Deconstructing A Fight To The Death in Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Three Days of the Condor is a 1975 thriller about a nebbish CIA analyst caught up in a game of intrigue. Praised by critics and a moderate box office hit, the film’s plot (and star) had great influence on the superhero movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In a small office tucked inside a distinguished looking building called the American Literary Historical Society, Joe Turner (Robert Redford) works as a CIA analyst reading books and magazines, skimming through newspapers and articles, searching for possible hidden messages or codes. His coworkers spend their time solving puzzles and brain-teasers while sifting through documents and correspondents. Joe is a smart man, organized and inquisitive. He repairs office machinery and is quick to have answers. He sees patterns in everything and is even able to determine the time when it will rain, which it does, on this day at 10:20. Out on the street, a man in a car has a list of names, all belonging to the people inside. One by one he is lining them out.

Turner has been curious about a fiction book with some oddities that have him thinking it might be something important. He’d sent some of his research out for further examination, detailing passages that reveal strange plot twists, but it’s the peculiar number of translations into other languages that him most interested. While rains continue to pour outside, Turner is sent out for an office lunch run and instead of using the front door, he heads out the back security gate to make the trip to the deli that much closer. He orders sandwiches, has some banter with the cook obviously based on years of being a regular, then heads back as the rain dissipates. At the office front gate, he notices the door, which is always locked and monitored by camera is slightly ajar. He nudges in and finds the receptionist and security guard dead, both riddled with bullets. On the stairwell is another body. On the second floor lie three more, including his girlfriend and a fellow analyst. His troubles are only just beginning.

Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor, 1975 ©Paramount Pictures

Directed by Sydney Pollack and based on the James Grady novel, Six Days of the Condor, the film is a classic study in hunter versus hunted and features one of Robert Redford’s most under-rated performances as a man thrust into a fight for survival in world where no one can be trusted. Hyper-realistic, the film is expertly edited and paced, keeping the circling Joe in a constant state of catch-up as the people he once trusted either are killed or turn against him. And like every movie, it has one great moment.

Fight To The Death

Joe is in hiding at Kathy Hale’s (Faye Dunaway) home, a woman he forcibly abducted on the street out of desperation, but who has taken to his side and is now working with him to uncover why he is being hunted. While the two have kept secret for a short time, he is spotted driving her car and his location is discovered by a contract killer named Joubert (Max von Sydow). He sends a hitman, dressed as a U.S. Postal Worker to get inside and quietly take Joe out. It’s perfect plan, but Turner isn’t a casual observer. The fake postman has got the uniform right, but not the shoes.

Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor, 1975 ©Paramount Pictures

Here’s out it plays out: Kathy is in the shower when the doorbell rings. Joe jumps a bit, as do we. Through the barred windows, he sees a postman and the familiarity of the uniform is temporarily settling. The man’s demeanor and attitude are also reflective of his job and help to curb the sudden tension. But right away, things are questionable. First, the man’s ballpoint pen is dry. This forces Joe to go inside in search of another. The postal worker follows, and then, second, we see his footwear: worn, brown sneakers. Joe spots them as well and it takes just a second to register. It’s almost too late. The killer unsheathes a suppressed MAC-10 sub-machine gun from his satchel, but as he does, Joe hurls a steaming pot of coffee at him, forcing the surprised assassin to drop the weapon. The men rush at each other.

Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor, 1975 ©Paramount Pictures

There are two guns in play. One, the MAC, has landed on the sofa while Joe’s .45 is on the nearby kitchen counter. Out of reach of both, Joe brandishes a fireplace stoker and thrashes at the man, but does not connect. A tense standoff ensues and each man knows that only one will survive. The killer makes a move for the MAC, but is thwarted by a strike of the stoker. He kicks at Joe and sends him to the carpet, which Turner uses to trip up the postman, literally pulling the rug out  from underneath him (a subtle metaphor for how unexpected Joe’s skills at defense are to the killer). As this continues. Kathy emerges from the back and quickly attacks the assassin, who now has the sub-machine gun and starts firing blindly. This gives Joe time to retrieve the pistol and put two bullets into the hitman.

Kathy panics and goes into a moment of shock as Joe himself tries to gather his wits. He instructs her to get dressed as he searches the body, finding a key and a cryptic sheet of paper with numbers. He surmises they are a phone number and an extension. Still nearly out of breath, he grabs the phone and dials, but the extension he calls does not exist. He then dials the number again, only this time with the area code for Washington D.C. He reaches the CIA and realizes that the dead man sent to kill him is a hired gun for the very company he works for and the people who were once his superiors are now trying to kill him.

The moment is unconventional. Devoid of the action clichés of modern films with expertly choreographed fight sequences and second-by-second hand-held jump cuts artificially inflating the urgency, the death battle between “The Mailman” and Joe is strikingly real. Neither are highly trained at hand-to-hand combat, and only one is a master with a firearm. While any other movie would hurl the two at each other with sweeping punches and skillful kicks, in this movie they simply face one another, both fully aware that there can only be one ending. One will die this day. It’s chilling.

Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor, 1975 ©Paramount Pictures

The camera settles in on their faces and does nothing more. Imagine that. No dramatic music. No herky-jerky jumps. Just two combatants. It’s a remarkable moment and reveals a powerful restrain by director Pollack. He chooses silence when we expect the opposite. Completely free of dialog, and utterly absent of shouting, swearing, taunting or wise-cracks, the characters don’t care about a single thing other than to survive. The stare down is everything.

Redford is better than ever here, his face a canvas of fear and fight. We can feel the terror behind his eyes and rise up with our own fear as the moment lingers. When the fight continues, its a sloppy, awkward battle that utterly captures what we would expect it to be if it were real. They stumble and fall about the room, and each is desperate to get an upper hand. When Kathy enters the fray and Joe shoots the assassin, we are again allowed to let the moment seize. It’s the first time Joe has killed someone, and while that is a throw away line in most films, there is a real sense of comprehension in Turner’s face as he lays out the attacking assassin. He freezes in shock and his eyes glaze over as he watches a man he’s killed crumple to the floor and Kathy cower in fear shrieking in panic. It’s tough. It’s gritty. And it feels genuine.

Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor, 1975 ©Paramount Pictures

Then, perhaps as his training kicks in, we watch Joe start to put his analytical skills to work, assessing and gathering information, putting together a larger picture from a scattered source. He puts Kathy on task to get dressed, but concentrates on the dead body, quickly finding a clue that, with his knowledge, leads him directly to the answer he most dreaded. Or at least, a direction he didn’t want to go.

It’s right here where the moment finds its perfect pitch. Joe attempts to use the found phone numbers to learn the identity of the killer or why he came after him. The scene is extraordinarily well-constructed. Turner is down on one knee, emphasizing his unstable position. He’s literally unable to stand while he begins the call. Behind him, a row of books has toppled just above his head, where as all other books remain perfectly aligned. This is subtle comment on his current state. His life and career as a CIA analyst has been about discovering and gathering intelligence through reading books and here we see a nice visual representation of that life falling over.

Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor, 1975 ©Paramount Pictures

More so, behind him, a ladder is literally resting upside down. His world is flipped and to climb “out”, he must go down as going up will only lead him to the dangers (the decision-makers he works for) he is facing. It serves as visual clue for his next move. By the time he recognizes who is behind the curtain (to draw a metaphor from another film), he is standing up, the camera sweeping up close as his focus returns. He then slams the phone down.

Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor, 1975 ©Paramount Pictures

This marks the film’s significant shift in tone, sending Joe out of the apartment and more importantly, out of hiding. Properly running scared to this point, Turner has enough pieces of the game to start manipulating it himself and even tells Kathy he’s not going to wait for the next “mailman” to come after him. But he can’t do it alone, pulling her into the mix, whom is more than up to that task. It’s a great moment.

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