Public Library?
Deli guy: Hey, that’s a very bright man.
Other guy: It’s very educational. That’s why I come in here.
We also “listen in” on several scenes in which CIA operatives — all men, of course, including Cliff Robertson as Higgins and John Houseman as Mr. Wabash — discuss the situation. There is suspicion that Condor himself is a double agent. Although their scenes basically serve as exposition, the background info we learn about Joseph Turner/Condor is very interesting, revealing that he is smart, motivated, resourceful, and lucky.
- “Condor. Researcher, tide pool. Likes to read comic strips.”
- “Two years military service. Signal corps. Telephone line and longline Switchboard maintenance, six months overseas. Worked at Bell Labs Communication Research. College on the G.I. Bill.”
- “Don’t expect too many mistakes from his man. True, he does seem rather more interesting than just another of our reader researchers.”
In a beginning scene, Turner/Condor solves a mysterious death by referencing a Dick Tracy story. Toward the end discussing another incident, he confesses, “I read about it in a story.”
In a scene where the CIA operatives discuss Condor, there’s this revealing sideline:
CIA agent: Where did he learn evasive moves?
Higgins: He reads.
CIA agent: What the hell does that mean?
Higgins: It means, sir, that he reads everything.
Turner/Condor also earns that Shakespeare monikor, as evidenced by this back-and-forth with Higgins:
Higgins: I’m not armed.
Joseph: They could be df-ing us if you have a transmitter hidden somewhere in your clothes. What’s this?
Higgins: DF? You do read everything, don’t you?
Joseph: This is no goddamned book. Somebody or something is rotten in the company.
That last line, of course, is a reference to the line “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
Three Days of the Condor also explores themes of the power of mixing both human brain power and technology, although the lines to “book some computer time” to analyze text elicit a chuckle or two. This is the central theme of several reel librarian films, including the 1957 comedic classic Desk Set. (Hint: It’s an either/or fallacy, the conflict between humans and computers. You benefit from having BOTH.)
There are also a few similarities in tone and subject matter with the Cold War drama, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), starring Richard Burton. In that film, spy Alec Leamus (Burton) pretends to quit the Secret Service and defect to the Communists. As part of his cover as a failed spy, he starts work as a librarian at the Institute of Psychical Research. In Three Days of the Condor, Joseph Turner pretends to work as a literary society archivist, but is in actuality a CIA agent and researcher. Also, the library in the 1965 film is real — we meet other librarians — but in the 1975 spy film, the literary society is fake.
All in all, there is much to appreciate in Three Days of the Condor (1975), a highly intelligent and engaging spy thriller. Too bad there isn’t an actual reel librarian, but I think we can all agree that Joseph Turner would have been an EXCELLENT librarian if he had so chosen to be, yes?
And I will leave you with shots of Robert Redford in his prime, wearing glasses and a shirt unbuttoned to his chest.
You’re welcome. ;)