On a recent flight, I rewatched one of the great political thrillers of all-time: Three Days of the Condor.
From start to finish, the movie is a suspenseful, action-packed thriller, perfect for a three-hour flight.
Based on the 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, the film was shot in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the final stages of the Vietnam War, which might help explain the movie’s dark reveal at the end, which comes only after the body count grows and the plot is slowly unraveled.
The entire film is an emotional roller-coaster, in part because viewers are teased and left guessing who is good and who is bad. But it’s the final scene that contains the most terrifying and important message. Let’s first take a closer look at the story.
‘Everybody Is Dead’
Directed by the late, great Sydney Pollack, Three Days of the Condor stars Robert Redford as a low-level CIA analyst named Joe Turner (codename Condor) who finds himself on the run when the small CIA office he works at is hit by a team of killers led by a European hit man known only as Joubert (Max von Sydow).
The slayings are fast, dispassionate, and efficient. About a half-dozen people are left dead, including Turner’s love interest who is politely asked to “step away from the window” before she is gunned down. Turner, who was out getting lunch when the attack takes place, manages to escape the carnage.
Why the hit took place is a mystery, but it’s a question our hero is determined to solve. The word hero might be a stretch, however, because Turner is just a low-level CIA flunky. Several times he reminds us he “just reads books” and files reports on them, like when he calls in the hit to the home office.
“The section’s been hit,” he tells an operator who calls himself the Major.
Major: “What level?”
Turner: “What level?
Major: Level of damage.”
Turner: “Everybody. Dr. Lappe, Janice, Ray, Harold. Harold was in the, uh--”
At this point, the Major scolds Turner for breaking procedure by calling from a phone booth, which prompts Turner to snap back.
“Listen, you son of a b**ch! I came back with lunch. The house was murdered. Everybody is dead,” he tells the Major. “Will you bring me in, please? I'm not a field agent. I just read books.”
These last lines are important because it establishes that Turner is just a regular guy. He has no agenda, unlike the other CIA brass we encounter.
After some back and forth telephoning with the Major, Condor is put in touch with Higgins, the deputy director of the CIA's New York bureau, who arranges to have Turner meet the head of the DC branch, who’d be accompanied by someone Turner trusts.
The meeting goes south, however, when Turner’s friend is capped in the head by the man accompanying him. Turner manages to escape again, and eventually takes captive a young woman (Faye Dunaway) so he can hide out in her apartment and rest. Naturally, this being a movie, a romance sparks.
The couple’s peace is fleeting, however, as their location is quickly discovered. Turner manages to survive yet another hit attempt, killing one of the men involved in the hit on his CIA office.
‘Someone You Know, Maybe Even Trust’
Throughout this whirlwind of events, viewers are left trying to piece together what’s happening. Everyone seems suspicious, and it’s not entirely clear who the good guys are.
Eventually we learn something shocking (SPOILER ALERT): Joubert isn’t working against the CIA. He’s working for the CIA. Turner, it turns out, stumbled on an off-the-books CIA operation designed to procure oil from the Middle East, ensuring US national security for decades. When Turner accidentally discovered evidence of the operation, Leonard Atwood, Deputy Director of Operations for the CIA’s Middle East division, ordered the entire office taken out to maintain the secret.
Turner learns all this while holding Atwood at gunpoint in his home near the end of the film. Unfortunately for Turner, the contract-killer Joubert arrives and appears to finally have the jump on the Condor. In another unexpected twist, however, Joubert instead kills Atwood, who had hired Joubert to eliminate Turner’s section. (Sensing an embarrassment for “the company,” Atwood’s superiors contracted with Joerbert to have him suicided.)
Following Atwood’s “suicide,” Joubert and Turner walk out of his home into the early morning air. An uncomfortable silence lingers. Finally, the hitman begins to politely chat with Turner, the man he was trying to kill a day earlier (and whose girlfriend he did kill). Joubert kindly offers to give Turner a lift. When Condor declines, saying he just wants to go back to New York, Joubert utters perhaps the most memorable lines of the film.
“You have not much future there. It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.”
The True Terror of a Deep State
Three Days of the Condor is a masterpiece in part because it creates a sense of paranoia. Viewers don’t know who to trust, and this creates a suspended feeling of tension throughout the film.
This sense of paranoia is only heightened when we learn the US government is behind the killings, all for the greater good of “the company” and the United States.
Many today mock the idea that “a deep state” could actually exist in the US government, but in 1975 the idea didn’t seem quite as crazy. In the wake of Watergate and Pentagon Papers, Americans were dealt the harsh truth that people in power have agendas beyond what’s said in press releases, and sometimes they do things in pursuit of those agendas that are dishonest, inhumane, and even criminal.
In 1975, some viewers probably found comfort in the idea that these nefarious activities were only carried out by Richard Nixon, a failed president who resigned in disgrace. The frightening truth is, agencies like the FBI and the CIA were engaging in shady operations way before Nixon became president—and long after he resigned.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the CIA shooting up offices and murdering people in broad daylight, like in Three Days of the Condor (though the CIA did consider killing Cuban refugees and bombing Miami in its plot to take down Fidel Castro).
I’m talking more about a catalog of verified historical events that range from ethically bankrupt to dehumanizing to overtly criminal. This includes the CIA forcing prisoners to partake in drug experiments to study mind control (Project MK Ultra), the FBI staging acts of terrorism so they can “foil” the plot, the CIA planting war propaganda with compliant media (as documented in former New York Times journalist Tim Weiner’s book Legacy of Ashes), agencies spying on Senate intel committees and publicly lying about it, and the FBI sending letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. instructing him to kill himself. The list goes on.
The idea that “deep state” operatives exist in the US government operating with their own agendas should frighten us. But Three Days of the Condor shows the true terror of a deep state isn’t necessarily the crimes it commits.
At the end of the film, it appears like our protagonist Joe Turner has actually won. Atwood is dead. Joubert is no longer a threat. And Turner has gone to The New York Times with his story.
But in the final scene at a street corner in New York City, Turner meets Higgins, the deputy director of the CIA's New York bureau. Played by Cliff Robertson (the kind-faced fellow who played Uncle Ben to Tobey Maguire in Spiderman), Higgins is a character we kind of like. While we don’t actually trust him, it was Higgins who helped guide Turner out of his mess and is presumably the man who ordered Atwood taken out. But he also is clearly playing his own game.
In the most important scene of the movie, Turner tells Higgins he spilled the beans to the Grey Lady. The story is out, he says confidently, and there’s nothing Higgins can do about it.
“Awwa, you poor, dumb son-of-a-b**ch,” Higgins says with a crestfallen look.
Turner turns on his heel and walks away, triumphantly we think. Then Higgins calls out to him.
“Hey Turner,” he says. “How do you know they’ll print it?”
Suddenly it’s Turner who looks crestfallen, even a bit frightened.
“They’ll print it,” he replies, but his voice shakes just a little.
Now it’s Higgins who looks steely confident.
“How do you know?” Higgins asks.
Turner offers no reply and the film doesn’t say what happens next. But Turner’s look is meant to tell us—and his eyes reveal fear and the true terror of a deep state.
What makes a deep state truly frightening isn’t that invisible factions within the government will act unethically or even criminally in pursuit of their agendas to serve “a greater good.” It’s that they will be able to do so and never be held accountable, even when they are caught, because they control information.
This is precisely why we should resist government attempts to control information.
Albert Einstein once noted this is a well-worn path to tyranny.
“Any government is evil if it carries within it the tendency to deteriorate into Tyranny,” he warned. “The danger of such deterioration is more acute in a country in which the government has authority not only over the armed forces but also over every channel of education and information.”
In the end, Three Days of the Condor leaves us with a riddle. What is the use of a free press if those with influence are too afraid or corrupt to print the truth?