In February 1975 the director of conspiracy classic Three Days of the Condor Sidney Pollack invited Richard Helms, former head of the CIA, to visit the set while they were shooting in New York. Helms went along for a day and acted as a consultant to Robert Redford, as depicted in this infamous picture. Though Helms had left the Agency, three documents from the CIA’s open source monitoring of media coverage show they were keeping an eye on developments. Statements from former CIA chief lawyer John Rizzo suggest that they may have been directly involved in the production.
The Invitation to Richard Helms
According to an interview in Jump Cut, Pollack extended the invitation to Helms, who by that point was the US Ambassador to Iran.
M: Did you have any contact with the CIA while you were making THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR?
P: There wasn’t, really. We would have welcomed it, but we knew better than to try to pursue it actively in any way. What we did was to invite Mr. (Richard) Helms to come and watch the shooting for a day, which he did. I think he enjoyed himself very much. It was a movie, finally, and not any attempt on our part to do a definitive documentary.
One of the CIA’s records is a brief article from Newsweek, including the original of the photo above. It notes:
Helms […] had accepted an invitation passed along by a mutual friend, to watch Redford film a scene in “Three Days of the Condor”. No clues as to what the once and would-be spies discussed. “At this point in time,” grinned Redford, “we are not at liberty to divulge the details.”
Who this mutual friend was is not clear but Helms did adopt a more positive approach to Hollywood than previous heads of the CIA so it could have been anyone from Jack Valenti to Jane Fonda. Sadly it almost certainly wasn’t Arnon Milchan – the Mossad spy/producer who at one time was business partners with Pollack – as he didn’t get started in Hollywood until later. A very similar article in Time (also from February 3rd 1975) uses a picture of Helms reflected in Redford’ sunglasses, noting that:
The tall man in the London-tailored suit and woolen muffler sipped his coffee and carefully observed the husky blonde in the pea jacket. Then embattled ex-CIA director Richard Helms threw caution to the wind. He stepped over to ask whether “I was encountering as many difficulties as he had been experiencing lately” explained Robert Redford.
He did not engage in shoptalk, said Redford, just chatted generally about the film.
This sort of doublespeak ‘we didn’t talk about the CIA’ versus ‘we cannot divulge what we discussed’ is quite predictable and even amusing, given that whatever they discussed it was only for a brief period. However, that the film was being produced at the same time as congressional investigations into the Agency and other intelligence services is a pertinent and provocative coincidence.
Three Days of the Condor
The third article in the CIA’s documents on Three Days of the Condor is review of the film in the Wall Street Journal some months after the pair of articles about Helms’ visit to the set. This in-depth review is very positive and dwells on the political dimensions of the movie:
But besides a realistic atmosphere and a credible hero, this thriller absorbs us on a more immediate level. By making the source of its menace a renegade operation within the CIA “Three Days of the Condor” very much addresses itself both to the headlines we’ve been reading and to growing public concern with accountability and control of secret government activities…
…At one moment in the film, a top level CIA official played by John Houseman, wearily attempting to unravel the mystery and confusion surrounding “Condor”, reminisces with a colleague about his work during the great war. “You miss that kind of action?” his colleague asks. “No” Houseman replies, “I miss that kind of clarity”.
A further indication of just how accurate Three Days of the Condor was in portraying the mid-Cold War CIA comes via John Rizzo, the former General Counsel for the Agency. In a 2007 discussion at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law (while he was still in post) he said of Three Days of the Condor:
It had the cadences of what real CIA people do, and what real CIA people are like… Even some of the scenes in the movie – a lot of the action is set in a CIA cover facility that several years later I found myself in a place that looked almost exactly like that movie. I don’t know how they did it but they managed to replicate what a real CIA cover facility was like.
Whether this is the influence of the film on the CIA or the influence of the CIA on the film is not certain, though it seems unlikely that the Agency would build or buy a cover facility (or safe house) to look like one from a popular movie. This suggests that beyond Helms’ brief visit to the set, the producers of Three Days of the Condor had some kind of assistance from the CIA.