The Day of the Jackal

Even before it was released, Frederick Forsyth’s debut novel The Day of the Jackal was provoking a great deal of interest with the film rights already sold. Best described as a procedural thriller, the novel tells of an attempt by the French OAS terrorist organisation to assassinate President Charles De Gaulle in 1963 by hiring a mercenary hitman going by the codename “Jackal.”

Upon publication in in the summer of 1971, the novel was an instant success and went on to win the Edgar Award for best novel from the Mystery Writers of America, giving greater impetus to the production of the feature film which would follow two years later in May 1973 to equally popular commercial and critical success, nominated for an Academy Award, three Golden Globe Awards and seven BAFTA awards of which it won one for the work of editor Ralph Kemplen.

A former journalist and assistant diplomatic correspondent for the BBC, one of Forsyth’s trademarks at the time was his detailed account of the nuts-and-bolts and machinations behind the plot which many other contemporary thriller authors tended to ignore, and one could almost consider the novel to be an early draft of Assassinating Presidents for Idiots, so exquisitely detailed is it, but director Fred Zinnemann faithfully renders this obsessiveness by patiently detailing every aspect of the Jackal’s painstaking preparations for the hit and unlike many adaptations the film remains very faithful to the source.

Perhaps the most memorable, even iconic moment in the film, is when the Jackal practices with his custom-designed and built sniper rifle in an orchard in the Italian countryside using a suspended melon to represent De Gaulle’s head. When he finally decides to use one of his “special” bullets, the melon explodes dramatically. Fortunately, at the time of release in 1972, the public had yet to see the the shocking censored moments of the Kennedy assassination footage captured by Abraham Zapruder which shows a similar result visited upon the president’s head; that would not be seen publicly until 1975.

A native of Austria-Hungary, at the time of filming Fred Zinnemann was in the higher echelons of Hollywood’s European Old Guard which also included luminaries such as Billy Wilder, William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock, all of whom he regarded as inspirations. One of many East European emigres who fled to the USA in the thirties, he earned his directorial stripes churning out numerous short films in the late thirties and early forties.

Moving into lower-budget features after the Second World War, Zinnemann’s first international success happened with The Search in 1948 in which Montgomery Clift helps re-unite a displaced Czech child with his mother, and his first indisputable classic was the western High Noon in 1952 starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly which was nominated for seven Oscars, winning four, and for which he also received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director.

Zinnemann would continue directing until 1982 in a variety of genres, his best-known films including From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma! and A Man For All Seasons, an incredibly varied output from a director who he was as comfortable with Hollywood A-listers as he was with lesser-known leading actors, The Day of the Jackal being one of his examples of the latter, entirely devoid of any internationally famous names, a conscious decision in keeping with the theme of necessary anonymity which runs through the film.

Now remastered and released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films, clocking in at two hours twenty three minutes, given its often dry procedural nature Zinnemann skilfully keeps the audience’s interest as the Jackal continues on his picaresque journey around Europe by stolen automobile and train, from the mountains and valleys of rural Italy to the proud capital of France as it prepares to celebrate the anniversary of Liberation Day, August 25th.

It is said that one unifying feature of Zinnemann’s varied output is that, at a significant moment the protagonist of the film has to make a clear moral decision between one of two courses of action, both of which will be life-changing, and this is no exception presenting a literal fork in the road as, after a critical development, the Jackal has to decide between abandoning his plan or following it through knowing his cover may have already been compromised.

Zinnemann is ably assisted in his endeavours by his cast which is mostly made up of the cream of British character talent of the day including Ronald Pickup, Anton Rodgers, Alan Badel and Barrie Ingham among others, while the Jackal himself is brought to enigmatic life by the then-relatively unknown thirty-five-year-old Edward Fox who would become an international film presence following the success of the film.

While nowadays Fox has an image as the crustiest of English gents and it’s a surprise to see just how charismatic and attractive he was in his prime and he effortlessly embodies the many aspects required to play the Jackal successfully. Given the enigmatic, anti-heroic nature of the Jackal, Fox deploys immense charm tempered by a pragmatic ruthlessness and makes this most dangerous of men almost sympathetic to the audience, and Zinnemann presents the action without judgement, a sequence of events of assassin and target almost without context.

Tasked with finding and intercepting the Jackal is semi-retired Inspector Lebel played by the Anglo-French actor Michel Lonsdale, perhaps best-known as Bond villain Hugo Drax from Moonraker. Although in his forties at the time of filming, Lonsdale was very visibly aged-up for the role and the amount of gray in his hair sometimes changes noticeably from scene to scene. Assisting Lebel is the put-upon Caron played by a strikingly young-looking Derek Jacobi in the days before he achieved success playing the Emperor Claudius for the BBC.

The continuity issues with Lonsdale’s make-up are also indicative of a sense of disassociation brought to the story by Zinnemann who chose to film the bulk of it on locations scattered around England, France and Italy, and although explicitly set in 1963, Zinnemann makes no attempt to disguise the fact he is filming in 1972 with anachronisms visible throughout the film, most noticeably the cars and the clothing of the people who populate the streets of Paris in the later segments.

It is suggested that, rather than choosing to go to the expense and effort of recreating 1963, Zinnemann wanted to emphasise the timelessness of the essential story, considering that the assassination of JFK was still very fresh in people’s memories, and at forty years remove these inconsistencies are not as evident as they would have been to contemporary audiences.

The Day of the Jackal is available on Blu-ray now from Arrow Films



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