Weekend Film Recommendation: The Day of the Jackal

Fred Zinnemann adapts Frederick Forsyth’s thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973) in the weekend film recommendation that closes this month’s series of conspiracy-themed movies.

The story opens with a re-telling of the failed attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle by the OAS, a far-right group angered by Algerian independence. In frustration and desperation, the remaining OAS leadership reconvenes in Vienna to devise a new plan to take care of unfinished business. They hire an anonymous hitman, played by Edward Fox, known only by the codename “The Jackal.” The Jackal has the impossible combination of being both irrepressibly suave while also being deliberately forgettable; he can induce cooperation and compliance from anyone he chooses, but he can also fade into obscurity when circumstances demand. His suitability for the job makes him eminently worth the half million dollars he charges the OAS leadership to kill de Gaulle… “considering I’m handing you France,” he nonchalantly persuades them, “I wouldn’t call that expensive.”

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The rest of the film is high in tension and very low on political intrigue. Zinnemann devotes screen-time to the Jackal’s meticulous planning and the authorities’ efforts to detect his identity and whereabouts, and leaves the wider political landscape untouched. We’re left wondering who are these OAS characters, and do they really think de Gaulle’s death will result in the re-annexation of Algerian territory?

This isn’t the kind of ‘parallel universe’ story in which a minute historical adjustment leads to momentous changes in reality (as in The Watchmen); rather, Day of the Jackal sticks closely to the reality with which we are already familiar, and robs itself of the suspense of knowing whether The Jackal succeeds in his mission. Consequently, the story plays out without the taut suspense Zinnemann used to great effect in High Noon. You never need to worry about whether Lebel will catch his man before the time runs out—and yet, testament to Zinnemann’s skill, you still can’t help yourself from being in suspense anyway. It’s unusual to find oneself enthralled by a drama when you already know how the plot ends. But there is art in the journey all the same.

Fox is superb as the Jackal. He is aristocratically mild-mannered (he wears an ascot for heaven’s sake), and he just doesn’t seem the type of cold-blooded killer capable of dispatching someone at the first whiff of suspicion. The forger tasked with fabricating a driver’s license imprudently sees an opportunity to exploit the Jackal, but meets an unfortunate end that seems ever so off-key for the soft-spoken and impeccably tailored hitman.

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The cat to the Jackal’s mouse is the harried French cop Lebel, played by Michel Lonsdale. We’ve seen this beleaguered-cop-against-slick-villain trope before, and it’s used to great effect here too. Aside from the characters’ dedication to their craft, the symmetry between the villain and hero is less in the foreground in Day of the Jackal as in, say, Heat (see review here). Nonetheless, it provides a nice gradual convergence in pace as the two edge closer—albeit with tension-building obstacles—to their respective goals as we approach the film’s conclusion. As the Jackal closes in on de Gaulle, so too does Lebel bear down on the Jackal.

That said, some find the film’s conclusion rather dissatisfying. Something about the grandeur of the film as a whole, spanning as it does the entire continent, multiple disguises, and opulent sets, seems inapposite to the film’s clumsy, oafish denouement. Personally, I loved it, but decide for yourselves!

9 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Day of the Jackal”

  1. I love this film both for its nail-biting tension but also as a character study of the Jackal. He's so coldly practical as he does whatever it is that needs to be done to fulfill his mission. Terrific pick.

  2. You never need to worry about whether Lebel will catch his man before the time runs out—and yet, testament to Zinnemann’s skill, you still can’t help yourself from being in suspense anyway.

    Big, big dissent here. Not for your analysis of the movie, about which you are absolutely correct, but in your assigning of credit. There is a strong tendency to treat the director as the font of all aspects of a film, and it's just wrong. This movie, like almost all others, started with a script, and it's that script that produced the tension. It was not written by Zinnemann; the writing credits go to Frederick Forsyth and Kenneth Ross. In this particular case, the auteur theory is especially absurd, since Forsyth (whose credit is for the novel; the screenplay was Ross') created all of the tension you comment on on his own to begin with.

    People really, really need to start crediting the writing of movies to the people who actually produce it.

    1. Really? I'm aware there are some instances in which script-writers dictate precisely how they intend the film to play out (J.M. Barrie's PETER PAN is apparently a nightmare for theater directors for presenting this very problem in stage productions), but I'm under the impression that directors are far more in charge of manipulating the way an audience will respond to the action on screen than is a script-writer.

      1. No. While the specific details may be under the control of the director, the fact is that, in the large majority of cases in which the director is not also the script writer, the script exists before the director touches the project. Everything that the director does depends upon having a good script to begin with.

        And in this case, as I said, the auteur theory is especially absurd because the film is pretty faithful to the novel and every single thing that you praised about the movie is also present in the book. All of it existed before Zinnemann had anything to do with it. So, while he surely deserves credit for translating all of that successfully, it's pretty clear that the bulk of the credit belongs with those who handed him the script.

    2. Incidentally, the novel was one of William S. Burroughs' favorites. He admired it for its total refusal to get inside the mind of the Jackal. That doesn't negate Keith's point above that it's a fine character study of him. It's just done completely from the outside looking in. It's a fine book.

  3. Loved the film and the book. Forsyth at his best. de Gaulle's lucky escape by means of a Gallic trait so difficult for an Englishman to comprehend or expect is a wonderful device … watch or read to find out more.

  4. For the record, it is Tuesday morning, June 2nd, and this is the most recent post appearing on the blog at the moment. Lack of activity, or a bug in the software? I report, you decide…

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