Fred Zinnemann's spellbinding thriller remains the best of its kind
Frederick Forsyth spent the late '60s covering Nigeria's civil war for the BBC. In Biafra he encountered mercenaries, hired killers who terrified and fascinated him. "I heard some pretty miserable life stories, out of which came how to get a false passport, how to get a gun, how to break a neck," Forsyth recalled. In 1970 Forsyth returned to London with no job, no money or prospects - but plenty of stories.
Forsyth remembered working for Reuters in France in 1962. He witnessed the OAS terror campaign against Charles De Gaulle for granting Algeria independence. Wondering how he'd kill De Gaulle, the world's best-defended president, Forsyth decided a contract killer stood more chance than fanatics. Forsyth wrote a novel in 35 days, little anticipating its subsequent success. Soon The Day of the Jackal became an international bestseller.
In 1971, British producer Sir John Woolf presented Forsyth's manuscript to Fred Zinnemann. The legendary director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity, The Nun's Story and A Man for All Seasons was reeling after MGM cancelled his long-cherished project, Man's Fate. Zinnemann resented "lawyers and accountants...[replacing] showmen as the heads of the studios." Considering Jackal both commercially viable and challenging, Zinnemann signed on.
Jackal proved an expensive undertaking. Shooting spanned across France, England, Italy and Austria. Co-producer Julien Delrode secured Zinnemann extraordinary access to French government sites, including the Interior Ministry. Zinnemann filmed the climactic Liberation Day scenes at a Bastille Day parade, featuring De Gaulle impersonator Adrien Cayla-Legrand. The result thrilled critics and audiences alike: Roger Ebert called Jackal "a beautifully executed example of filmmaking... put together like a fine watch."
From the opening frames, announced by Georges Delerue's pounding score, Jackal rivets our attention. "August 1962 was a stormy time for France," a narrator intones, introducing the OAS ambush of De Gaulle at Petit Clamart. A spy watches De Gaulle leave the Elysee Palace; miles away, Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry's (Jean Sorel) hit squad awaits. Zinnemann tensely cuts between hunters and hunted, until De Gaulle arrives and machine guns blaze. This scene is a mini-masterpiece, yet it's merely Jackal's curtain-raiser.
Afterwards, OAS Colonel Rodin (Eric Porter) hires the Jackal (Edward Fox), an Englishman with a resume of high-profile murders (Rafael Trujillo and Patrice Lumumba among them). We follow the Jackal's preparations: buying false passports and a custom-made rifle, he prowls across Europe, researching De Gaulle's habits and personality, preparing disguises and hideouts. He silences anyone threatening to expose him, from a sleazy forger (Roland Pickup) to an unassuming gay man (Anton Rogers). Nothing matters but the job.
Zinnemann cast Edward Fox after seeing Joseph Losey's The Go-Between (1971). Fox recalled that his line "Nothing is ever a lady's fault" impressed Zinnemann: "Any actor who can make that line believable has got my ticket." Fox marvelously underplays the Jackal, his jet-set swagger, affected accent and icy blue eyes masking a ruthless killer. He's a sociopath turning emotions on like a tap: charming one moment, remorseless the next. Fox graces Jackal with a unique presence that the studio's proposed stars (Michael Caine, Robert Redford) couldn't have delivered.
Forsyth claimed "I was very surprised when readers said they loved [the Jackal]. He was the ruddy killer.” Indeed, the Jackal's hardly likeable: besides contracting with terrorists, he murders several innocent people. Perhaps viewers admire his determination, considering him an underdog against an entire government. Perhaps because the authorities seem no better. In one sequence, French agents kidnap OAS courier Wolenski (ironically, played by Jean Martin of The Battle of Algiers) in Italy and torture him to death. Who's the hero?
That would be Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), Paris's Deputy Police Commissioner. Stocky and soft-spoken, he's introduced fussing over pigeons and arrives at a Cabinet meeting in a soiled suit. Indeed, De Gaulle's Interior Minister (Alan Bladel) treats Lebel with scarce-concealed contempt. Telling assistant Caron (Derek Jacobi) that "after De Gaulle we're the two most powerful people in France," he's totally overwhelmed. With few leads, no evidence and enforced secrecy, Lebel must scour France for an elusive killer.
Thankfully, Lebel's up to the task. Michael Lonsdale becomes an amiable protagonist, an Everyman-turned-Gallic Sherlock Holmes. Both hardworking and intuitive, he draws closer through thin leads and hunches. Lonsdale makes Lebel increasingly assertive, climaxing when he entraps an official (Barrie Ingham) who's been (inadvertently) leaking secrets to an OAS mole. "How did you know whose phone to tap?" the Minister asks. "I didn't, so I tapped all of them," Lebel responds.
The Day of the Jackal becomes an epic police procedural. Jackal's recurring image is bone-tired detectives working into the night, contrasted with the Jackal's homicidal tourism. The paper trail overwhelms: Lebel sorts through thousands of border registries and hotel cards for relevant morsels. In London, Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas (Tony Britton) follows a vague tip towards the Jackal's identity. With his detectives investigating passport records, he's told 8,041 people registered in the past month. "Bloody holiday season!" he snaps.
In lesser hands this narrative - the Jackal's preparations, Lebel's manhunt - could be dense or unnavigable. But screenwriter Kenneth Ross breaks exposition into bite-sized chunks, making the volume digestible. Long scenes play without dialogue, like the Jackal's test-firing his rifle into a melon or dressing after a murder. Even seemingly superfluous moments (a motorcycle courier delivering a message to the Elysee) fit snugly into Jackal's mosaic.
Zinnemann shoots with clinical detachment, blending locations from Paris streets and Riviera hotels to dingy meetinghouses. He frequently shows the Jackal at work in long-take medium shots. Delerue's score gives way to diegetic soundscape: music's provided by radios, street performers and marching bands. One murder scene's backgrounded with a TV showing of John Huston's Moulin Rouge! The climax plays with La Marseillaise juxtaposed against Lebel's efforts to foil the assassination.
Zinnemann sprinkles Jackal with dozens of character vignettes. The Jackal visits a cheeky gunsmith (Cyril Cusack) who interrogates the Jackal as if measuring him for a suit: "Will the gentleman be moving?" The Jackal woos Madame De Montpellier (Delphine Seyrig), a bored aristocrat thrilled by his attentions... until realizing his identity. Delphine Seyrig's sensitive turn is matched by Olga Georges-Picot, who makes Denise, the OAS informant, less evil than pitiable. Watching a colleague burn her fiancee's photograph, she accepts her mission (seducing Barry Ingham's unctuous Minister) with teary resignation.
Finally, the payoff. Since this isn't Inglourious Basterds, we know the Jackal will fail: the question is how. Having eluded Lebel, the Jackal stands poised to shoot De Gaulle before thousands of soldiers, police and onlookers. History hinges on a stupid mistake that renders months of preparation moot. Contrasting the Liberation Day ceremony with Lebel's frantic searching and the Jackal patiently stalking the President, Zinnemann provides an incomparable finale.
The Day of the Jackal is simultaneously simple yet complex: straightforward in approach, yet crammed with detail. There's little action and few twists, nor the overweening paranoia of other '70s thrillers - just an engrossing story. Zinnemann compared Jackal to "a giant puzzle, all coldly rational, without any kind of emotion." And it's fascinating watching the pieces fall into place.