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“We have games. That’s all. We play games. What if? How many men? What would it take? Is there a cheaper way to destabilize a regime? That’s what we’re paid to do.” —J. Higgins
America is locking horns with Russia and China. The country is mired in a long and unpopular war. The streets are full of protesters and the specter of terrorism hovers over the news.
This is not today. This is a snapshot of the world when Three Days of the Condor hit theaters in 1975. Sydney Pollack’s thriller was a reflection of the political climate, as Watergate reinforced the idea that, hey, maybe the people in charge aren’t putting country first.
Three Days of the Condor was based on the 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, which follows a CIA analyst codenamed Condor—Ronald Malcolm in the book, Joe Turner as portrayed by Robert Redford in the film.
The movie version has more differences than title and timeframe. Pollack opted for New York City over D.C., and the object of nefarious desire was shifted from drugs in the book to oil in the film.
For the record, I asked Grady why Hollywood cut three days from Condor’s exile. He said Pollack didn’t want to account for Redford having to shave for five or six days, plus they wanted to keep the action non-stop.
In both versions, Condor has a cushy gig scouring novels and newspapers from around the world, looking for hidden messages and new ideas. One day he goes out to lunch and comes back to find his officemates slaughtered. He was clearly meant to be among them and he goes on the run, unsure why, not knowing whom within the CIA he can trust.
“What is it with you people? You think not getting caught in the lie is the same as telling the truth?” —Joe Turner
There are a lot of reasons Condor is a classic. He’s a regular guy. Not a former Navy Seal who opted for a desk job, but a guy who seems unable to handle the gun he pulls from his colleague’s desk. The intrigue may be timely, but it also tapped into an eternal sense of fear and paranoia: When in history did people actually trust their government?
At its heart, Condor is about a man on the run. We’re all the hero of our own story, and this is that principle in practice, where the protagonist has no one to rely on but his or her own wits and ingenuity. It’s easy to feel powerless and it’s comforting to know someone could be out there, fighting the good fight—and more than that, they could win. It’s the triumph of the virtuous individual over the corrupt system. Keep boiling down and distilling and you could probably find roots in David v. Goliath.
Condor may not be the first man-on-the-run thriller, but it’s one of the best, influencing countless stories since. But there’s one contemporary example that really stands above the rest, because it wears its homage on its sleeve—Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
“The 21st century is a digital book… Your bank records, medical histories, voting patterns, e-mails, phone calls, your damn SAT scores. Zola's algorithm evaluates peoples' past to predict their future.” —Jasper Sitwell
Gone is the paranoia of Watergate, replaced by Wikileaks and the Patriot Act. But Robert Redford is back as Alexander Pierce, this time standing on the other side of the line.
Unlike Condor, Steve Rogers is not a regular guy. In Winter Soldier he rocks a platoon of soldiers in an elevator, falls thirty stories onto his shield, and then single-handedly takes down a small aircraft. While the evil CIA faction in Condor has its sights set on one corner of the world, HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD comes with the lofty goal of world domination.
But it’s the same story: Man on the run, unsure who to trust, pursued by enigmatic hitmen—Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier coming for Cap, and Max von Sydow’s Joubert hunting Condor.
At the end of the day, the only things Cap and Condor have are their values, driving them to do the right thing.
“Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so people could be free. This isn't freedom, this is fear.” —Steve Rogers
Condor endures well outside of Winter Soldier. It was referenced in Out of Sight—both the film, and the book by Elmore Leonard. There was Hank spying on Gus’s meth operation in Breaking Bad, and declaring, “Shit, it's starting to feel like Three Days of the Condor, you know?"
I remember seeing that, and, knowing Grady, wondering how that must have felt. I asked him about it recently. “I saw that episode without any warning, a regular glued-to-his-home-TV-screen fan, and when that happened, I almost had a heart attack,” he told me.
In my day job as a publisher, I put out the eBook and paperback of Six Days of the Condor. I remember reading it when I got this gig and being enthralled. Thriller and espionage books can sometimes get lost in the machinations of their own plots, but there’s something refreshingly straightforward about Condor.
I pulled on a lot of influences for my new novel, The Woman from Prague—from Geoffrey Household’s 1939 thriller Rogue Male to Kingsman: The Secret Service. But Condor planted the seed and loomed large over the story, which is essentially the tale of a man on the run, outgunned, driven by his belief system to do the right thing.
As a writer at the beginning of his career, I can only imagine what that must feel like, to write something that’s not only still relevant, four decades later, but recognized as such. I asked Grady about that, too:
“I can't find the right words to describe any and all of that. I'm blown away by the luck and poetry of a what-if question that seized this 21 year old Montana kid walking the winter streets of Washington, D.C.—that three years later it exploded into something so far beyond me, all I can do is watch with joyous, reverent awe.”
Grady and I are going to talk about all this and more next month—on August 7, Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn will screen Three Days of the Condor, after which I’ll conduct a Q&A with Grady.
It’ll be a thrill to see the movie on the big screen and then jaw about it afterward. Both of us will have books on sale, provided by The Mysterious Bookshop, and we’ll hang around afterward to sign them.
I’ve already got some questions in mind for the event, but feel free to shout some out down in the comments. Maybe I’ll use some of them…