When I first decided that I wanted to do the 44 Days of Paranoia, I went on Facebook and I asked my movie-loving friends to name some of their favorite conspiracy-themed films. As the replies came flooding in, one thing that I quickly noticed was that a lot of them were naming films that had been made in the 1970s.
Usually, when I think about the 70s, I tend to assume that everyone in Texas was smoking weed in a high school parking lot, everyone in New York was snorting cocaine in Studio 54, and everyone in America was dancing nonstop. And, to be honest, that doesn’t sound too bad to me. If the 70s were just ten years straight of Dazed and Confused and Saturday Night Fever, then I would be the first one to hook up with anyone who could build a time machine.
However, the 70s were apparently also a very paranoid time. When one looks over the most acclaimed and best-remembered films of the 70s, one is struck by the feeling that nobody trusted anyone and all official institutions were suspect.
Case in point: 1975’s Three Days of the Condor.
Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, a mild-mannered guy who works for the American Literary Historical Society in New York City. The Society, however, is a CIA front and Turner’s job is to read cheap spy novels and analyze them to see if any real intelligence leaks might be found between the lines. As the film opens, Turner arrives late for work. He jokes with the chain-smoking secretary, shares a few curt words with his superior Martin, and flirts with fellow researcher Janice. Then, Joe goes to lunch and, while he’s gone, Max Von Sydow shows up with a bunch of killers and guns down everyone else at the safe house.
The scene in which Von Sydow calmly kills all of Joe’s co-workers is one of the most disturbing that I’ve ever seen. As directed by Sydney Pollack, the film’s violence comes in short, brutal bursts that are all the more nightmarish for lacking any of the flashy choreography that we, as viewers, have been conditioned to expect whenever we’re confronted by violent death on-screen. Pollack also makes good use of Von Sydow’s kindly eyes and courtly manner, letting us know that, for him, murder is just a job. Even though we’ve only spent a few minutes with Joe’s co-workers, we’ve still grown to like them and that makes Von Sydow’s matter-of-fact attitude all the more disturbing.
(It’s been a few days since I saw the film and I have to admit that I’m still haunted by the close-up of the burning cigarette still held in the dead secretary’s hand or the way that Martin’s toupee falls off his head after he’s shot. Small as these details may seem, they stick in the mind and create a sickening feeling of life interrupted.)
When Joe returns from lunch, he finds all of his co-workers dead. Fleeing the safe house, Joe calls the New York regional director of the CIA, Higgins (Cliff Robertson). Higgins arranges for Joe to meet up with another agent and to be taken to safety. However, when Joe arrives for the meeting, the other agent attempts to kill him.
Realizing now that the CIA specifically hit its own safe house and is now looking to kill him, Joe ends up kidnapping Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), a neurotic photographer, and forcing her to hide him while he desperately tries to figure out why he’s been targeted.
Thanks largely to Sydney Pollack’s thoughtful direction, Three Days of the Condor is an excellent, exciting, and thought-provoking thriller and, despite having been released close to 40 years ago, it features one major plot that’s probably even more relevant today than when the film was first released. Redford and Dunaway both give excellent performances but the film really belongs to Max Von Sydow’s menacing and charming assassin. Most of today’s “action” filmmakers could learn a lot from watching Three Days of the Condor.