In keeping with the tone of the film, consider what follows as a brief dossier of notes to convince you the reader to watch Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 thriller The Day of the Jackal.
The brilliance of the film’s script, as it was for the novel, is the way in which it sets up its plot. Very early on the Jackal jots down notes for his plan, seeking answers for the five Ws of journalism, which the film then delivers in short order. There will be an assassination attempt, that much is certain–and it will involve a modified sniper rifle in Paris on Liberation Day, August 25, 1963. (The Titanic is steaming towards the iceberg now…) The target will be de Gaulle, the assassin the Jackal, and the only man brilliant enough to stop it is Inspector Lebel. On your marks…
Edward Fox is deceptively brilliant in the title role. He plays the lithe killer with restraint, appearing almost languid before a quick burst of movement reminds the audience of his devastating power. Unlike so many works dealing with killers and rogues in this period, Fox never overdoes the part, never goes for lurid or cheap sensationalist antics, and never forgets that he’s playing a sophisticated sociopath for the sake of verisimilitude.
Michael Lonsdale gives his usual, unassuming composure to the role of frumpy Inspector Claude Lebel, speaking monotonously with subdued authority and yet with the unmistakable suspicion that he’s had one too many coffees (it’s the first thing his character demands when assigned to the case). Though the script gives him precious little in the way of character (his only motivation in the entire film is to catch the Jackal), Lonsdale thankfully never tries to steal a scene (a lesson Richard Gere missed for the tenuous remake) and instead manages to captivate by sheer power of his performance. In short, it’s fascinating to watch this man solve a puzzle, especially when you the audience member already possess the answer.
If you’re looking for the deadly game of cat and mouse, however, you won’t find it here. There’s a hunt, certainly, it’s the Jackal on his way to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle, but don’t expect any Bourne antics here which have recently come to typify this genre.
Just like the book it’s adapted from, the film is divided into three parts, which roughly correlate to a typical three act structure. Arranged in the book under the recurring theme of ‘anatomy’, the film is also study in minutea. Perhaps ironically, this synopsis also describes the style of the film, possessing as it does an inclination for detail that borders on triviality. The most fascinating aspect of the picture is perhaps also its dullest component to modern viewers. How does a terrorist plan an operation of this tenacity? How does an assassin infiltrate a border with a sniper rifle? How does an agent track someone who doesn’t want to be found in a pre-digital Europe? What would it take to hunt a man without records in an age before ubiquitous recording devices? The Jackal is a man who exists through fragments of media. A scrap of paper here, a notation in a ledger there, but what is certain about the Jackal is that each new entry tracks the inexorable trajectory of his mission. The answers may not make for the most riveting of experiences, but they are far beyond dull. Instead, their intricacy suggests an abiding understanding of the systems involved in these occult procedures–the kind that must come from a career in political journalism, as it was in the case of first-time novelist Frederick Forsyth, whose previous non-fiction account of the Biafran war had left him with a surplus of debt and a surfeit of ideas. Taking his own research collected at the scene of Charles de Gaulle’s first assassination attempt in 1962 by the Organisation de l’Armee Secrete (or OAS, a real terrorist group mainly comprised of former Algerian nationals of French origin who sought revenge on de Gaulle for granting Algeria independence in 1962), Forsyth would appropriate both the botched attempt and the organisation to craft a tale staggering in both its complexity and believability.
So too is the film itself a document of European splendour, Paris and London circa 1973. The film lingers over establishing montages of the various cities and towns the Jackal visits far longer than modern audiences are accustomed to, but which would have suited the burgeoning touristic impulse of an early 1970s North American audience (though I suspect European audiences must have gotten a kick out of it too, the film did decent business there too). Treat the excesses as postcards of a bygone era, catered to the whims of an audience eager to sample a highlight reel of Europe.
Most impressive is the scale of the production, filmed as it was in three separate countries, with well over 50 speaking roles, and a finale on the streets of downtown Paris that shocks in its sheer logistical complexity. How does one get permission to film a parade with tanks in and around the largest roundabout in Paris, not so coincidentally named Place Charles de Gaulle? The answer is somewhat dull, so I won’t give it away here, and regardless the scene is still a masterpiece of direction and editing.
I must temper my enthusiastic praise to a small degree, however, by conceding something along the lines that the detail never quite reaches the impeccable fluidity and grace that Costa-Gavras (no doubt an inspirational influence) had accomplished in films before this like Z (which earns praise higher than I possess the words to bestow). The Jackal‘s style always feels a tad too self-impressed, as if the film’s aware it’s romping through Europe with the best of them. The pacing and the workmanlike cinematography might be the result–Z drives while The Jackal lingers.
The film expects your attention, and uses craft rather than flash to sustain it. Indeed, many of its scenes succeed only if read by the viewer to determine what the editing and composition is intending to convey. Take for example the climax on the streets of Paris. Lingering as it does over unfamiliar faces and ceremonial proceedings far longer than one might expect, the procedural aspect of the film might seem sluggish until the glaring absence of the Jackal becomes as frustrating as it does worrying. We begin to scan the faces with the increasingly-agitated Inspector Claude, anticipating with grim fascination when the fatal shot might ring out. When the Jackal finally does re-emerge on the frame after nearly a ten minute absence, the filmmakers simultaneously justify the (award-winning) editing and reward observant viewers, having the Jackal emerge as he does from the crowd as a mirage that rivals Omar Sharif’s entrance in Lawrence of Arabia.
“Who is the Jackal?” ask the good old boys of London’s special branch. The answer is a paradox, since his existence solely in the marginalia of a pre-digital media culture obviates any identity he might ever have had. He exists only in the annals of recorded history; a record of a man with no name, no country, no past and no future. A man who exists only for one historic day.
Avoid the watered down, unintentionally campy remake from 1997, with Bruce Willis acting well outside his range in the Edward Fox role and the otherwise-talented Richard Gere painfully mumbling action cliches through a spotty Irish accent while he and Sydney Poitier reenact buddy-cop melodrama. Both Zinnemann and Forsyth lobbied to have the name changed to disassociate it from the property, but obviously with no success (the callous side of me wonders if that explains why Max Brooks never tried to do the same with World War Z).
The international terrorist Carlos the Jackal (fictionalized in many of Ludlum’s novels, including the Bourne series and powerfully immortalized on screen in Oliver Assayas’ 2010 5-hour epic Carlos) received the cognomen erroneously by a correspondent from The Guardian after reportedly spotting the novel in Sanchez’s belongings. The book belonged instead to Sanchez’s roommate.
If you want to know more about the OAS featured in the film, check out this website.
The Spy who Came in From the Cold (1965)
Will Pair Nicely With:
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Black Sunday (1977)
If Interested in Historical Context:
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Army of Shadows (1969)
If you like where these words are going follow them on Twitter @binarybastard