Story: A CIA reader (code name Condor) is on the run from a mass slaughter in his CIA office. Reporting the massacre to his superior, he suddenly finds himself the target of both his employers and the unknown killers of his associates. He abducts a random woman in a shop, and seduces her into helping him.
Inspired by a film which he describes as “terrific,” Dave Grusin’s task was to evoke the predicament of a man with a complex and inventive mind whose every decision was one of life or (his own) death.
The result was a score many people – both fan and critic alike – rank as one of his top five, for the way it uses jazz, not only to achieve this cerebral effect, but also to reflect the surrealistic circumstances which are at the heart of “Three Days of the Condor” itself. “Condor had this kind of dark atmosphere to it,” notes Dave Grusin, and he tied this aspect together with the contemporary setting via rhythm and blues.
There are three principal themes in the motion picture: main title “Condor,” which describes the lifestyle of the hip protagonist, Joe Turner, “Goodbye for Kathy,” the love theme, and “Yellow Panic,“ an eerie piece of music which is often interlaced with “Condor” to denote not only terror but also uncertainty.
In all the music for this score, Dave Grusin has inventively managed to reflect both the locale and mental state of the characters while simultaneously projecting the bizarre circumstances in which Condor can’t be sure who is friend and who is foe.
“Condor” has all the cool jauntiness of the protagonist who is a bit of an iconoclast. Ultra bright, with a warm heart and an incomparable sense of self-preservation, the theme not only reflects his actions on screen, but also exudes a hint of the confusion which is about to turn his world upside down. According to the film’s director Sydney Pollack, in this theme, and for that matter, all the music in the film, Dave Grusin “wrote a sound which was very much on the cutting edge in those days,” adding, “and it still is. It doesn’t sound dated.”
He feels that the theme generated much of the energy needed to drive the picture. Referring to the R&B element, he states “from the first cue, when the main title comes on, there’s a pulse.” Sydney Pollack adds that Dave Grusin “pushed the picture,” something the director was extra keen to do to maintain momentum. (In this vein, he had already cut down the time span of the action from the original work, “Six Days of the Condor.”)
The love theme is probably the most sensuous in Dave Grusin’s catalogue of film music. It not only perfectly embellishes the romantic scenes, but is translated to enhance some dramatic moments in the movie as well, in addition to capturing the essence of the relationship between Joe and Kathy.
“Yellow Panic“ is a plastic piece of music which, via the use of stingers, screeching strings and various other musical effects, adds suspense, fear or bewilderment to a variety of scenes, which ever sensation might be required.
Aided and abetted by Lee Ritenour (whose guitar adds so much psychological flavor to the soundtrack) and Tom Scott (whose sax makes romantic a situation which starts out basically the opposite), the sensitive performances by Dave Grusin and his musicians show a complete understanding of the needs of this film. In fact, the basic group is a rhythm section, featuring two guitars with Harvey Mason on drums, and four horns – around ten musicians in all.
Dave Grusin plays mostly Rhodes – and it was all cut live. Because of the nature of the music and the film, he explains that everybody “had a certain amount of freedom in inflection. The guitar players were free within certain restrictions to stretch out a little bit.”
Stating that this loose approach had great appeal for him, he adds, “ I really enjoyed playing what the mood of everything dictated at the moment, rather than figuring out ahead of time what I wanted someone else to play.”
Later the rhythm track was augmented with strings, along with some other orchestral colors. Says the composer, “for me that’s the best of both worlds, because I communicate a little better on a thing like that from the keyboard.”
In most motion pictures, music plays the role of expressing emotions which are not necessarily verbalized. In “Three Days of the Condor,” it is the working of Condor’s mind which must be suggested musically – for the brainy young CIA desk man is not only in shock, but is constantly trying to devise what is actually going on, whom he can trust and virtually at every moment, just how to stay alive.
This unseen, but ever-present part of the film is superbly effected by the psychological score through a heavy emphasis on rhythm and blues. In fact this groove nearly had negative repercussions at first. Dave Grusin states that the stylish music got the director “into trouble at the previews, because people were tapping their feet. He started worrying, ‘what are they doing?’ Were they getting this film or they listening to this cue?”‘
It might be noted that there is a strong feeling of the musical sensations in this film in the two pieces which on their own comprise one side of Dave Grusin’s jazz album “One of a Kind.” The 1977 recording of “Montage” and “Playera” has a similar day (or year?) in the life quality, a biographical sense of moving through a sometimes incomprehensible experience.
Source music is effectively used throughout the film. Christmas songs not only indicate the time of year, but also lend pathos to what might otherwise be starker scenes, and conversely, to some of the more terrifying incidents, give a sense of normal life going on.
The second film of nine he scored for Sydney Pollack, “Three Days of the Condor” exhibits an aspect which can be observed particularly on films where Dave Grusin has had the greatest amount of independence. That is, little music in the first part of the film compared to later reels. This tendency can also be observed on individual cues, where he lets the action speak for itself, and allows the audience to form their own reactions before bringing in the music to reinforce such conclusions.
The composer himself admits a growing fondness for the film, saying “I have seen this in intervals of five or ten years since we did it, and I love this picture better now than when it was new.”
Despite the very political and marketing orientation of the Oscars, it might be said that Dave Grusin’s finest scores have generally been acknowledged by the Motion Picture Academy. However, it seems inconceivable that “Three Days of the Condor” not only failed to receive a nomination, but the award itself. It is a winner in every sense of the word!