From start to finish, The Day Of The Jackal (released in 1973) is one stylish thriller that qualifies among the best of its genre. Based on Frederick Forsyth’s best-selling novel and handsomely photographed it is impressively acted by the entire cast, whilst showcasing Edward Fox as The Jackal in a performance of smooth villainy that is totally convincing all the way.
With nary a car chase or shoot out in sight, it manages to cram as much excitement into its 143 minute running time thanks to the combination of expert direction by Fred Zinnemann and a faultless script by Kenneth Ross. Highly detailed and never less than compelling, this film follows the exploits of a professional assassin about to embark on his biggest job yet, as he makes an attempt to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle; and we follow him every painstaking step of the way.
The Jackal is hired by the OAS, a militant underground group that opposes de Gaulle giving independence to Algeria. The group has learned the hard way that a man who survived, in fact, led, the Resistance in France during WW II is not easy to bump off. After shooting something like 110 bullets into his car in a failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life; the OAS turns to an outsider, a crack assassin.
If The Jackal is working hard as he carefully plans each step, so is the French Security. Due to bank robberies in France organised by the OAS to pay for The Jackal, the French government deduce that the OAS needs to fund something. The OAS security chief is kidnapped and tortured. French Security walks away with the name: The Jackal, and realise that President de Gaulle may be in danger. There is no way to find The Jackal as they can’t detain him at the border since they don’t know his name. Government assassins can’t destroy him if he’s in another country. They can’t arrest him in France because they don’t know who he is, and they can’t search for him as they don’t know what he looks like. The French Government calls in a police detective recommended by the Police Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michel Lonsdale).
With precious little to go on, made worse because the entire operation must be kept secret, Lebel and his assistant (a young Derek Jacobi) start the step by step police work necessary to uncover this man. It’s a massive job.
Absolutely fascinating the film shows the careful preparations on the side of both the police and the assassin and the roadblocks each runs into. Edward Fox is outstanding as The Jackal, even with precious little dialogue, he manages to show his coldness, preciseness, and quick mind as he carefully plots his moves and is methodical in his precision, whilst killing with cool detachment. Lonsdale as Lebel seems like a real police detective, underplayed, exhausted, unflappable, and dogged. A wonderful performance.
The film’s final thirty minutes are worth waiting for, as is The Jackal’s final disguise that convinces the French authorities to let him pass. Fred Zinnemann keeps it all moving at a steady pace and there’s never any letdown in suspense since the film has had the power to draw you in from the start.
The period detail and French locations are superbly shot, so cinematically this is a very attractive looking film. It’s well-paced and directed with no wastage. We never get into The Jackal character’s head ourselves as viewers, there is a definite distance and we don’t always immediately know why he does certain things. This only adds to the compelling voyeurism of watching him on his deadly mission. Despite the genre, there is a restraint shown in the depictions of violence. It’s often implied or shown just off-screen. The focus of the film is very much on the way in which the assassin navigates through his mission via different methods of subterfuge. And of course, all this when we know de Gaulle is not assassinated which acts as a compelling testament to the skill and mastery of film craft that the movie displays.
The Day Of The Jackal is overall an outstanding thriller that combines intelligence with a gripping narrative. It shows how this kind of material should be presented on screen, where less can absolutely be more. The way that it always stays within the realm of the plausible is one of its strongest suits too. All this combined with its enigmatic central villain make it a superlative movie thriller.
and the tease for next weeks post . . . You must remember this.