Set mainly in New York City and Washington, D.C., the film is about a bookish CIA researcher who comes back from lunch, discovers all his co-workers murdered, and tries to outwit those responsible until he figures out whom he can really trust. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Film Editing. Semple and Rayfiel received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.
Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) is a CIA analyst, code named "Condor." He works in a clandestine office in New York City, which operates as a front called the "American Literary Historical Society." Turner's task is to read books, newspapers, and magazines from around the world, looking for hidden meanings and new ideas. As part of his duties, Turner files a report to CIA headquarters on a low-quality thriller novel his office has been reading, pointing out strange plot elements therein, and the unusual assortment of languages into which the book has been translated (Spanish and Dutch but not German or French, and both Arabic and Persian).
On the day that Turner is expecting a response to his report, a team of assassins arrives during the lunch hour and murders six of Turner's co-workers: the receptionist, a security officer, the elderly office director, two male researchers, and a female researcher Janice Chong (who was also Turner's girlfriend). Turner wasn't gunned down because it was his turn to pick up lunch for the office, and due to rainy weather he took a back-lobby route out of the building that the killers weren't aware existed. Returning to find his co-workers' bodies, a frightened Turner calls the CIA's New York headquarters in the World Trade Center, and is given instructions to meet his Head of Department (Wicks), who will bring him into safety. Turner independently finds that a seventh co-worker, an older alcoholic man who stayed home that day, was also murdered. The rendezvous is however a trap. Wicks murders Turner's best friend, a CIA staffer who was genuinely trying to bring him in safely, and attempts to kill Turner, who wounds his assailant before escaping himself.
Needing a place to hide, Turner forces a woman, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), whom he encounters by chance in a ski shop, to take himself to her apartment in Brooklyn Heights. He holds Kathy prisoner while attempting to figure out what is going on. Hale begins to trust Turner and they become lovers. However, his hiding place is discovered by Joubert (Max von Sydow): a European contract killer who led the massacre of Turner's co-workers. Joubert spots Turner driving Hale's car and notes the license plate number. A hitman disguised as a mailman (Hank Garrett), with a parcel that requires a signature, arrives at the apartment and a fight ensues. Turner, although he has no history as a fighter or assassin, is able to ward off the "mailman" before he gets the drop on the hood and fatally shoots the gunman in front of a terrified Hale.
Deciding that he cannot trust anyone within the CIA, Turner begins to play a cat-and-mouse game with Higgins (Cliff Robertson), the Deputy Director of the CIA's New York division, and who had picked up the original report from Condor and forwarded it to Wicks back at HQ. With the help of Hale, Turner abducts Higgins, who identifies Joubert as a skilled freelance assassin with a history of contract work for the CIA. Back at his office, Higgins discovers that the "mailman" who attacked Turner in Hale's apartment worked with Joubert on a previous operation. Their CIA case officer on that occasion was Wicks.
Meanwhile, using a numbered hotel room key he found on the fake postman's body, Turner learns where Joubert is staying, then uses his skills as a former Army Signals Corps technician to trace a call made from his hotel room. This gives him the name and address of Leonard Atwood (Addison Powell); he is the CIA's Deputy Director of Operations for the Middle East and apparently senior to Higgins. Turner confronts Atwood in his Maryland mansion late at night and questions him at gunpoint. Turner learns that the report he had filed had uncovered a general operations plan to seize oil fields in the Middle East. The planning "game" is later described as a rogue project initiated without formal approval from above. Fear of its disclosure was sufficient to have Atwood privately order the elimination of Turner's section.
Joubert surprises them, takes away Turner's pistol, and then unexpectedly murders Atwood. Atwood's own superiors have hired the professional to stage the suicide of someone who was about to become an embarrassment, overriding Atwood's original contract for Joubert to kill Turner. Joubert suggests that Turner leave the country, even becoming an assassin himself since Turner had shown such resourcefulness in staying alive. Turner has no interest in becoming an assassin or leaving the U.S. However, Joubert outlines how he will ultimately be betrayed and killed (being offered a ride by a trusted friend on the first sunny and warm day of spring) and Turner clearly believes him. A sympathetic Joubert says he'll give Turner a ride to the local train station and also hands him back his pistol "for that day."
Turner goes back to New York City and meets Higgins on a busy street. Higgins defends the oil fields plan, claiming that there will be a day in which oil shortages will cause a major economic crisis for the country, and that Americans will want the government to use any means necessary to save them from discomfort. Turner says he has given the press "a story" (they are standing outside The New York Times office), presumably blowing the whistle on what he views as an increasingly volatile and a dangerously unchecked CIA. Higgins, however, questions whether the story will ever make it to print. "They'll print it," Turner replies. A moment later, an apprehensive Turner walks off -- silently contemplating the possibility that he may indeed have to continue running -- as Higgins' final question hangs in the air: "How do you know?"
Three Days of the Condor was filmed in various locations in New York City, New Jersey, and Washington DC, including the World Trade Center, 55 East 77th Street, NYC, The Ansonia, Central Park, and the National Mall.
The film earned $8,925,000 in theatrical showings in North America.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 86% of 43 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review, and the average rating was 7.1/10; the site's consensus is: "This post-Watergate thriller captures the paranoid tenor of the times, thanks to Sydney Pollack's taut direction and excellent performances from Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway."
When first released, the film was reviewed positively by critic Vincent Canby, who wrote that the film "is no match for stories in your local newspaper", but it benefits from good acting and directing. Variety called it a B movie that was given a big budget despite its lack of substance. Roger Ebert wrote, "Three Days of the Condor is a well-made thriller, tense and involving, and the scary thing, in these months after Watergate, is that it's all too believable."
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard makes mention of the film as an example of a new genre of "retro cinema" in his essay on history in the now influential book, Simulacra and Simulation (1981):
In the 'real' as in cinema, there was history but there isn't any anymore. Today, the history that is 'given back' to us (precisely because it was taken from us) has no more of a relation to a 'historical real' than neofiguration [sic] in painting does to the classical figuration of the real...All, but not only, those historical films whose very perfection is disquieting: Chinatown, Three Days of the Condor, Barry Lyndon, 1900, All the President's Men, etc. One has the impression of it being a question of perfect remakes, of extraordinary montages that emerge more from a combinatory [sic] culture (or McLuhanesque mosaic), of large photo-, kino-, historicosynthesis [sic] machines, etc., rather than one of veritable films."
Some critics also described the film as a piece of political propaganda, as it was released soon after the "Family Jewels" scandal came to light in December 1974 which exposed a variety of CIA misconduct. However, in an interview with Jump Cut, Pollack explained that the film was written solely to be a spy thriller and that production on the film was nearly over by the time the Family Jewels revelations were made, so even if they had wanted to take advantage of them, it was far too late in the filmmaking process to do so. Despite both Pollack and Redford being well-known political liberals, they were only interested in making the film because an espionage thriller was a genre neither of them had previously explored.
I didn't want this picture to be judged; it’s a movie. I intended it always as a movie. I never had any pretensions about the picture and it’s making me very angry that I'm getting pretensions stuck on me like tails on a donkey. If I wanted to be pretentious, I'd take the CIA seal and advertise this movie and really take advantage of the headlines. Central Intelligence Agency, United States of America, Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway. And don't think it wasn't suggested—obviously, that’s what advertising people do. We really put our foot down—Redford and I—to absolutely stop that.Wins
Cartagena Film Festival: Golden India Catalina, Best Actor, Max von Sydow; 1976.
David di Donatello Awards: Special David, Sydney Pollack, for the direction; 1976.
Edgar Allan Poe Awards: Edgar; Best Motion Picture, Lorenzo Semple Jr. David Rayfiel; 1976.
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards: KCFCC Award; Best Supporting Actor, Max von Sydow; 1976.
Motion Picture Sound Editors: Golden Reel Award; Best Sound Editing - Sound Effects; 1976.
Academy Awards: Oscar; Film Editing, Fredric Steinkamp and Don Guidice; 1976.
Cartagena Film Festival: Golden India Catalina; Best Film, Sydney Pollack; 1976.
Golden Globe Awards: Golden Globe; Best Motion Picture Actress - Drama, Faye Dunaway; 1976.
Grammy Awards: Grammy; Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special, Dave Grusin; 1977.
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills; 2001
In 1997, The Association of Danish Film Directors, on behalf of Pollack, sued Danmarks Radio, claiming that their broadcasting the film in a panned and scanned version violated his copyright. The case was unsuccessful, as the rights were not owned by Pollack personally in the first place. The case is believed to have been the first legal challenge to the practice of panning and scanning for broadcast on the grounds that it compromises the artistic integrity of an original film.
All music by Dave Grusin, except where noted.
Joubert's musings on how Turner would be killed are reprised almost word-for-word in the Seinfeld episode "The Junk Mail." The speech is used as a warning from Newman to Kramer about how the U.S. Postal Service will retaliate for Kramer's refusal to receive his mail.
In Out of Sight, Jack Foley (George Clooney) and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) discuss the film's romantic subplot, which Sisco describes as dubious.
The film was an influence on the 2014 superhero film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which Robert Redford also starred.
- "Condor! (Theme from 3 Days of the Condor)" 3:35
- "Yellow Panic" 2:15
- "Flight of the Condor" 2:25
- "We'll Bring You Home" 2:24
- "Out to Lunch" 2:00
- "Goodbye for Kathy (Love Theme from 3 Days of the Condor)" (2:16
- "I've Got You Where I Want You" 3:12 (Grusin/Bahler; sung by Jim Gilstrap)
- "Flashback to Terror" 2:24
- "Sing Along with the C.I.A." 1:34
- "Spies of a Feather, Flocking Together (Love Theme from 3 Days of the Condor)" 1:55
- "Silver Bells" 2:37 (Livingstone / Evans; Vocal: Marti McCall)
- "Medley: a) Condor! (Theme) / b) I've Got You Where I Want You" 1:57
In March 2015, Skydance Media in partnership with MGM Television and Paramount Television will produce a TV series remake of the film. In February 2017, Max Irons was cast as Joe Turner in the series entitled Condor for Audience.