THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1973)
In 1971 Frederick Forsyth had a huge bestseller with his political suspense novel THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, so it was inevitable that a Hollywood studio would want to make a film of it. It focuses on a fictional police hunt for an anonymous assassin, the Jackal in 1963 as he plots to kill French President Charles De Gaulle, employed by the secret militant faction OAS, who saw De Gaulle as betraying France over granting independence to Algeria. It was perfect material for a Universal thriller movie.
The celebrated director Fred Zinnemann (HIGH NOON, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) was hired and with the real locations used such as Vienna, Rome, Genoa, Nice, Paris and London, he assembled a truly European cast to bring the book’s plot to vivid life. The role of the Jackal himself was an interesting challenge. Zinnemann said: “I feel he had to be a man who could be unobtrusive…Something aristocratic about him, very English, upper-class”. Oscar-winning Edward Fox fulfilled those criteria well. He balances a ruthless precision with an affable, breezy top-drawer Englishman’s charm
The rest of the cast is led by the pleasingly contrasting double-act of Parisian Michel Lonsdale (Drax in the Bond film MOONRAKER) and a very young Derek Jacobi. Together respectively they team up like a forlorn blood-hound coupled with a nervy, energetic terrier. In Lonsdale’s case, this makes him easy to under-estimate, as he proves when his suspicions about a mole within the smug, complacent French Cabinet are proved accurate. When asked how he could have known which ‘phone to bug, he dead-pans: “I didn’t, so I tapped all of them”.
There’s also a highly-impressive gallery of British character actors on hand: Ronald Pickup as the scheming forger, Cyril Cusack as the gentle gunsmith, Tony Britten (or Tony ‘Birmingham’ as his accent denotes here), Donald Sinden (who amusingly keeps pronouncing Jackal as the vaguely fithy-sounding ‘Jack-all’), Timothy West, Maurice Denham, Eric Porter and Anton Rogers and more. The European contingent is rounded out to include among others Delphine Seyrig, Vernon Dobtcheff and the lovely Olga Georges-Picot (who Woody Allen fans might recognise from LOVE AND DEATH).
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL has other strengths aside from its superb cast. Unusually it allows the assassin to be followed as a central character rather than a mysterious background shadowy figure. Any functional killings he does along the way are handled with impeccable taste by Zinnemann, either being dispatched by blows where the impact is off-screen or in the case of Seyrig a subtle darkness-obscured strangulation.
Since we know that the Jackal fails in his mission, like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN the script opts to show the plot as a how-dunnit not a who-dunnit. Fox is shown in vicariously enjoyable detail going about his disguises, forged passport, customised gun purchasing and track-covering murders as if he were a dashing, posh international businessman. Zinnemann was concerned going in: “In spite of knowing the end, would the audience sit still? And it turned out that they did, just as the readers of the book did”. That’s a tribute to his work and that of the screenplay and cast in unfolding the narrative so compellingly.
During the shooting, trivia fans might like to know that the likeness of Adrian Cayla Legrand to the real De Gaulle was so close that some French people in the slightly overlong climactic real parade footage mistook him for the real thing; disconcerting when you consider the President had been dead for two years. Also, not everyone knew the police pursuers were actors and there were cases of members of the public getting involved to help catch them catch suspected criminals in the crowd scenes.
At the end of the film, after the Jackal is blown away by Lonsdale as he attempts a second shot at De Gaulle, we learn that even in death he was still in a sense one step beyond the French authorities. The identity they think is really him after the myriad false ones turns out to be another sleight-of-hand giving the film that almost documentary-like flavour. (Indeed, until I checked this time, I’d always thought THE DAY OF THE JACKAL was based on a true story, such is its carefully-constructed believability). The story’s intriguing connection to reality was further heightened when the terrorist Carlos the Jackal was finally caught. He was so named because a copy of the Forsyth novel was found in his apartment when captured.
Fans of the Forsyth novel and this film may recall that one of the suggested assassins before choosing the Jackal is a member of the ex-Nazi clandestine group ODESSA, subsequently part of Forsyth’s next book in 1972 and a subsequent film (which I will review later).
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is a thumping good cat-and-mouse procedural thriller.