Bicycle Kick (9)

By: Joshua Glenn
May 6, 2010

In Three Days of the Condor (1975), Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is a reluctant CIA employee who is particularly skilled at pattern recognition; he’s charged with reading pulp novels, newspapers, magazines (and comics) from around the world, looking for secret meanings and new ideas. Except for the CIA part, it sounds like the perfect job: “I just read books!”

Turner’s office is replete with signifiers of his quasi-apophenic intelligence — charts and graphs, Einstein poster, Da Vinci-like flying machine model, Daumier’s phrenological caricatures of French politicians. Of particular interest are the bicycle illustrations pinned to his bulletin board. What, one wonders, so fascinates this fictional supermind about these beautiful, elegant machines: rolling drag, transmission of power from rider to wheels, heat management?

A few moments later, when Turner repairs a CIA communications device with a Swiss Army knife (this foreshadows a key scene in which — SPOILER ALERT — he hacks into New York’s telephone system), we get the picture. He’s a hacker, an open-source ideologue. What he no doubt admires about bicycles is the fact that their working parts are exposed, open to view, easy to tinker with — i.e., for Turner, the bicycle is an apt symbol of how life in a democracy ought to work.

In the movie’s final scene, a CIA honcho demands of Turner what ordinary Americans will want their government to do once the world runs out of oil. It’s a rhetorical question, but Turner replies with a credo that was, in one form or another, the implicit refrain of many of the early Seventies’ best thrillers and SF flicks, including Sleeper, Soylent Green, The Crazies, The Long Goodbye*, Chinatown, The Conversation, Nashville, The Parallax View, Zardoz, Rollerball, and Logan’s Run: “Ask them.” Spoken like a true bicycle aficionado.


Ninth in a series of twelve.

* Sleeper, Soylent Green, The Crazies, and The Long Goodbye came out in ’73, which is the final year of the Sixties, according to my periodization scheme. However, it’s a cusp year between the two eras — not only for people, that is, but movies and other cultural productions, e.g., the novels Crash and Gravity’s Rainbow, and the albums Dark Side of the Moon and Raw Power.



What do you think?

  1. This synopsis, with its conclusion is actually entirely wrong with regard to the bicycle. The bike Reford rides in this movie is anything but simple, and it most certainly does not transmit power from legs to wheels.

  2. jacklordGOD, I wasn’t talking about the moped or motor-scooter that Redford’s character drives in the opening scene. (Though not a pro-bicycle scene, it’s an anti-car scene.) I was talking about the bicycle images pinned to his bulletin board.

  3. Um, ok, I see that my comment was deleted. Well, not a big deal, but I can assure you, in the time this movie was made Redford’s bike was not at all taken as an anti car scene. You may take it that way now, but in no way would it have been seen that way then. Bicycles were simply a matter of expediency in NYC, thus the motorized attachment.

  4. But Redford’s moped does support Josh’s point. The first time we see Redford he’s riding in traffic that consists of heavy, inscrutable automobiles. He’s the only person clearly visible in the frame. This serves the cinematic purpose of framing his character and forcing our attention to resolve itself on him. But it’s also a way of revealing something about that character, whose chosen mode of transport seems willful and out of step with the mainstream, hardly a matter of expediency. And when he arrives (late and out of step), he’s watched by someone hiding in the dark interior of a car. The opposition between the black box of the industrialized automobile and the open-framed “nudity” of the moped is striking and revealing. Of course, this interpretation depends on taking the view that everything is significant, that even expediency is never merely expedient.

  5. Thanks, Matt — yes, it’s all in the mise-en-scène. BTW… jacklordGOD’s comments are distracting us from the perhaps too obvious flaw in my post: I described Zardoz, Rollerball, and Logan’s Run as some of the best sci-fi movies of the era! No one wants to challenge this?

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