Quick Answer: In Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, the line between right and wrong is blurry, if not nonexistent. This proves to be problematic for Joseph Turner, a bookish CIA analyst who is primarily characterized by his steadfast morality and innate trust in others. Turner's world turns upside-down when he returns from lunch to find all of his co-workers dead. When he learns that CIA higher-ups are responsible, Joe must stay alive until he figures out whom he can trust. In a three-day-long descent into violence, corruption and disillusionment, Turner learns that if there's no distinction between wrong and right, then trust can't possibly exist.
Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) presents the modern world as a place where the distinction between right and wrong, specifically for those working in U.S. intelligence, is blurry. The film's protagonist, who works to protect a way of life anchored on moral principles, begins to question the ethical reliability of those in charge. In a film concerned with trust, morality and power, Three Days of the Condor raises an important question: how does one determine who to trust in an environment that's falsely predicated on trust? In three days of violence, corruption and disillusionment, our protagonist comes to a disheartening conclusion. If there's no distinction between wrong and right, then trust can't possibly exist.
The story centers on Joseph Turner (Robert Redford), who works in an office in New York that fronts as the “American Literary Historical Society.” The office is a cover for a department of the CIA that reads “everything,” according to supervisor Higgins (Cliff Robertson). Turner—code name “Condor”—must comb through books, newspapers and magazines from all over the world to look for hidden meanings.
Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor (1975)
The bookish Turner, however, has misgivings about his job as a CIA analyst. He has an innate trust in people and doesn’t like that he must keep his job a secret. For Turner, being able to trust others provides a sense of stability and security. It is ironic that Turner, who values trustworthiness, has chosen a profession where this quality is hard to come by. Unlike his peers, he relies strongly on a consistent moral compass. Like the nearly extinct bird his code name comes from, the morally conscious Turner is a dying breed.
When Turner leaves his office to buy lunch, we witness the execution of the whole Society by a group of men led, we learn later, by a European contract killer named Joubert (Max Von Sydow). Joubert has no allegiance to right or wrong, only to the precision of his work. His code name is, appropriately, “Lucifer.” The attack at the Society flips Turner’s world upside-down. He is now suspicious of everyone. Even a woman pushing a baby carriage is seen as a potential threat.
The cycle of violence and distrust continues to plague Turner. Shaken, he calls the CIA’s New York headquarters and is instructed to meet Wicks (Michael Kane), the head of his department, who will bring him to safety. The audience discovers that Wicks was involved in the killings at the Society. There is a shootout and Turner’s friend, Sam Barber (Walter McGinn), a man Turner trusts, is killed by the wounded Wicks, who Joubert eventually kills as part of the conspiracy. It now appears to Higgins and his boss, Wabash (John Houseman), that Turner is the threat. As a result, the morally steadfast Turner is no longer trusted by his own employers.
Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Turner is now forced to subvert his moral code in order to survive. Needing a place to hide, he forces a random woman, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), to take him to her apartment. Despite the abduction, Turner wants Hale to understand that he is a victim, so he breaks protocol and tells her the truth about what his job is and that he is being hunted. Naturally, she has her doubts. Because he doesn’t trust Hale, Turner ties her up. Though Hale is understandably afraid of her captor, Turner, too, fears the person he has become. She asks why he is afraid. After all, he has the gun. “Yes,” he says. “And it’s not enough,” indicating how unreliable his world has become. They begin to gain confidence in one another, recognizing that they are both lonely, solitary individuals, and they become lovers. It points to the irony in Turner’s world that the only person he can now trust is someone he chose at random.
Based on a report Turner filed about a hidden spy agency, he now hypothesizes that said agency is working within the CIA. This revelation shows that the CIA, a government agency, is in actuality a seedbed for deception. At this point, the line between outward government integrity and internal corruption is completely blurred for Turner. This realization is solidified when Joubert sends an operative dressed as a mailman to try and kill Turner. Life is dangerous indeed when those who appear to be trusted government workers are in fact dangerous predators.
Robert Redford and Addison Powell in Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Turner eventually discovers that Joubert’s employer is Leonard Atwood, CIA Deputy Director of Operations for the Middle East. Turner questions Atwood at gunpoint, learning that the internal corruption and violence stemmed from a plan to seize oil from the Middle East. Joubert, who was hired by Atwood to kill Turner, takes Turner’s pistol and kills Atwood. Atwood’s superiors, unhappy with how his rogue actions have been exposed, hired Joubert to murder him. After the killing, Joubert tells Turner the assassination business is quite relaxing. There is no need to worry about sides or politics: only who, where, and how much. Turner says it would be exhausting for him because he seeks the comfort of a moral world that he can rely upon. Joubert says in Turner’s future a car will come by, and someone, maybe a person he knows or even trusts, will smile and offer him a ride. Joubert hands Turner his gun and says to Turner, “For that day.” Having faith in something, then, depends on relying on notions of good or bad. If one is unable to tell the difference between these two standards, then where does one place one’s trust?
Back in New York, as Turner waits for Higgins on the sidewalk, a car pulls over. Turner refuses to get in, heeding Joubert’s advice. Turner takes Higgins in front of the New York Times. He says he has told the newspaper everything that has happened. Higgins asks, “But will they print it?” At this point, Turner isn’t sure he can even count on the press doing the right thing by telling the truth. As the film draws to a close, Turner walks by a group of Christmas carolers singing about comfort and joy. Though these words may bring temporary assurance, we cannot trust they will survive in a deceptive, amoral world.