The Day of the Jackal (1974)
“The Jackal spent 71 days, 56 minutes thinking a bullet into the brain of de Gaulle.”
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Edward Fox, Terence Alexander, Michel Auclair
Synopsis: A professional assassin codenamed “Jackal” plots to kill Charles de Gaulle, the President of France.
The most striking thing about The Day of the Jackal, Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of the best-selling Frederick Forsyth novel, is the way in which he clearly wants us to admire the nameless Jackal (Edward Fox). He is attractive, debonair, resourceful and unflappable; he can turn his hand to anything, whether it’s a quick re-spray of his sporty convertible, disguising himself as a one-legged war veteran, or gently murdering a lover. Compare him to the police officers trying to track him down before he succeeds in assassinating President De Gaulle; they’re nearly all grey, frumpy men hunched over their desks in darkened offices, chain-smoking their cigarettes as they pore over endless piles of dog-eared files. Despite this, it’s the dogged persistence of Lebel (Michel Lonsdale), the man leading the pursuit, that ultimately wins our admiration.
After providing some historical background, the film shows the desperate leaders of the underground OAS recruiting the Jackal to assassinate President De Gaulle for a fee of $500,000. Upon accepting the job, the Jackal instructs these leaders to remain in their hotel until the job is done, cut off from the world to prevent any informers from getting wind of the plan. Unfortunately, their prolonged stay at their hotel alerts intelligence officers to the fact that something is afoot and a painstaking investigation begins. Agents abduct Wolensky (Jean Martin), the OAS leaders’ only contact with the outside world, and interrogate him to death, although he reveals only tantalising fragments of information. The unassuming but effective Lebel is chosen to spearhead the operation to prevent the Jackal from carrying out his assignment.
Unaware that the authorities have figured out his mission, the Jackal sets about making meticulous preparations and his groundwork is contrasted and alternated with the investigations of Lebel and his men. Almost as soon as he arrives in France, however, the Jackal is informed that the authorities are aware of the plot, thanks to the undercover (and covers) work of a comely sympathiser whose husband was executed for a previous unsuccessful attempt on the President’s life, and who has been bedding a member of the high-powered committee overseeing the Jackal’s pursuit. Despite this news, the Jackal decides to go ahead with the attempt anyway.
The Day of the Jackal provides a dispassionate but absorbing dissection of an assassination attempt that suffers from its dry delivery, its lack of emotional content, and an antagonist who possesses the near superhuman wiles of a Bond villain supplemented by an air of smug self-satisfaction. While the film invites our admiration of him, it also takes care not to have us rooting for him as the day of the assassination draws closer and the tension builds. Fox does well in the role, although he looks a little too foppish today with those daft cravats around his neck. He has that air of superior detachment about him, though, as if he’s interacting with others through necessity rather than choice and finds the whole process of doing so a little distasteful. Lonsdale comes across as a bulldog worrying a rag and has a pleasing weariness about him, as if he knows that after this one there will be another and another…
The Day of the Jackal failed at the box office, possibly because it lacked a star name in the title role, but it received positive reviews and still holds up fairly well today despite looking increasingly dated.
(Reviewed 29th June 2013)