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Film / Three Days of the Condor

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"What if there's a CIA within the CIA?"

Three Days of the Condor is a 1975 political thriller film directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, and Max von Sydow.

Mild-mannered researcher Joe Turner (Redford) works for the Central Intelligence Agency in a small building in New York City, reading book after book to review their plots to see if they either contain elements that may be similar to ongoing covert operations or else be useful ideas for the CIA to employ. One day during the holiday season, Turner steps out of the office to grab some lunch at a nearby deli. While he's gone, a hit squad led by Joubert (von Sydow) enters the office and kills Turner's co-workers (including love interest Janice). Terrified, Turner calls in the deaths to his CIA handlers, who prompt him for his codename 'Condor' and order him to follow procedures for pick-up and debriefing. In the process, things keep getting messier and Turner begins to worry that his own employer the CIA is trying to murder him.

After a botched pick-up gets his last friend in the CIA killed, Turner is forced to kidnap Kathy Hale (Dunaway) and use her apartment as a hideout. At first afraid for her life, Hale rather quickly falls for Turner and they sleep together. With Kathy's help, Turner is able to capture CIA honcho Higgins (Robertson), who reveals he himself is in the dark and wants Turner to stay "on the outside" to draw out the assassins, so the CIA can figure out who's rotten within their own ranks. Now all Turner has to do is survive Joubert's attempts on his life, keep Kathy safe, and figure out why someone in the CIA wants him dead...

A TV remake, known as Condor, is currently airing on Audience.

Three Days of the Condor contains examples of:

  • Abnormal Ammo: In the opening scene, Turner proposes an ice bullet as the murder weapon in the novel that his colleagues are analyzing.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The first half of the movie is an almost beat-for-beat adaptation of the book. The second half alters or telescopes a lot of the book's plot points, especially the fates of two major characters (see Spared by the Adaptation below).
  • Adaptation Name Change: Most of the characters have their names changed from the novel. Ronald Malcolm becomes Joe Turner, and Wendy Ross is Kathy Hale.
  • Affably Evil: Joubert. He comes to respect Turner after his various escape attempts. And after killing Atwood instead of Turner, Joubert offers Turner friendly advice, a ride to the train station... and even a gun. He seems relieved to no longer need to kill him, in fact.
    • Higgins becomes this at the end, along with his Corrupt Bureaucrat reveal. In the end, he wasn't helping Turner survive, he was only making sure the agency wasn't exposed.
  • Ambiguous Ending: A Bittersweet Ending at best, with the tone leaning towards a Downer Ending. Despite his Armor-Piercing Question, Higgins' initial response to Turner's claim that he told everything to the New York Times suggests that he's not so certain what they'll do either. Even the best-case scenario means a massive blow to the US's plans overseas, not to mention the CIA's covert operations. The movie still ends with Turner looking back at Higgins, worried that the CIA will kill the story.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: When Turner is talking to Kathy. (Neither of them think it's a good idea at this point.)
    Kathy: You're not entitled to personal questions! That gun gives you the right to rough me up; it doesn't give you the right to ask me...
    Joe Turner: Wh- wh- Rough you up? Have I roughed you up?
    Kathy: Yes! What are you doing in my house?
    Joe Turner: Have I? Have I?
    Kathy: Going through all my stuff? Force...
    Joe Turner: Have I raped you?
    Kathy: The night is young.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: In the end, Higgins asks Turner how he knows for certain that the newspapers will publish his story, implying that the CIA could spike the story and make all of Turner's efforts worthless.
  • Badass Bookworm: Turner goes from being a meek researcher who reads books all day into a Crazy-Prepared field operative able to outfox a trained assassin like Joubert. His background as a bookworm with some technical work is why the CIA boss played by John Houseman thinks Turner will be able to evade both his would-be executioners and the CIA itself.
  • Bait-and-Switch: It looks like Joubert is going to shoot Turner, but he kills Atwood instead. Turner then naturally assumes he'll be next, but Joubert just reassures him - the only person who's ordered him to kill Turner having just died.
  • Bulletproof Vest: Subverted. Sam, a CIA clerk who is a friend of the protagonist Turner is asked to help bring him in for debriefing and is issued a bulletproof vest "just in case". In reality the meeting is a set-up to kill Turner — when it goes wrong the wounded killer aims carefully and shoots Sam in the throat.
  • Camping a Crapper: One victim gets machine-gunned through the toilet door.
  • Can't Stop The Signal: Noticeably subverted with the Downer Ending.
  • Chekhov's Skill: When the CIA committee is going over Turner's background, Higgins mentions that he spent time as a communications researcher at Bell Labs. This explains how he has the technical know-how to hack phone lines later in the movie.
  • Clean Up Crew: A cleaning truck is seen investigating Turner's report of the shooting, and presumably cleaning up the mess afterwards.
  • Code Name: Played straight, but Turner clearly doesn't think too highly of them and has to be prompted to remember his and those of his coworkers. (He later has Hale introduce herself to Higgins as "Sparrow Hawk", probably out of pique.)
  • Codename Title: Protagonist Title for CIA spy, codename, Condor, real name, Joe Turner.
  • Conspicuous Trenchcoat: Joubert's trenchcoat practicallly screams "bad guy".
  • Conspiracy Thriller
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: Atwood. According to Higgins, he took a theoretical plan to the next level without approval - the loaded nature of this explanation does nothing to relax Turner.
    • Higgins himself becomes this. He actually thought Atwood's plan could have worked, and even argues during the final scene that in fifteen years Americans would be clamoring for the seized oil fields.
  • Creator Cameo: Pollack is both the voice of Hale's boyfriend on the phone, and a cab driver who nearly hits Turner.
  • Deadly Delivery: The CIA analyst office where Turner works has its own security — CCTV cameras, locked doors, a guard — even the receptionist has a gun in the drawer. The killers get inside by sending in a man dressed as a postman, and as the place gets regular deliveries of books this doesn't seem strange. The postman killer tries the same trick on Turner in Hale's apartment, but this time he's suspicious enough to thwart it.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: It's Christmastime—decorations, trees, carols on the radio—but that plays no factor in the plot.
  • Disposable Woman: Janice, Turner's almost-girlfriend. Subverted in the sense that she's not the sole motivating factor, and his whole office and friend serve that purpose.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The protagonist goes out of the office to get lunch and returns minutes later to find that all of his colleagues, friends and even his love interest have been murdered, himself the actual target and chance survivor.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Janice looks up from her work to see three men and two silenced Ingrams pointed at her.
    Joubert: Would you move from the window please.
    Janice: (calmly) I won't scream.
    Joubert: I know.
  • Film of the Book: The novel, written by James Grady and published in 1974, was called Six Days of the Condor. The names of the characters were different, it had another reason for killing the CIA readers (some agency higher-ups used the book shipments to smuggle drugs), and had another faction (Oversight, which polices all intelligence agencies and reports only to the Senate).
  • 555: Used with several numbers.
  • Front Organisation: American Literary Historical Society (the analyst group that Turner works for) and Five Continents Imports used by the Renegade Operation.
  • Genre Savvy: Turner, due to his constant reading of action novels and comics as part of his job. Whether that's why he had a certain insight into Kathy's photography, or he's just that appreciative of it to begin with, isn't clear.
  • Government Conspiracy
  • Guile Hero: It's repeatedly stated that Turner is not a field agent, but as the bad guys realize, that actually makes things trickier because he doesn't do what a field agent would do. His unpredictability, breadth of knowledge, and creative thinking allow him to stay ahead of them.
  • "London, England" Syndrome: Turner asks a phone operator for the Washington area code, then quickly appends that with "D.C.". He has to specify because "Washington" is actually a very common name in the region: in New York state (Where Turner is at the time) there is both a town and a county named Washington, and in neighboring New Jersey there were seven municipalities with the name at the time.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Joubert makes it look like Atwood's death is suicide.
  • A Match Made in Stockholm: Hale is kidnapped, held at gunpoint, bound and gagged by Turner—and the next day she's having sex with him. Unlike other examples of this trope however, she leaves him before the end of the movie, implying it was more in the nature of an exciting fling with a dangerous stranger before she settled down with her fiancé.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Turner, a white man, clearly has an attraction to his Asian co-worker, though he also has a white girlfriend.
  • "Number of Objects" Title
  • Ominous Multiple Screens: Used by the Major.
  • Phone-Trace Race: The CIA thinks they've traced Turner's whereabouts, but Turner has stolen a phone linesman's kit and wired fifty phones together.
  • Product Placement: Surely the reason why an Eastern Airlines plane is prominently featured, and an Eastern Airlines TV commercial plays when Turner turns the TV on.
  • Properly Paranoid: For the movie itself, Condor came out right after Watergate and Vietnam exposed a lot of criminal goings-on in government. And for Turner, this is how one day of being hunted by trained CIA assassins makes him this.
    Higgins: You never complained until yesterday.
    Turner: You didn't start killing my friends until yesterday!
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Joubert. He certainly doesn't seem to relish his work so much as the odd freedom it provides.
    Turner: (after Joubert shoots Atwood) Why?
    Joubert: I don't interest myself in "why". I think more often in terms of "when", sometimes "where", always "how much".
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: An In-Universe example. In trying to convince Kathy that he really works for the CIA, Turner tells her to look up the number for the CIA's NYC offices (as it's the same number on his ID card). Kathy balks at the "ridiculous" idea that the CIA is listed in the phone-book...only for Turner to show her that it's listed under US Government Agencies.
  • Serendipitous Survival: Joe Turner misses an assassination attempt after he leaves his workplace to pick up lunch for everybody. While he's gone, a team of mercenaries break in and slaughter all his coworkers, and Joe returns to find everyone dead.
  • Shipper on Deck: Joubert asks Turner why he chose "the girl" (Hale) as a hostage. Turner claims it was random, but Joubert doesn't seem to buy it...
  • Shout-Out: Joe Turner is the name of a minor character in A Small Town in Germany.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Turner kidnaps Hale in an attempt to evade his pursuers. Hale is obviously terrified of this gun-toting lunatic raving about working for the CIA, and doesn't appreciate getting tied up half the time. But the first chance they get, they start making out.
  • Sniper Pistol: Joubert uses a silenced and scoped Broomhandle Mauser at one stage.
  • Spanner in the Works: The only reason Turner survived the massacre was because it was raining, so he goes out the back way to get lunch. As the assassins assume he's still in the building, they go ahead with their plan.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Joubert dies in the book, but lives after saving Turner's life in the movie. The book's equivalent of Kathy (named Wendy) is also abruptly killed about halfway through the book.
  • Spy Speak: On several occasions throughout the movie, especially Joubert's phone conversations.
    Turner (After Joubert picks up the phone) We're running a survey...Do you believe the Condor is an endangered species?
  • Strategy, Schmategy: In a scene early in the film, Joubert discusses this trope, stating that he can't predict what Turner is going to do after going into hiding because he doesn't believe Turner himself, being an analyst rather than an agent, knows what he's going to do.
  • Take That!: Maybe not overt, but when Turner's boss is trying to set up a meeting with Turner he tells Turner to look for a guy carrying the Wall Street Journal. Turner dismisses the plan with a "Fuck the Wall Street Journal!" Then at the end of the movie Turner gives his story to the New York Times, the Journal's main rival.
  • Team Killer: Joe Turner works for the CIA, reading books to detect any leaks of sensitive material. While out to lunch, Turner's Bad Boss Joubert arrives with some mooks at Turner's workplace, and slaughters everyone there. Turner takes innocent Kathy Hale hostage, and hides out in her apartment until he can figure out why his superiors want him silenced forever.
  • Time Title
  • War for Fun and Profit: The CIA is involved in provoking a war in the Middle East to ensure plentiful oil supplies to the US.
  • Wham Line: After Turner reveals that he spilled the whole story to the New York Times, foiling the CIA's plans out of spite.
    Higgins: Hey, Turner! How do you know they'll print it? ...How do you know...?
  • You Know Too Much: Turner at both the beginning and end of the movie. Also Turner's friend who was supposed to help bring him in is killed because he sees Wicks try to shoot Turner instead.