In his 1979 novel "Shibumi" (part political thriller, part cynical attack on Western civilization and part satire of the thriller genre), written at the end of that genre's possibly greatest decade, Trevanian explains the six parts of the Japanese board game symbolizing the concept of effortless perfection and inspiring that novel's title: Fuseki (the opening stage or strategic premise), Sabaki (an effort to quickly, efficiently terminate a problematic situation), Seki (a neutral standoff where neither side gains an advantage), Uttegae (a potentially sacrificial strategic maneuver), Shicho (a running offensive) and Tsuru no Sugomori (literally, "the confinement of the cranes to their nest:" the elegant capture of the opponent's stones).
Like other books published then and influenced by the shocking Watergate revelations, "Shibumi" asks what happens if government is hijacked by a secret association not bound by anything but its own interests and hunger for power. One of the most important novels on whose legacy Trevanian builds in his book is James Grady's "Six Days of the Condor," adapted for the screen by director Sydney Pollack in this hugely successful fourth (of seven) collaboration(s) with Robert Redford; costarring Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow and Cliff Robertson. But while Grady's novel centered around the Vietnam trauma, the movie's screenplay, besides shortening the critical time frame from six days to three, changes the focus to the era's obsession with oil; thus effortlessly proving one of the story's key points: Assuming a group of insiders truly managed to commandeer key governmental structures, the respective substantive context would be of little import, because *any* such action would constitute a terminal violation of public trust, and the consequences for any individual caught in the resulting web of intrigue and deceit would be equally disastrous.
"Three Days of the Condor" begins with the assassination of virtually the entire staff of a New York CIA office of "reader researchers," agents responsible for the detection of possible clues to actual or potential Agency operations in literature. The massacre's sole survivor is Joe Turner, codenamed "Condor" (Redford), who literally happened to be out to lunch when the assassins hit. After his discovery of the bloodbath, his superiors promise to bring him "home," using his inside friend Sam as a confidence-builder. But at the assigned meeting Sam is shot, too, and Turner himself only escapes by the skin of his teeth - again. Realizing that his own organization is somehow involved in the hit and that he is no longer safe in his own apartment, Turner hides in the home of photographer Kathy Hale (Dunaway), whom he takes hostage, but who is a loner like him and eventually develops a fondness for him, agreeing to help him trying to discover the truth behind the terrifying labyrinth of lies and double standards in which he suddenly finds himself.
While "Condor"'s tale does have a clear premise (the interests of those responsible for the massacre) and both the mass-assassination and the following events are merely moves in the lethal game into which Turner is thrown against his will (and where his greatest advantage is his unpredictability), against the overbearing opponent he faces, he alone has little chances of emerging victoriously; of, in the terminology of Shibumi, "confining the cranes to their nest:" All he can hope for is a long-lasting state of Seki; a standoff and perhaps temporary ceasefire (a conclusion later also reached in John Grisham's bestselling "The Firm"). The inference, of course, is that it takes more than a single individual's discovery of a government-undermining conspiracy to take down the conspirators - and as in Watergate, the press is seen as a crucial vehicle for reaching a mass audience and taking the events out of the perpetrators' control.
Due to the universality of its theme, the importance of "Condor" far exceeds the story's 1970s context. Indeed, it is as relevant now as it was then; and so is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Woodward-Bernstein account on Watergate and its corresponding movie ("All the President's Men;" also starring Redford, alongside Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards). But this is also a magnificently filmed movie, sharply edited and using New York City's wintry urban landscape for full dramatic effect. Robert Redford gives a career-defining, tightly controlled performance as cornered bookworm-turned-spy Joe Turner, matched in every respect by Max von Sydow's hired assassin Joubert, who has no cause of his own, finds his occupation "quite restful," never concerns himself with his missions' "why" but only the "when," "where" and "how much," and paints delicate little figurines in his hours of relaxation. Faye Dunaway's Kathy is not merely another victim of Stockholm syndrome (a hostage's identification with their captors' motives); she truly comes to understand Turner because of their likeness: Her photos are expressions of her loneliness as much as Joe's solitary stance against an entire governmental organization; beautiful but sad November pictures of empty streets, fields and park benches, shot in black and white and an intricate, subtle metaphor even during their love scene. Cliff Robertson's CIA man Higgins finally is the perfect foil for both Turner and Joubert; not as far along in his career as he should be but, although sympathetic to Turner's plight, fully buying into the legitimacy of the Agency's "games" and ready to do whatever it takes to keep an embarrassment from becoming conspicuous.
Turner's and Higgins's last meeting is poignantly set against a Salvation Army choir's performance of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and its chorus "Oh tidings of comfort and joy;" ending in a still shot of Turner's face starkly reminiscent of Kathy's photos. Yet, "Condor's" story is open-ended: What would he do, were he still around today?
"What is it with you people - do you think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?" Joe Turner, "Three Days of the Condor."
"All ... organizations in this book lack any basis in reality - although some of them do not realize that." Trevanian, "Shibumi."