Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Opening Titles and Song: Three Days of the Condor (1975)

As this is one of the films I make a point to watch during the year-end Christmas holiday, will give Three Days of the Condor‘s opening titles and song some much-needed appreciation. Not that Sidney Pollack’s venerable thriller from the good ol’ bad days of the ’70s needs it. As befitting the era, its opening jumps into placing the audience immediately into the story’s setting and intrigue via the printed word; care of contemporary technology, typeface, and music.

Interestingly, though the timeframe of the film is very much an analog world, the opening titles begin their focus on the computer automation of time taking hold. The OCR1 equipment of the day drawing our eye as the scanner and print head skim across the paper and words struck in-between their focus. Despite the automation being machine powered, it is under the scrutiny and supervision of its human controller. Tina Chen’s not-long-for-this-world Janice.

Being situated in-between, be it analog and digital, or a rock and a hard place, the distinct undercurrent of Three Days of the Condor2 is the essence of what the titles hint at.

Visually, the segment cleverly juxtaposes technology and the clandestine endeavors underway at the American Literary Historical Society. The film’s CIA research office in New York City those on display work for. Implied by virtue of the title font, one based on the Moore Computer typeface. A set of numerals and control characters “designed to meet the needs of magnetic character recognition in automatic cheque and document reading equipment.”3

Even the credits read left to right as they appear the screen, except for one — the actual title of the movie. Three Days of the Condor appears in its entirety but in a hollow form. Each ensuing, empty character then transmutes in the same direction. Not only emphasizing the name of the film but also suggesting this thriller will be puzzled together as each letter and clue is filled in. It’s at this moment more textual scheming set afoot as something is snuck in: Helvetica4.

When the ubiquitous font drops into this section perhaps it’s for readability, but also to graphically indicate another authority is at play. The whole of the title design by Phill Norman for the opening sequence seems to be an effort to symbolically depict and pit words and ideas against each other onscreen by means of typeface. This uncovered subterfuge paralleling one that gets the film’s protagonist into trouble, which is just part of his job description:

“Listen. I work for the CIA. I am not a spy. I just read books! We read everything that’s published in the world. And we… we feed the plots – dirty tricks, codes – into a computer, and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, I look for new ideas… We read adventures and novels and journals. I… I… Who’d invent a job like that?”

The rest deciphers the studious day-to-day work of this scholarly group; detailing their covert abstracts as the credits roll on. Much like Robert Redford’s ever-late Joseph Turner (code name, Condor)5 motoring across NYC traffic. To the only place where he can safely talk to cohorts about their literary cloak-and-dagger efforts. The progression marking the individual standing out, and all of it set to the burgeoning jazz-funk rhythms of the period.

For this his second among many collaborations6 with the director, American composer-arranger-producer and pianist, Dave Grusin, orchestrated a stylishly timely soundtrack for Three Days of the Condor. The introductory theme, Condor!, imbues the titles sequence with a dynamic fusion of jazz and R&B patterns. The extemporized tones used to denote Joe Turner as a character set apart from his more staid colleagues in a conspiratorial post-Watergate world.

Put another way, the piece and sequence imply why he’ll be the only one left alive to expose it.

  1. Short for Optical Character Recognition — the process of capturing the text of a document and translating the characters into digital code that can be used for data processing; sometimes referred to as text recognition. 
  2. Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel’s screenplay based upon James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor novel. 
  3. Designed by James H. Moore of Typographic House, Boston [Cristen Moore-Abdow] and released by VGC in 1968 [Splorp]. ~ Fonts In Use 
  4. Helvetica or Neue Haas Grotesk is a widely used sans-serif typeface developed in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger with input from Eduard Hoffmann. ~ Wikipedia 
  5. Redford and Pollack would collaborate in seven motion pictures from 1966 to 1990. 
  6. After their first (1974’s The Yakuza), Grusin would team up again with Pollack to deliver soundtracks for Bobby Deerfield (1977), The Electric Horseman (1979), Absence of Malice (1981), Tootsie (1982), Havana (1990), The Firm (1993), and finally Random Hearts (1999). 

6 Responses to “Opening Titles and Song: Three Days of the Condor (1975)”

  1. Cindy Bruchman

    You are amazing. What you notice about opening and explain to the rest of us is extraordinary, Michael!
    SIGH. I have never seen this film. What a cool way to open a film. Analog and text tracking. Fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person


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