The Day of the Jackal (1973)

D: Fred Zinnemann
S: Edward Fox, Michel Lonsdale

Stripped down, ultra-smooth thriller from Frederic Forsyth's best seller about a plot to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle in the wake of the Algerian War directed with skill and consummate professionalism by Fred Zinnemann. From its opening scenes, it is clear that this film will hold out to the end, even though the outcome is inevitable given the historical circumstances and situations upon which it is based. Assisted by Kenneth Ross' marvelously basic screenplay, Zinnemann follows the oldest code of film making in the book and simply shoots what we need to see for the advancement of the story. Though over two hours in length, the film is terrifically paced and fast moving, an account of detail which often seems to resemble a documentary in its determination not to linger on the faces of actors for the registration of emotion any longer than is necessary to establish the basic conflicts required to move on to the next shot.

In fact it is so clinically executed that many critics have derided its lack of psychology. This is somewhat unfair, as one of its great strengths as a thriller is the subtlety with which it portrays the world, on one hand of a cold but subtly arrogant young hit man (Edward Fox), and on the other the high pressure world of his main pursuer (Michel Lonsdale). Each man rises to his challenges with a combination of professionalism and not undue concern, and each actor gives a minimalist performance to match. They register just enough character beyond the stone-faced exteriors both are presumed to have to engage the audience in a delicate psychological exploration which complements and underlies the intensity of the fast-moving and pared down narrative. Indeed, it is precisely this which allows the film's abrupt climax to work, as the moment of surprise on Fox's face when he misses his target is enough for us to sense the moral and spiritual comeuppence which must inevitably come, just as the tired but knowing silence exhibited by Lonsdale over his quarry's grave speaks volumes for his character's personal journey.

The story is full of vignettes and characters who appear and disappear very quickly. Rather than a weakness, this turns out to be a positive dimension, because it increases the sense of scale and provides quiet and simple insights which serve the plot nonetheless. Rather than dwelling on the personal conflicts and crises of so many officials and lowlifes respectively, we are treated to an almost first person perspective on a level of society most of us would have no contact with anyway and thus rightly seems alienating and aloof for the most part. We mainly follow the killer and cop in the manner of the classics of the genre, and the world unfolds as naturally as it should.

The Day of the Jackal is interesting on many levels, though it makes no claims to profundity. It documents a moment in history which captures the currents of social dissent, charts the moral and spiritual decadence and emptiness of a number of people who live in it, and explores the machinery of the state and law enforcement which seeks to control it all and which is often as morally corrupt as those it nominally stands above.

Calmly striding through it all is The Jackal himself, a professional assassin whose life is divided into strategies for survival and execution and which he lives with ruthless calculation and a hint of his feeling of freedom and superiority operating beyond God and Law. He is a classic villain, a mixture of sympathetic outsider and repellent, almost inhuman predator. His flaunting of society's taboos and hidden darkness merely demonstrates their existence (the gifted arms manufacturer who barely thinks about the consequences of his work, the sleazy photographer who thinks too much about the consequences but tries to exploit them for his benefit, the bored rich housewife who plays sexual games which backfire horribly, the innocent homosexual who is a victim only by dint of his poor choice of companion).

Meanwhile the harried detective demonstrates the effectiveness of the political machine in large scale operation, but never gets close enough to catch him until he takes direct action himself (he is hampered by politicians who, on one hand grant him total freedom, but on the other are eager to end the problem quickly and quietly and then take the credit, he is dismissed and recalled with concern only for how useful he is to the higher echelons, he is plagued by an informer which is the result of the moral weakness of a member of the cabinet, and in one beautifully simple scene, a police transcriber complains that he can't make out the confessions of an OAS heavy because he's screaming too much under torture).

It is a classic dichotomy with classic elements of well worn plots, and Zinnemann, the Hollywood pro, matches himself to the task of its direction with a perfectly matched classic style. The forces of good and evil play their dangerous game in an increasingly layered political and social world which cares less for them as people than it does for what the represent in the way of threat or benefit. Ultimately, The Jackal and his pursuer are the opposite sides of the coin, and while Lonsdale's presence at the burial does not suggest mutual admiration, it is a kind of world weary acknowledgement that this is the life they both chose to lead and which has brought them to their expected ends, where they both remain as anonymous and unacknowleged as each other. There is nothing surprising in this, and it is not heavy handed. It is simple, understandable and familiar, and this last is perhaps the greatest barb of all.

Well worth seeing again, especially in the wake of its bizarre remake The Jackal, The Day of the Jackal, is a seminal modern thriller which outshines many of the films it influenced and stands a landmark of the genre.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.