1963, France. French President Charles De Gaulle (Adrien Cayla-Legrand) has decided, after a popular referendum, to allow the North African nation of Algeria independence from France. This action leads to the death of hundreds of French residence in Algeria and bloody conflict which extends to Europe, as disgruntled French army officers form the OAS, a terrorist group which strives to assassinate De Gaulle. After a failed attempt on the President's life, the leaders of the OAS are tried and executed, and the organization is in tatters. The surviving leaders of the OAS hire a professional assassin (Edward Fox), codenamed the Jackal, to assassinate De Gaulle. Using a bewildering array of disguises, false passports, and other tricks, the Jackal works his way through Europe, being tracked by a frantic French bureaucracy led by milquetoast Police Commissioner Lebel (Michael Lonsdale). It's up to Lebel to find and stop the Jackal before August 25th, Liberation Day, when the assassin will make his move.
Based on the gripping if very long novel by Frederick Forsyth, Fred Zinneman's "Day of the Jackal" is one of the best of its genre. It succeeds largely because, as Roger Ebert said, "it knows exactly what it's talking about". Though fictional, the film's look and feel gives it an air of authenticity that few, if any, other thrillers could hope to match. The film has an almost documentary air about it, which is one of the major reasons it is so successful.
Much of the credit is due to director Fred Zinneman. Despite having a lengthy career making such classics as "High Noon", "From Here to Eternity", and "A Man for All Seasons", Zinneman is generally overlooked when it comes to great directors. Certainly, it's understandable why. Zinneman's films typically do not contain much in the way of flair or flash, at least when it comes to photography. Zinneman's direction is straightforward, unpretentious, with no fancy camera angles: he allows the script, sets, actors, and action on screen to do the work. This might not be the accomplished method of film making, but it works wonders in Zinneman's best films, particularly here. The lack of stylization creates the aforementioned feel that this story could happen in real life.
Other elements contribute to the film's success. The lengthy, in-depth, and almost labyrinthine source novel is reduced by screenwriter Kenneth Ross into succinct, economic dialog which conveys as much information with as little verbiage as possible. Georges Delerue's score functions much the same as his work in Zinneman's "A Man for All Seasons". There is little actual music, other than diegetic music from marching bands or street musicians, which adds immeasurably the look and feel of the movie.
What makes or breaks the film, however, is the cast, and this film is truly unique in its acting. The film recruits a huge, very talented cast of actors from both sides of the English Channel, and every performance is wonderfully understated, free of histrionics or theatricality, which makes the film all the more believable.
Edward Fox is marvelous in the title role. He plays the assassin as the ultimate detached professional; unconcerned about politics or individuals, he simply does his job and does it well. He can be counted on for results. He is neither arrogant nor cocky, just an expert who knows what he's doing and will go any length to achieve it. Fox is completely, utterly, and chillingly believable as the Jackal, and one is torn between rooting for him to succeed or for him to get caught.
Also fantastic is the Jackal's nemesis, Commissioner Lebel, who is played in an equally understated performance by Michael Lonsdale. Lebel is not an action hero, nor particularly exciting; he is a no-frills, straightforward police inspector who uses his brains, intuition, skill, and more than a bit of luck to track down the Jackal. Lonsdale and Fox give two of the most utterly believable performances ever captured on film, a testament to both actors.
The rest of the cast follows suit, although few of the other characters have as much screen time. Cyril Cusack plays the charming gunsmith who builds the Jackal's perfect weapon; Delphine Seyrig is a middle-aged Frenchwoman who begins an ill-advised affair with the assassin; Derek Jacobi is Lebel's dedicated assistant; Tony Britton as the crusty Scotland Yard investigator who gives Lebel his first break in the case; Jean Martin and Eric Porter play the desperate OAS members forced to hire an outsider to do their dirty work. These are just a few of the many fine performers in the film, and all give well-rounded, believable performances.
"The Day of the Jackal" is a brilliant thriller that still holds up well almost 35 years later. By capturing the essence of 1960's France, and by creating a completely believable atmosphere, Zinneman draws the viewer into the film. It is unlikely that the viewer will be able to lose interest as the plot moves along. A brilliant thriller, and a masterpiece for all time.
The Day of the Jackal
Crime / Drama / Thriller
The Day of the Jackal
Crime / Drama / Thriller
It is the early 60s in France. The remaining survivors of the aborted French Foreign Legion have made repeated attempts to kill DeGaulle. The result is that he is the most closely guarded man in the world. As a desperate act, they hire The Jackal, the code name for a hired killer who agrees to kill French President De Gaulle for half a million dollars. We watch his preparations which are so thorough we wonder how he could possibly fail even as we watch the French police attempt to pick up his trail. The situation is historically accurate. There were many such attempts and the film closely follows the plot of the book.
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