Three Days Of The Condor | 1975
From the mid-Seventies heyday of paranoia conspiracy thrillers comes Sydney Pollack’s Hitchcockesque thriller which proved oddly prescient in its politics – if not in its sexual politics.
Condor is the code-name of low-level CIA employee Joe Turner (Robert Redford) whose office co-workers are bloodily gunned down while he’s briefly away from the office.
His section is hardly standard secret agent stuff, but a small team employed to plough through all printed materials on the lookout for anything that might raise a red flag for the agency.
They work, under the innocuous guise of the ‘American Literary Historical Society’, out of the elaborate 1902 Beaux Arts house at 55 East 77th Street at Madison Avenue on New York's East Side.
Fortuitously for Turner, the massacre occurs while he’s briefly sneaked out of the building’s rear entrance. He’s getting sandwiches from the Lexington Candy Shop Luncheonette, 1226 Lexington Avenue on the corner of East 83rd Street. It’s worth the six-block walk. This Manhattan institution dating from 1925 which, amazingly, continues virtually unchanged,is the oldest luncheonette in New York City. It continues to serve up traditional American fare, and its interior hasn’t been updated since 1948.
Warned by his CIA contact not to speak to anyone or return to his home, Turner finds himself terrifyingly alone in Manhattan.
His first instinct is to blend into the anonymity of the crowds at the nearby Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue. The huge white spiral, opened in 1959 and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, houses a vast collection of mainly non-representational modern art. It dominates 5th Avenue, opposite Central Park at 89th Street and features on-screen again in Men In Black and Tom Tykwer’s 2009 thriller The International.
One other member of the team, Heidegger, had been absent from the office at the time of the killings. In frustration, and ignoring advice, Turner goes to check on Heidegger at his Upper West Side apartment, 20 West 71st Street near Central Park West. He finds Heidegger dead and only narrowly avoids a couple of spooks who are also sniffing around.
Even more recklessly, he sneaks back to his own Chelsea apartment, 485 West 22nd Street at 10th Avenue, only to be tipped off by an unwitting neighbour that “two friends are already waiting for him”.
After a couple of hours, as instructed, he rings the agency and speaks to a CIA controller called Higgins (Cliff Robertson).
There’s a level of poignancy that couldn’t have been contemplated in 1975 when it turns out Higgins’ office is in One World Trade Center, North Tower, with its amazing view down to the Empire State Building.
The twin towers appear on the skyline of countless films but Three Days Of The Condor is one of the few, if not the only one, to film inside the towers. Here the monoliths are used to represent the all-seeing, yet anonymous institutions of national security hiding in plain sight.
Higgins, whom Turner has never met, arranges a meeting to bring him in at the alleyway which runs behind the landmark Ansonia building, 2109 Broadway, between West 72nd and West 73rd Streets on the Upper West Side.
Turner sits waiting on the steps of 251 West 73rd Street alongside the alley until the appointed time. Of course, the rendezvous turns out to be a trap and Turner is lucky to escape with his life.
Now totally isolated, his desperation forces him to abduct a total stranger, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) from outside a clothing store on Broadway at 76th Street and demand to be taken to her home.
The terrified Kathy is forced at gunpoint to drive over the Brooklyn Bridge to her place in the basement at 9 Cranberry Street, Brooklyn Heights (which would make her a neighbour of Cher in 1987’s Moonstruck, who lived a few doors along at number 19).
As Turner tries to figure out what the hell is going on, there develops an uneasy relationship which sees him both leaving Kathy tied up in the bathroom for long periods of time and enjoying apparently consensual sex with her.
In true Hitchcockian fashion, Kathy is eventually convinced by Turner’s unlikely story and agrees to help him. Inveigling her way into the WTC, Kathy manages to find Higgins’ office and get a glimpse of the mysterious agent.
Now able to recognise Turner’s remote controller, she confronts him at what was McCoy’s restaurant, and is now EPasta, 20 Maiden Lane, in the Financial District. Convinced that the unseen Turner has a gun trained on him, Higgins is forced to exit the restaurant only to find himself unceremoniously bundled into a car and whisked off to a seemingly remote and deserted riverfront.
This is Wards Island, across the Harlem River from East Harlem. On the shore of the island’s southern tip, alongside the Ward’s Island Footbridge, Higgins reluctantly reveals that the assassin is Joubert (Max Von Sydow), a freelance hitman occasionally employed to do the agency’s dirty work.
Turner traces the chillingly matter-of-fact killer to what was the Holiday Inn, now the Watson Hotel, 440 West 57th Street at 9th Avenue on the West Side, where he uses his particular skillset to intercept Joubert’s phone calls.
Joubert, it turns out, has been hired by a rogue agent in Maryland, called Atwood, and it’s time for Turner to take a trip away from the city.
He says his goodbyes to Kathy at the splendid old Hoboken Railway Station, Hoboken, across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Photogenic enough to have appeared in Funny Girl, Once Upon A Time In America and Kal Ho Naa Ho, the terminal suffered flood damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 but has happily been restored.
Atwood’s ‘Maryland’ mansion is in reality no further away than one of the grand estates on Long Island, and it's here Turner finally pieces together the convoluted plot.
Now the standard device of every American political thriller, the imperative to take control of Middle Eastern oil resources was a shockingly new idea in 1975.
Turner arranges one last meeting, and it’s outside the old offices of the New York Times, 229 West 43rd Street, that he reveals to a horrified Higgins that the whole account of CIA machinations has been leaked to the press.
In teasingly ambiguous style, the film ends on the unanswered question, will the NYT print the story?