Robert Redford works for the CIA in a satellite office in New York. His code name is Condor. He’s a reader whose job is to read books, newspapers and magazines from all over the world and look for hidden meaning within them. In performing his duties, he comes across a pulp thriller with strange plot elements which has been translated into an unusually large number of languages, with a particular emphasis on oil producing countries. He files a report with CIA headquarters.
What follows is a cat and mouse game between Redford and a contract killer named Joubert (Max von Sydow) as Redford tries to solve the riddle of who at the CIA has been trying to have him killed. In the process, he kidnaps and befriends Faye Dunaway, who needs a boyfriend.
Condor is a fascinating film that you all should see. Let me start with the criticisms, however. First, little about the film makes any sense once you stop to think about it. In fact, take the underlying premise, that Redford has spotted some secret plan in published books. This is nonsense. Why in the world would the CIA or anyone else put their plans into published books for the world to stumble upon?
Moreover, why would they communicate with whomever they are supposedly communicating with in this manner? Consider that it takes months to get a book published. And it probably takes even longer to get it translated and published in other countries. Wouldn’t it be easier to call these people or send radio communications or even make cryptic announcements on the news?
The film also suffers from too-convenient-itis, as all the characters act in ways they need to for Redford to survive. It also tries to skate by with a near total lack of substance. What is the CIA's plan? SomethingsomethingOIL! Who is Joubert? He’s a hired killer from somethingsomething. Why does the CIA use him? Somethingsomething. Even the ending is kind of ambiguous as to what really happens. In effect, the whole film is ephemeral. There is an evil plot, worthy of someone at the CIA killing CIA employees for finding out about it. They hire a mystery guy who gets instructions to kill Redford, except when it would end the film. In the end, some or all (maybe?) of the bad guys get killed and the plot is foiled... or not.
I really do like this film, and the reason is that this film provides the atmosphere of a genuine spy story, and there simply aren’t very many of those out there. Indeed, this film has all the elements we love about spies. You have the secret shop hidden right in the middle of the city as something else. You have the cool assignment of searching for hidden meanings in books. You have the clean up team of contract killers who wipe out an entire division without anyone knowing. You have the “who can you trust” paranoia that adds genuine tension to these films. You have the cool foreign assassin who would rather talk about the craft than shoot the hero dead, and he delivers a truly memorable speech about how the CIA will one day kill Redford. And the hero must use extraordinary skills to solve the problem they face.
So would this film still be worthy of recommending if there had been competing spy movies? Absolutely. This film has a strong atmosphere that pulls you into the world of spies very effectively. It has likable characters and a memorable plot. It is worthy of seeing. The fact that there really is no competition really only enhances that.