Sunday, July 5, 2015

3 Days of the Condor

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

The book from which this movie was based is called 6 Days of the Condor by James Brady. The reduction in the number of days does not diminish the impact of this 1975 film directed by Sidney Pollack. It is packed with enough thought-provoking ideas for hours of discussions.

Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) works at the American Literary Historical Society in New York City. The place is a cover for a CIA section that reads, according to CIA supervisor Higgins (Cliff Robertson), “everything.” Redfor’s name is “Turner” as in “page turner.” The workers at the Society feed stories into the computer and look for espionage plots hidden in the narratives. They also get new ideas from the stories. We see that Turner does not like to play by the rules. He is often late for work. He uses an unauthorized exit to buy lunch for his co-workers. He covers his face with his hat at the door to mock the surveillance by the security camera.

There is a poster of Albert Einstein in Turner’s office. This image lets us know that he admires the very intelligent. He too is a smart guy who has absorbed much of what he has read. He can predict when it will start and stop raining. He advises his supervisor to protect his plant from blight, and can fix the computer printer. He talks to his co-worker and girlfriend, Janice (Tina Chen) about a mystery that didn’t sell, but was translated into Spanish, Turkish, and Dutch. He filed a report about a theory of his that this novel may indicate the possibility of a spy network that is unknown to the CIA. His boss gives him a letter that says the higher-ups saw no basis for his theory.

When Turner goes out of the building to purchase lunch, we witness the execution of the whole Society by men led by person we later learn is named Joubert (Max Von Sydow). His code name is “Lucifer.” Interesting, because Von Sydow once played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. When Turner returns and sees that everyone is dead, he takes the receptionist’s gun and calls into the office in a panic. Earlier, his boss questions Turner’s compatibility with his job. Turner says he doesn’t like that he can’t tell anyone what he does because he actually trusts some people. And that is the focus of the film. Trust. It’s hard to come by in the spy profession. Turner’s code name is “Condor,” a nearly extinct bird. Turner is a man who believes in trust, because his moral code distinguishes between right and wrong. In the world of this movie, he is seen as part of an endangered species. His “Days” of the title may be numbered.

The attack at the Society flips Turner’s world upside-down. Trust now is very hard to imagine. He is now suspicious of everyone. A woman with a baby carriage walking toward him is seen as a threat. Later he says, “I don’t remember yesterday. Today, it rained.” He must leave behind all that gave him comfort and must face the present storm. He will not be brought into the “Company” after the hit because he tells Higgins he doesn’t know him or his Section Chief, a man named Wicks (Michael Kane), who says he will meet Condor. Wicks brings Turner’s friend, Sam Barber (Walter McGinn), a man Turner trusts, to meet them at an alley. Wicks shoots at Turner when he arrives, and the latter wounds Wicks, who then kills Sam so he won’t be able to tell anyone that Wicks is part of the conspiracy. Wicks turned Turner’s trustworthiness concerning his friend into a vulnerability. It now appears to Higgins and his boss, Wabash (John Houseman) that Turner is the one who killed Sam and wounded Wicks. However, the shot that killed Sam was too precise for the non-marksman Turner.

Turner is now forced to subvert his moral code in order to survive. He needs a place to hide and rest. In a clothes store he overhears a woman, Kathy Hale, (played by Faye Dunaway) talking about meeting someone in Vermont for a skiing vacation. Outside, he forces her to take him to her place. The relationship that develops between these two is a peculiar one. It’s almost impossible to talk about it. It has to be experienced by watching the film. Turner’s two sides are alternately shown. He wants her to understand that he is a victim, so he tells her the truth about what his job was and that he is being hunted. But, she has a hard time believing him. So, he must tie her up when he goes out, or they lie on the bed and he holds her so he’ll know if she stirs. There is a sort of bondage-sexual subtext to these scenes. She says he has roughed her up. He asks “Have I raped you?” She counters with, “The night is young.” He tells her that he is afraid. She asks why is he afraid; he has the gun. “Yes,” he says. “And it’s not enough,” indicating how terrible the world has become. She says at one point, “This is … unfair.” He says, “I know,” which shows how the concept of right and wrong has become compromised. So, he is torn, feeling compelled to be rough with her at one moment out of expediency, and then complimenting her work as a photographer, admiring the photos on the wall.

About those photographs. They show benches in parks and playgrounds. They are black and white shots.Turner says they are beautiful, but there are no people in them. She says it’s winter. He says no, not fall or winter. They are in between. They are like “November.” He listens in on a phone conversation between Kathy and her boyfriend who is upset about her not showing up, again. She tells Turner that she doesn’t want to know him because he may not be around too long. He counters by saying she wants to be with someone who is on his way. The lack of people in her photos shows that fact. She says she takes pictures of some subjects that are not like her. But, she takes the photos so they are like her. In essence she is saying that underneath she is like Turner. They are both solitary figures. She asks what he wants. He says he just wants it to stop for one night. They make love and during the lovemaking, the camera cuts to the photos on the wall, emphasizing the “November” relationship, a world that is not permanent, but is “in between” something definite and stable. It is ironic that Turner finds someone to trust in a person he chose “at random.”

Turner visits Sam’s place and realizes his friend’s wife doesn’t even know that her husband is dead. He fears for her and gets her out of the apartment. He encounters Joubert, and realizes he is there to kill him since he exits and enters an elevator, following Turner. But, he is able to escape among a crowd of youths. He tells Kathy that he believes he and his office were targeted because of his report. That the hidden spy agency he discovered was another CIA within the CIA. Turner has Kathy pretend she is applying for a job at the New York CIA office. She fakes looking for someone else, but wanders into Higgins’ office. Thus, she can recognize him, and follows him to lunch. She tells  him that Condor wants to see him. They abduct Higgins. Turner finds out that Higgins does not know what is going on. He describes Joubert to Higgins, and says his accent indicates he is from Alsace. Alsace is a land which kept going back and forth between the French and the Germans. Thus his heritage fits a person who has no permanent allegiance to loyalty. Higgins does some research. He is able to link Joubert to Wicks and Atwood (Addison Powell), the CIA head of operations.

However, Joubert was able to see the license plate of Kathy’s car at Sam’s place. Joubert meets with Atwood who we realize is the leader of the conspiracy. While Joubert goes off to eliminate Wicks so he can’t be questioned about the alley incident, Joubert sends an assassin, dressed as a mailman, to Kathy’s apartment to kill Turner. Life is dangerous indeed when those who appear to be trusted government workers are in fact dangerous predators. Turner is able to kill the killer, and takes a key and phone number off of the body. The phone number turns out to link the assassin to Wicks in Washington. Turner traces the key to a Holiday Inn where Joubert is staying. Turner was in the signal corps and worked for AT&T. He taps the phone line and calls Joubert, mentioning the “condor.” He knows Joubert will call someone involved in the murders, and Turner then discovers it is Atwood, who lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland

Turner takes Kathy to the train station to go to Vermont. He says she could take him to Maryland, but she says, “No I can’t.” Their “in between” time is over. She says that Turner has eyes that “don’t lie, don’t look away much. And they don’t miss a thing.” She could use eyes like that in her job. He then warns her not to talk to anyone, and sees the hurt in her eyes as he realizes he is again not trusting. He apologizes and he goes off to confront Atwood.

At Atwood’s house Turner understands by talking to the conspirator that the language translations of the obscure book meant that the whole business was “about oil.” So this 1975 film has a topic that is very timely in our present day. As Turner questions Atwood, Joubert shows up. He kills Atwood. The Company has hired him back, since it realizes that Atwood would have become an embarrassment. The assassin makes it look like a suicide. Joubert assured Turner that he has no contract to kill him now that Atwood is gone. He knew Turner would be at Atkinson’s house - but the CIA did not. He says that if Turner goes back to New York, he has not much of a future there, since he also can be an “embarrassment.” Turner asks Joubert how does he do what he does. He would find it tiring. Joubert says it is quite relaxing. There is no need to worry about sides or politics. Only who, where, and always how much. The joy comes from one’s precision. Joubert says in New York a car will come by, and someone, maybe a person he knows, maybe “trusts”, will have a becoming smile, and offer him a ride. He hands him his gun and say to Turner, “For that day.” So, the Lucifer of modern times is one who has no sense of right and wrong, and is comfortable in that environment. In a scene at CIA headquarters, Wabash, in answer to subordinate Cliff Robertson’s question, says he does not miss the military action of his youth. He misses “the clarity” about right and wrong.

In New York, Turner meets Higgins on the street. A car comes up, but Turner refuses to get in. He asks Higgins if this whole thing was about a plan to invade the Middle East to seize oil. Higgins says the plan would have worked, and the people won’t care about right and wrong when the oil runs out. They will just want them to go get it. Turner takes Higgins in front of the New York Times. He says he has told the newspaper everything that has happened. Higgins tells him he is about to be a very lonely man (he already is). We are not even sure his story will see the light of day, as Roberson asks, “But will they print it?” At the end, Turner, the Condor, is walking alone to Christmas music that ironically contains the words “comfort and joy.”

Redford teamed up with director Pollack on a number of films, including Out of Africa, The Way We Were, and The Electric Horseman. Do you have a favorite?

Next week’s movie is House of Games.

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