Los Angeles, where I live, is not the ideal setting for a Christmas enthusiast. Drinking hot cider is an act of willful self-delusion when it’s 80 degrees outside. But Christmas is never better than it is on the big screen, and L.A.’s not short on those. A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life will be playing all over town, of course, but I have my eye on Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema, which has been showing a December double feature of Die Hard and Three Days of the Condor for the past several years. (This year, they’re split up: Three Days is screening with the Chuck Norris movie Invasion U.S.A. and Die Hard with the obscure Canadian thriller The Silent Partner.) Die Hard already has a place in the Christmas canon, but Three Days of the Condor remains more cult than classic. I hope that Tarantino’s evangelism will begin to change that, however, because Three Days of the Condor is the Christmas spy thriller that no one ever asked for but that everyone needs to see.
Sydney Pollack’s 1975 film opens in a lovely Manhattan townhouse that is serving as a front for a distinctly literary branch of the CIA. Joe Turner (Robert Redford) works as an analyst for this organization, scouring new publications for material that might be of use to U.S. intelligence. This work is Joe’s life, and his office has the intimate rhythms of a family home. But almost before the credits have finished rolling, the entire office is wiped out—killed while Joe is out to lunch. With all of his loved ones now dead or presumably under surveillance, Joe is left to his own devices as he attempts to recover some degree of trust, unravel the deepening conspiracy, and navigate a budding romance with his hostage (whoops!) Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway).
The only way Joe can survive is by finding help, but every time he extends a hand he risks his life. He is a walking symbol of the isolation that we all have to confront at some point. It sounds like an existential predicament because it is. Max von Sydow, in the role of the assassin Joubert, pursues Joe with the relentlessness of death itself. And when Joe kidnaps Kathy—in a sequence that Steven Soderbergh would lovingly update in Out of Sight—he finds himself in the company of someone who suffers a more metaphorical version of his own plight: She can’t even seem to trust herself. So this is a spy thriller, yes, but it’s also an allegory for the post-Watergate world, where trust in others represents a dangerous act of naiveté. Which brings us to Christmas.
Christmas remains in the background throughout, playing a supporting role, but it’s as important to the film’s overall impact as Tiny Tim is to A Christmas Carol. It makes itself known through three popular carols: “Good King Wenceslas” lingers behind Joe as he’s reporting the murder of his colleagues; “Joy to the World” plays in concert with the electronic soundtrack of hospital equipment; and carolers sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” over the film’s final scene. The emotional tenor of each of those episodes shifts as Joe’s outlook changes—taking him from devastation to cynicism to determination—but taken together these carols transform the movie into something like a dirge, a lament not only for the specific circumstances of Joe Turner’s bereavement but also for the loss that we will all someday come to know: the loss of everything. (Merry Christmas!)
It’s that melancholy that makes Three Days of the Condor such a welcome addition to the Christmas canon, which is rich with doleful material: Take “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a song that’s typically performed in a minor key and, like many other carols, carries with it the ghosts of a more somber and religious Christmas past. Many of our favorite holiday movies are similarly dark, relying on a redemptive last act to save their Scrooges, George Baileys, and Charlie Browns from despair. But that redemptive polish is like so much tinsel on Jimmy Stewart’s head; it can’t erase the underlying sadness. And there’s a pleasure to be had in finally embracing that reality, in going underground with Joe Turner and looking at the underside of this overdecorated day. It may be a heavy nog, but it’s still delicious.
Christmas movies now span almost every genre, including romance, action, horror, and the greatest genre of all, the siege comedy. And Christmas movies clearly benefits from these reiterations. So when we tire, as we occasionally do, of the familiar, easy morals, Three Days of the Condor is there, reminding us of another of the true meanings of Christmas: that we’re never so lonely as when everyone else appears to be so happy together.
There’s only one proper way to celebrate in light of this: alone and in the dark. I’ll see you at the movies.