The Day of the Jackal is a very different kind of 1970s action movie. This big-budget Anglo-French co-production might be unconventional but it’s also a very fine movie.
The end of the Algerian War and the granting of independence to Algeria by France’s President de Gaulle angered a lot of people within the French military. It angered them enough that they refused to accept this outcome. Disgruntled and embittered officers and ex-officers formed the Organisation de l'armée secrète (OAS) which carried out terrorist attacks and tried to assassinate de Gaulle. The movie opens with an extended action set-piece based on an actual OAS assassination attempt in 1962.
The failure of this attempt was a major setback to the OAS. At this point fiction takes over. With their organisation riddled with police informers the surviving leadership of the OAS decides that their only hope is to employ an outsider, a professional hitman, to kill the President. This new attempt will be absolutely secret. Only the four top members of the organisation will know anything about it. The hitman they select is an Englishman, known by the code-name Jackal.
The Jackal (played by Edward Fox) is a very cool customer. He explains that after a job this big he will never be able to work again and therefore his fee will be extremely fee. Colonel Rodin (Eric Porter), the head of the OAS, agrees. The Jackal will work alone and will carry out the assassination at a time of his own choosing.
Much of the movie is concerned with the Jackal’s elaborate preparations - the procuring of false passports, the ordering of a very special gun, the careful planning that leaves nothing to chance. Running in parallel to this is the story of the efforts of the French security agencies (with assistance from Scotland Yard’s Special Branch) to track down the assassin.
The problem for the French is that de Gaulle refuses to take any special precautions or to cancel any public engagements and insists that the investigation be carried out in absolute secrecy. Inspector Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is in charge of the case. Lebel has the reputation of being a brilliant detective who is also possessed of infinite patience. Slowly and painstakingly he begins the process of hunting the Jackal.
There are several things which make this movie an oddity in the genre. Apart from the opening sequence referred to earlier there is practically no actual action. The emphasis is on suspense. There is however a difficulty here - we know who the assassin is, we know what the crime will be, and we know the attempt will fail. We know that de Gaulle was not assassinated. Therefore the suspense must come from those things we don’t know - we don’t know how the assassination will fail and we don’t know how Lebel will catch the Jackal. In fact even though we know that de Gaulle will not be killed we can’t be sure the Jackal will be caught. We also don’t know exactly who the Jackal is - we know only his code-name.
In some ways this movie is an inverted mystery, where the interest comes from the manner in which the criminal is hunted down. It is also in some respects a police procedural with the focus on following the investigation in meticulous detail.
Kenneth Ross’s screenplay is quite faithful to the approach that Frederick Forsyth took in his excellent best-selling novel (which I warmly recommend). The wealth of detail could become tedious but in fact it’s fascinating.
Fred Zinnemann was a much-praised but somewhat overrated director but he does a splendid job here. This is a long film but while the pacing is unhurried the suspense is built very effectively.
Zinnemann chose Edward Fox to play the Jackal because he wanted an actor who seemed a different as possible from the stereotype of a hitman. It was an inspired choice. Fox plays the Jackal as an educated and cultured (and very polite) upper-class Englishman but he also succeeds in making him chillingly cold-blooded.
The support cast is exceptionally strong. Michael Lonsdale as Lebel provides a superb contrast to Fox’s Jackal - Lebel might be a superb detective but he is temperamentally a very ordinary policeman, and compared to the rather aristocratic Jackal he is something of a plebian. Lebel and the Jackal are worlds apart but both are in their very different ways thorough professionals who know their jobs very very well.
The movie is wonderfully evocative of the world of the early 1960s, a world that was already a vanished world when the movie was made in 1973.
The Region 2 DVD is widescreen but not 16x09 enhanced and has very little in the way of extras. On the other hand it can be picked up very inexpensively.
The Day of the Jackal might not please action movie fans who expect car chases and spectacular stunts. This is a more cerebral kind of thriller and a rather old-fashioned one. It is however a well-crafted piece of work and if you are prepared to accept it on its own terms it’s a tense and engrossing suspense film with a great lead performance by the under-appreciated Edward Fox. Highly recommended.