The film tells the story of Joseph Turner who, played by a young Robert Redford, works for the CIA, reading books and trying to decipher if there are codes being sent in them. He stumbles across a code that no one is really interested in, except for, perhaps, members of the CIA who have been running a secret operation. In a series of over reactions, assassins led by a younger looking Max von Sydow who, in a fine performance, murders all of Turner's friends and puts him on the run. Paranoid, scared, Turner picks up Kathy Hale in a department store, and holds her hostage while he tries to figure out what is going on. It's here that the strongest wrong note is sounded, where Turner and Hale begin a relationship that seems improbable from the start, though in fairness, Dunaway gives her best at trying to make their sex scene look like a cross between being scared and aroused, but really, you just have to sit through it and wait for her to disappear from the film so you can return to the strength of it: the lies, the cheating, the deceit, and Max von Sydow explaining, in the final stages of the film, what will happen to Turner if he decides to stay in America.
As a film, what Three Days of the Condor suffers from is never carrying through on its promises. If it had been the cold, chilling thriller that it had set itself up to be with the opening, then it would have been a much more complete and better film, but it still has a lot of nice touches. Pollack's direction is decent, the scenes with Sydow always good, and when the romance between the two leads is done, he picks the film up and brings it back to a nice ending. But it's still a Sydney Pollack film and it's best not to expect anything but a crowd pleaser in that regard.
Still, what I found truly interesting was the use of oil as a plot device, as a mechanic for the CIA being evil, or plotting to take down Middle Eastern countries. Despite the fact that the film had been made in the early seventies, and verges on being close to forty years old now, there is a very real sense of it still being relevant in its discussion of world politics, of how it positions oil, of it being used as a training ground for when the world runs out of food, for when world populations have gotten so large that the planet can not sustain us anymore.
But it's the ending that I liked the most.
At the end, Redford's Turner leads Cliff Robertson's Turner along a street, refusing to come in from the cold, and he stops outside the New York Times. "I told them a story," he said, letting Higgins know that his blown the lid off it, that the shit will soon hit the fan. Journalism integrity will win out. In response, a desperate Higgins says, "How do you know they'll publish it?"
Turner leaves, and the ending, in the early part of the 1970s, was meant to be ambiguous, to suggest to you that you weren't quite sure what was going to happen, but you figured that the Times would run the story and good would triumph over evil, that the truth would come out.
Which, in 2012, you know differently.
In 2012, Redford's Turner is dead within a week, killed in the exact same fashion that Sydow's assassin explains, or perhaps not even that. But he is dead and the story is buried within the Times and that, that is how the modern end of the film works, with no faith in journalism, with the complete knowledge that the American government is corrupt and will have you killed when you step out of line.
Like I said, it's not much of a film, in the end. A few nice pieces here and there. But as a piece that shows you how the world has changed, it's pretty funky.