Three Days of the Condor (1975) is a tastefully furnished room that you’re staying in for a night or two, a clean and spacious Airbnb that you’d want to move into permanently if it weren’t for the generic artwork that kind of gives it a dentist’s office vibe. Although Condor is almost a pure thriller, the impression it leaves is not of a causal sequence but of a spatial arrangement of narrative elements, a network of apartments, offices, hotel rooms, luncheonettes, and—most importantly—telephones.
Fredric Jameson has written about the difficulty of the postmodern political thriller to (a) grasp as a totality the world of which its characters and institutions are integral parts, and (b) to represent visually the flows of information through which world politics increasingly take place. Three Days of the Condor is a case in point: Joe “Condor” Turner (the 1970s’ go-to American everyman, Robert Redford) works for a small New York-based department of the CIA as a “reader,” his job consisting of perusing every published piece of world literature with an eye out for encrypted messages and/or useful geostrategic innovations dreamed up by imaginative novelists. (In the words of Joe's department director Cliff Robertson, “He readseverything.”) As neutral a man-in-the street as can be, Joe finds himself plunged into a bewildering chaos where there used to be predictable routine; when the other four members of his section are gunned down, he survives by a lucky accident and is left asking, Who are the assassins? Who do they work for? and the classic paranoiac question, Why me?
The main parts of the totality that he can’t make sense of are the CIA, its possible clandestine sub-branches or spinoff organizations, and the geopolitical and economic objectives of the United States, which he eventually figures out in a saucer-eyed epiphany have something to do with oil (!). Like you and me, Joe is hopelessly misinformed about the true agents of history, oblivious to the real forces that make the world turn. Only when his life becomes threatened does what used to be a purely academic problem for him suddenly become real. “Maybe there’s another CIA—inside the CIA!” he naively speculates. But confusion reigns above him as well; even the secret sub-agency’s puppetmaster, Mr. Wabash (John Houseman), thinks fondly of the era that passed with the end of the Second World War: “I miss that kind of clarity,” he laments. The Cold War invention of the Soviet bogeyman hasn’t been able to restore the preceding period’s moral simplicity; world politics is now a hopelessly ambiguous domain, and the only person who seems to have figured it out is the Euro-sophisticate hitman, Joubert (Max von Sydow), who’s perfectly content to sell his loyalty to the highest bidder to subsidize an otherwise quiet, comfortable life painting Napoleonic tin soldiers and listening to classical music. A calm and collected technocrat, Joubert (codenamed Lucifer as a possible nod to The Exorcist?) preaches belief only in “your own precision.” The future belongs neither to the just nor the cruel, but to the efficient.
As for the problem of depicting information flows, it has obviously become even more of a challenge since Condor came out. Whereas a 1975 Robert Redford can plant himself in the basement of a Bell Atlantic exchange, trace phone calls using Touch-Tone frequency identification, and scramble his opponents’ tracers with a handful of strategically criss-crossed copper wires, a 2016 Matt Damon sits in front of data-transferring laptops and throws smartphones in trashcans while his enemies match IP addresses and activate built-in cameras within thirty-foot radii. Once, art departments had to figure out sexy layouts for telexes; today they spend their time designing sleek, non-proprietary mapping-app interfaces.