Having recently revisited it after a while, unquestionably Director Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 movie, The Day of the Jackal, the cold and logical essence of assassination drama, an imagined story of the OAS hiring an assassin to kill Charles de Gaulle in the rancor following his granting independence to the former French colony of Algeria following the savage and lost war of French repression there, is almost surely the finest cat-and-mouse thriller in movie history. You are entirely caught up in it–the It being purely the Assassin Story and only that–from beginning to end. Yes, purity is the term for this movie and its superb art, an art which is a gift to you for the transporting and suspenseful experience it brings. Put differently: You suspend all possible doubt as to the story’s verisimilitude as the fascinating and oh-so-plausible escapade courses along. Why? Technically Zinnemann has made the most scrubbed of thrillers: there are no big-name stars; no pandering love stories; no faultless heroes; no unrealistic “tradecraft” in the art of the assassin; no Merlinesque technology; no victimology; and no blatant gore. It is simply and profoundly the professional versus the professional–and finally the cognitive contest–for the alerted French government bureaucracy soon surrenders its clumsy and thrashing defense of the grandly reckless de Gaulle to another professional, the genius detective who can sense the skill of the assassin. Fundamentally the two opponents are, as it were, contesting alone in the ring under the lights. The intelligence of each drives most of the essential action: the assassin’s secretive and brilliantly improvised progress in a large world whose din and size hide him; the detective’s focusing of massive French and international resources to encircle and stop the assassin.
Two wonders mandate your first or return visit: The performance of Edward Fox as the Jackal; and the brilliant selectivity and direction of Fred Zinnemann in rendering Frederick Forsyth’s novel for the screen, a triumph that must have inspired Ralph Kemplen’s marvelous editing of the film so essential to its hold on you.
Fox conveys great shrewdness and confidence, as well as a matter-of-fact ruthlessness, as he sets himself up to kill de Gaulle: He assumes several disguises and identities in his Killer’s Progress, and he reveals a most clever way to obtain a false passport whose uncovering would require an army of investigators. In his ingenuity and in his persona as the Individual versus Society, he quietly and naturally gains the favor of the moviegoer, starting with engendering fascination followed by near approval as he outwits the Goliath, the awful Leviathan that Zinnemann makes sure we see clearly in a markedly cynical view of governments and their institutional power. The Enlightenment is distant from The Day of the Jackal.
Yet Zinnemann clearly understands that before the story ends, he must do what script school calls “restore order.” He does so with a skill worthy of Hitchcock. He leaves us with a sudden, shocking image of Fox minutes from his attempt on de Gaulle, an image in which the assassin now seems unforgettably the Figure of Evil. This image undermines the subtle favoritism we had been feeling for the assassin, our secret rooting for him. In principle it is a technique seen in Psycho when at The End Hitchcock leaves us with the awful and honest and above all stamping smile of Norman Bates in his cell. Finally Bates is shorn of all guise: he is Evil. In The Day of the Jackal look in the final few minutes for a brief portrait of Fox in a black suit sitting quietly in a chair in his high-rise room from whose window he will fire at de Gaulle standing below in the street in a Liberation Day ceremony. The pose, the expression, especially the stare–how he fixes you with his eyes–will be an emotional interruption for you, a deliberate one of great artistic merit. Zinnemann the artistic director here has his cake and eats it too. He wants you to be sympathetic to the Dire Plot up to a point because that will be Narrative Pull; but then he has to disillusion you, and best do so in a stark instant. You can sense this requirement when you think of Zinnemann’s imperatives as a realistic storyteller.
There are other wonderful examples of the triumph of art in The Day of the Jackal over the usual schlock and tabloid excess in thrillers, not least Zinnemann’s slow representation of the activities in Paris streets, beginning in the morning, on Liberation Day. We watch the crowds gather, the police preparations, the parading of military units, the brightening of the day as afternoon arrives–many of the scenes leading up to the penultimate moment when the uniformed de Gaulle will arrive, step from his shiny black Citroen, and stand vulnerable in the ceremonial street. And as the buildup progresses, invariably we become the Great Detective (Michael Lonsdale), the Pursuer of the Assassin, anxiously peering high and low for the villain in scene after scene, the latter’s whereabouts unknown to the authorities. This staging is a superb device of suspense. From beginning to end in this classic, Zinnemann knows exactly what he is doing.
You can be certain that besides the performance of Fox, all the the other performances–among them Michael Lonsdale as Deputy Commissioner Lebel, Alan Badel as The Minister, Olga Georges-Picot as the OAS agent Denise, and Cyril Cusack as the gunsmith–are instantly believable and capturing.
The Day of the Jackal is an indispensable movie. You should not miss its rare magic. Second viewings are especially rewarding.