Rarely is the hero the one whose actions lie not in the realm of practice but in that of theory. Valour and strength typify the hero; physicality is the emblem of the hero. The champion protagonist is a protagonist of the body, a shifting somatic presence whose persona wrenches forth from the dynamic of the body. Shape and motion are inseparable from the tangible acts that the hero engages in.
Rarely is the hero the reader, that figure of mind not body. The routine of the reader is antithetical to that of the hero. The devourer of words is seen as passive, a spectator, a slave to the abstract manoeuvres of theory. The reader stands distinct from the kinetic picture of the hero. All of which is unjust, for not only is knowledge power, but words too have a power, a potency; words wield strengths wholly their own. The derisive expletive may be less effective than a kick in the ballbag, but a stream of torturous words does have the potential to be considerably more effecting and destructive than even that. Underestimate the power of the reader at your own peril.
It’s with this idea that we arrive at Three Days of the Condor, Sydney Pollack’s 1975 thriller starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.
“I just read books,” confesses Redford’s protagonist Joseph Turner (codename: Condor). “We read everything that’s published in the world.”
Turner works for a secret subdivision of the CIA. This subdivision employs the clever and the wise to pour over books and magazines, searching out leaks and hidden codes, striving to derive new ideas and schemes. One day, while Turner completes his daily lunch run, a gang of armed men burst into the offices and shoot dead all of Turner’s colleagues. He returns to find the offices empty of all but cadavers and quickly escapes. Thus ensues three days of deception and murder, distrust and paranoia, as Turner slowly comes to see the sinister underside of his employers.
“That’s a very bright man,” says the gourmet at the local deli, pointing at Turner as he cuts a sandwich.
Turner is the reader, the theoretician. He lives in a place of observation, formulating analysis, creating theories. When chaos and confusion interrupt his life, he is forced into acting. The thinker becomes the man of action. Theory is thrust into practice, abruptly transitioning like Marxism into Leninism into Stalinism. Hopefully with fewer mistakes, it must be said, with less dire consequences. But that’s the thing about such a segue: it’s unpredictable, it’s its own test, its own experiment; the different ways it can evolve are myriad.
Turner’s unconventional hero must contend with his situation as best he can. Like Kurt Russell’s bookworm intelligence analyst in Executive Decision, Turner must adapt quickly, for he too is without Steven Seagal to help him.
The world is one of Kafka-esque bafflement. Layers upon layers of mystique hang over everything. Turner stumbles into a puzzling grid where only a few of the lines are discernable. A CIA boss remarks, “I don’t know, that’s what worries me.’ This is the void of knowledge that fills the film. Solace and comfort expire in the vacancy of information, and menace and danger take their place in the new, threatening reality. Turner is a man who usually does know, a man who usually does possess the facts. But for the first time he is sans knowledge. What he thought he knew is revealed as incomplete – the scope of his theory did not encompass everything. It was porous and failed to be comprehensive. Theory slides into powerlessness, turning insufficient, turning superfluous.
Faced with the failure of theory (the killing of a character named Heidegger acts as a convenient piece of symbolism here), Turner is left to embrace practice. Fights ensue, men are shot: the act takes centre stage. His eyes may twitch with rumination, but with his decision to take Faye Dunaway hostage (to get off the street, to get some rest, to get some time to think) and his later intimacies with her, he has unequivocally moved into the realm of practice. It’s as if Schopenhauer had suddenly transformed into Rutger Hauer.
The newly-formed hero has to try and discover the truth behind the murder of his colleagues. He is plunged into a world of clandestine schemes and whispered plans. A place where interlocutors change language mid-conversion if anyone happens to pass by. A place where the only sound heard is the dead echo of the phone not picked up. Turner must contend with this dark, urban space, bleak like Dunaway’s photographs of New York in winter, her images of black and white isolation.
Three Days of the Condor is another sublime entry in the canon of 70s paranoia thrillers. Like Alan Pakula’s loose trilogy, the film speaks of the disillusionment of the time, distrust of the establishment. The events of Vietnam and Watergate float ominously in the background. These are years that saw the death of free love, the death of emotion, expression, release, the utopian ideal – all crushed by Nixon, by war, by dirty political games. The Cold War became not a thing out there, not something occurring elsewhere, but something right here, something right in the heart of democracy and freedom. It dawned, thick and clear: those guys we elected – the guys living our space, breathing our air, one of us, part of us – are no better than those guys over there, the supposed enemy. Turner’s presumption that his superiors can be trusted is ruthlessly destroyed as he sees his friends killed, as he tries to avoid his own death. Friends are foes in this place where distrust becomes ubiquitous.
All the facets of this paranoid reality come to life in Pollack’s expert direction. The stilled cameras and heavy silences, the increasing tension as the narrative slowly discloses the truth. The sparse soundtrack adds the chilling ambience of isolation, underscoring the evocations of dread and claustrophobia. Three Days of the Condor is a perfect slice of miasmic cinema, murkily captivating.